Longform

Citizen Journalist Dennis Gilman and His Video Camera Take on the Valley of the Sun

The cops march down Jefferson Street in black riot gear, lobbing tear-gas canisters that erupt into clouds of violet and lawn-green. Even the bursts of electric-yellow pepper spray they unleash on protesters add to the psychedelic color scheme. Anarchists with black rags over their faces chant slogans. A woman in a wedding dress stands with a sign. Amid the chaos, police and demonstrators ignore an accordion player.

As police escort a gang of neo-Nazis toward the U.S. District Court building in downtown Phoenix, the avowed racists grin at members of the crowd fleeing the tear gas.

"Gas those Jews!" some of the men standing beneath swastika flags chant.

The 50 neo-Nazis are marching to show support for Arizona Senate Bill 1070. The crowd, several times that size, has shown up to hurl rocks and themselves at the Mexican-haters.

Dennis Gilman is there to film it all.

Gilman gets doused four times that day with pepper spray, sending him into coughing fits and welling his eyes with tears.

He's never been pepper-sprayed before. But it's common for the activist-videographer to be threatened with physical violence.

A Tea Party geezer once lunged at him, poking him with a sign that read, "Dennis Gilman is a Pimp." (The meaning of the insult has always escaped Gilman, but imagine getting beaten with your own name.)

The 5-foot-5 Gilman holds the camera up by his tripod to show a better view as the protesters throw themselves into the police officers' clear-plastic shields in human waves. A 28-year-old neo-Nazi — who a year after the march will be arrested with pipe bombs he intends to bury near the border — screams into Gilman's lens:

"I'm gonna take your camera and stick it up your ass, Jew boy!"

Gilman points the camera at the man's pumpkin-shaped head, responding that what the racist really wants to do is "lick [his] ass."

The man in a black commando shirt yells, "Why don't you suck a dick, faggot boy!"

"You're just jealous because you don't have a dick," Dennis ripostes.

Some protesters hurl rocks at the neo-Nazis, then pull metal newspaper bins into the middle of the road in a vain attempt to prevent the procession from making it to the federal courthouse here.

The neo-Nazis finally arrive in front of the massive glass-and-steel structure; they sieg heil! repeatedly and play the U.S. national anthem as the demonstrators seethe.

Before this all got under way, Gilman had bantered with the Phoenix area's most infamous neo-Nazi, J.T. Ready, there to participate in the procession. Ready had been a pal of recalled Arizona Senate President Russell Pearce's. The extremist pol, author of SB 1070, the infamous anti-Mexican law that the march is all about, had sponsored Ready's entry into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

It was Gilman who'd helped expose Pearce's ties with Ready. Gilman's video titled "Exclusive Footage: Russell Pearce Endorsed J.T. Ready," attracted 18,000 views. The video shows Ready's Mormon baptismal record, signed by Pearce, and captures the then-legislator praising Ready as a "true patriot."

As the march gets started, neither Ready nor Gilman have any idea that the clash will turn into a melee. Nor did they foresee that, two years later, Ready's temper would explode and he'd shoot dead his girlfriend, two other adults, a 15-month-old baby, and himself.

Over the years, Gilman had talked to his racist adversary many times. He considered Ready an "asshole" but not a murderer. When he heard about the multiple slayings, Gilman drove to the house where they had happened, lit a candle for the poor baby, and symbolically burned sage to purify the dark spirit that had occupied Ready.

Gilman's video of the November 2010 march to the federal courthouse and its aftermath is among 150 he's made of heated confrontations — including the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office's notorious anti-immigrant raids. All the videos can be seen on Gilman's YouTube channel, Humanleague002.

Why does this middle-aged installer of security systems suffer abuse and risk injury to document the antics of unscrupulous politicians, extremists, and sometimes out-of-control cops?

Gilman gives two reasons: "It's the right thing to do to help people who aren't in a position to help themselves," and he enjoys confronting right-wing zealots: "They think they can fuck with me, and that's a big mistake — because I welcome it."


Dennis Gilman and other Arizona activists — some call them citizen journalists — mostly have moved past just carrying signs and yelling through bullhorns. These days, they produce videos or blog about injustice and political causes.

In 2010, then-state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne wrote and championed a bill that ended a Mexican-American studies program in the Tucson Unified School District. If the school district refused to comply, it stood to lose $15 million in funding.

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Weston Phippen
Contact: Weston Phippen