What began as a pro-Confederate flag and anti-Walmart protest Sunday afternoon quickly devolved into a tit-for-tat screaming match between protesters and counter-protesters about race relations, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Citizens United, the military-industrial complex, food stamps, Nazi Germany, and, interestingly, sheep — one self-declared “patriot” with a bullhorn screamed “baaa, baaa” at his opponents, a reference to them being nothing more than mindless followers.
The gathering began around 2:45 p.m. in the parking lot outside a North Phoenix Walmart with a few dozen individuals, and it was intended to be part of a nationwide day of action to celebrate the Confederate flag and protest Walmart’s decision to stop selling them. The relatively peaceful event fizzled, re-combusted, and fizzled again throughout the afternoon, lasting until about 5:30. Police estimate between 75 and 100 people were in attendance at the height of the protest.
The original call to action on social media went largely unnoticed last week until counter-protesters formed their own Facebook group and announced they were planning to burn Confederate and American flags. At least at the beginning of the protest, the majority of people came to do whatever was necessary to prevent anyone from harming Old Glory — even if that meant “spending a night in jail,” as one man put it.
According to those gathered in the parking lot, a young man dressed in black and standing nearby threatened to destroy an American flag but left around 3 p.m. (Neither New Times nor the Phoenix Police Department saw this individual, but protesters say he was there and quickly congratulated themselves on the defeat of their opponent.)
“The gentleman that was going to do [the flag burning] left, [and our presence here] stopped it,” said Rob Wahl, vice president of the Arizona 3%ers group. Wahl, who previously had struck a deal with Walmart management to remain peaceful and leave if the purported flag-burner left, encouraged his fellow patriots to reconvene at a nearby park and celebrate.
As most drove away in a caravan of flag-waving trucks and motorcycles, a few stragglers stayed behind, perhaps in case the situation escalated again. Jon Ritzheimer, the man behind the Freedom of Speech Rally outside the Phoenix Islamic Community Center a few weeks ago, paced the parking lot waving a large Confederate flag. He declined to comment, telling New Times he and his family were staying away from the media.
Meanwhile, the small group of counter-protesters gathered at a nearby McDonald's decided to provoke the patriots and silently marched by them, soliciting the furious reaction they most likely intended. The pro-American flag wavers must have called for their buddies to return, because almost out of nowhere, the parking lot once again teemed with people.
“We’re out here standing for the Constitution, the flag, and everything we should be grateful for,” explained a man wearing an American flag bandana on his head. “The Confederate flag isn’t a racist flag, it’s part of history. [The opposition] is trying to recreate history.”
“If you don’t like the flag, I hope you have an exit strategy,” another man yelled.
At 3:40 p.m., Walmart management, accompanied by the plainclothes Phoenix Police Community Response Squad, kicked everyone out of the parking lot after enough customers complained about the presence.
As the crowd dispersed, a Walmart manager off-handedly told New Times that he thought this was all pretty silly and even a little confusing, “we never sold Confederate flags here,” he said. “We’re not in the south.”
Just as a portion of the police presence began to leave the scene, a crowd gathered once again because a counter-protester ripped up a homemade pink confederate flag. Both sides were up in each other’s faces, screaming insults and profanity. They stood by a bus stop on Bell Road, a few hundred yards from the edge of the Walmart parking lot, as on-lookers watched. The police occasionally separated individuals who appeared ready to fight, but despite a lot of rhetoric and calls to “hold me back,” no one threw a punch.
While people intially gathered for various reasons, at this point the day became a verbal sparring match and a tornado of competing Amendment rights. Both sides attempted to provoke the other with taunts and insults. There were a lot of American flags, and a lot of black bandanas, though perhaps the most festive costume was worn by a young counter-protester, who told New Times he was dressed as a late 1960s East German Stasi enlisted man. Suffice it to say that the pro-American flag protesters did not take well to “the Nazi costume.”
Tensions flared as one counter-protester stomped on an American flag — Ritzheimer snatched it from under the young man’s feet, and later retaliated the gesture by grabbing the vintage German military coat, throwing it in the dust, and stomping on it. Police quickly surrounded Ritzheimer, and escorted him back to his side of the crowd.
Lieutenant Randy Force of the Phoenix Police said the department received information about the possibility of a demonstration near Walmart earlier in the day, and sent a handful of officers to the scene around 2 p.m. They increased their presence after realizing the crowd was a bit larger than had been rumored.
“We’re here to protect everyone’s rights,” Force said. “Walmart’s rights as a private corporation, and everyone’s First and Second Amendment rights.”
“Every officer has an opinion on burning the flag,” he added. “But our job is to leave that behind and make sure everyone’s rights are protected.” (Force also confirmed that a similar, yet much smaller gathering, occurred in Peoria Sunday morning.)
Had the day not been overcast and a balmy 100 degrees, the crowd might have dispersed much earlier, but by 4-4:30, police officers looked bored with the back-and-forth situation, and a few were heard whispering that at least they were getting overtime pay.
By 5 p.m., the situation had officially become, as one on-looker so elegantly put it, “intellectual masturbation.”
“You fucking anarchists, you fucking communists,” the man with the bullhorn yelled, adding something about Russia and the Soviet Union.
“Which am I? A communist or an anarchists,” the woman who tore the flag screamed back.
“You’re both, communists can be anarchists, you dumb-ass,” he chided.
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“Nobody has an intelligent point, all I hear is race baiting and name calling,” a frustrated on-looker yelled, suddenly joining the debate and forcing both sides to turn against him. “Where’s the intelligent discourse?”
Hedy Trevino, on the other hand, was impressed by what she saw unfold during the day. “I’m glad to see young people engage, they have a reputation for being apathetic,” she said. “And they’re really smart. The anarchists are really intelligent.”
Tabitha Martinez, who has three sons in the military and teared up while talking about how wrong the counter-protesters were, told New Times that she completely disagreed with Trevino’s observation. “Not one of them made any sense,” she said. “They are a waste of breath. They are trash, garbage.” She encouraged them to leave the country if they don’t like it here.
By 5:15, most of the on-lookers had left the scene, and the crowd from both sides dwindled, giving the police the signal that it was time to break this up once and for all. A few more faux-Confederate flags were ripped apart, and some more profanity was hurled back and forth, but the tense day ended peacefully, as each side piled into their cars, sweaty and exhausted, and drove home.