Fistfight Pops Off During Protest of Phoenix Walmart

With Christmas approaching, the benevolent spirit of the season failed to stop a slug-fest from breaking out during a weekend protest at a Phoenix shopping center shared by a Home Depot and a Walmart, near 37th Street and Thomas Road.

Independent videographer Dennis Gilman says he was filming a demonstration opposing Walmart's policy toward day laborers, when a counter-demonstrator punched his arm.

"I told him, `Don't do that,'" said Gilman, shortly after the fracas.

Gilman said the man pushed his camera, and he fought back with his free hand, as he tried to protect his expensive video equipment.

"He probably hit me after that," said Gilman, whose face bore minor injuries. "Then the cops finally took him away."

Witnesses say that the man who fought Gilman Saturday morning was part of a group of about 25 nativist counter-protesters, who set up in the parking lot of Home Depot, and maintained a camp on the sidewalk of the entrance-way to the shopping center.

Some of the nativists had walked over to where the mostly-Latino anti-Walmart demonstrators — about 60 in all — were lined up on the sidewalk closest to Walmart.
Businessman Earl Wilcox, husband of former county Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox, was on hand and supported Gilman's version of events.

"That guy attacked the cameraman," said Wilcox of the individual, who was in police custody when New Times arrived. "That's when the cop pulled him off. [Gilman] is the only one he went after."

Several other demonstrators backed this story, painting Gilman as the victim.

Most of the counter-demonstrators would not comment on the fight, save for one, named George Sprankle, who claimed Gilman had "leaned into" the other man's face with his camera, supposedly starting the encounter.

Gilman's sparring partner, who declined to identify himself, later was released. He seemed shaken, but not visibly injured. He would only say that he did not assault Gilman. 

Phoenix police officer Ray Santoyas, who said he had been hired by Walmart to "keep trespassers off the property" told New Times that both parties agreed that it was "mutual combat," so no one was arrested. 

"They all said it was all good," he explained. "It was one or the other: Either they both go [to jail], or they both walk." 

Gilman's attorney Ray Ybarra told New Times later via phone that his client just wanted to move on.

Ybarra said the police should "keep a better eye on what's going on," and who is instigating fights versus who is defending themselves. 

"The cops were literally surrounding these people when it happened," he noted. "And they were so out of control of the situation that even their presence, within feet, maybe even inches, didn't prevent the incident."
The once-a-week protests of Walmart have been going on for about a month now, led by Sal Reza, and members of his Barrio Defense Committees, who are urging people to boycott that Walmart location for ordering the day laborers, known as jornaleros in Spanish, off the property.

Saturday's demonstration ran from early morning till around 1 p.m. Supporters of the jornaleros waved signs saying "Shop at Target, Not Walmart," "Walmart is Cold, Cold Hearted," and "Honk 4 Boycott," while their opponents, some bearing American flags and guns, held signs with anti-immigrant rhetoric, like, "Stop Rewarding, Start Deporting."

A spokesman for Walmart recently told New Times that it, so far, has not trespassed any day laborers, just asked them to move to the other side of a low wall north of the property.

At the protest, Santoyas explained that Walmart currently is allowing the jornaleros to be picked up by drivers on the Walmart side of the wall, as long as there's no lingering. 

"We were told as long as they don't sit and congregate and have like a long term discussion, that's fine," said the officer. "If the person picks them up and leaves, that's their business."

Still, the new policy is a departure from one that has been in place for several years, allowing the jornaleros to remain where they were and solicit work. Reza is concerned that if the protests cease, Walmart will crack down on the jornaleros.

As in many cities across America, Home Depot is a magnet for day laborers, as many of the people hiring the day laborers are customers of Home Depot. But, ironically, a Home Depot spokesman recently told New Times that it has a blanket policy against allowing anyone to solicit on its property.
However, according to one counter-demonstrator, Jim Williams, Home Depot was okay with the nativists demonstrating on the Home Depot side of the parking lot.

"[Walmart] told us not to be on their parking lot," said Williams, a giant of a man, wearing a biker vest and a red-white-and-blue bandanna. "We're over here on Home Depot's [side] because they said we could be here."

Williams told New Times that he and his fellow opponents of illegal immigration were there to represent their patriotic ideals.

"Quit making us out to be haters and everything else," he said, "and understand that we love our country, we love our freedom and we're defending our freedom. Against anybody. It doesn't make a difference who."

Williams and Gilman, who are on opposite sides of the immigration debate, have tangled before, albeit verbally. He said he believed Gilman "was trying to provoke something," and that what occurred was the inevitable result. 

"Thing is, I don't understand these people," he said. "And no offense, but Dennis Gilman someday is gonna get hurt, real bad."

Many of the nativists were familiar faces from previous demonstrations, such as hardcore Sheriff Joe Arpaio-fan Barb Heller, who was next to a truck flying an American flag, with speakers blasting an anti-immigrant parody of the "Twelve Days of Christmas," which Heller said featured the voice of local nativist Buffalo Rick Galeener.

Some of the lyrics include:

On the first day of Christmas, illegals brought to us, an anchor baby in a uterus.

On the second day of Christmas, illegals brought to us, two keys of cocaine, and an anchor baby in a uterus.

Longtime illegal immigration opponent Brandy Barron sat nearby. She said this current standoff between nativists and pro-immigration forces reminded her of a similar battle in 2007 at Pruitt's Furniture just down the road.

"I'm loving it," she of the dueling demonstrations. "This is like a family reunion. A dysfunctional family, maybe."

Across from her, on the anti-Walmart side, protest organizer Reza said his group will break for Christmas, and be back on January 2.

He said he warned Walmart of the possibility of violence, and now it was happening.
"Walmart and also Home Depot are catering to the racist crowd," he claimed. "The reason Walmart first gave me [for changing their policy toward the day laborers] was they were receiving calls [complaining about the day laborers].

"Who calls Walmart?" he said, pointing at the nativists. "These guys."

Reza conceded that some complaints, concerning some jornaleros drinking alcohol and even sleeping nearby, may have been legitimate. But he blamed Walmart for not having better security. 

Asked about an incident in September, where one jornalero allegedly stabbed another in the neck, Reza said that Walmart used that as an excuse to threaten the jornaleros with being trespassed. Discussions with Walmart, he said, went back months before the stabbing.
"I said, look, you can go to a Walmart anytime on the west side, and you can see all kinds of incidents," Reza explained. "Fights inside the store. Employees fighting with the clients. You don't close the store because of that."

Reza said Walmart told him they have the legal right to trespass people.

"Yeah, you do, I said," recalled Reza, who replied, "We also have the legal right not to buy from you."

He agreed that as long as a Home Depot was in the area, jornaleros would be nearby, which is why a solution was necessary, and Home Depot must be involved.

"They don't want to be part of the solution, yet," Reza said of Home Depot. "A day laborer walks [into the Home Depot parking lot] and they trespass him. But these guys [the nativists] are there, they have chairs and everything, and Home Depot allows it."
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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons