Phoenix New Times has reviewed nearly 3,900 photos and videos from Phoenix Police surveillance and witness cameras from the protests that occurred after the rally for President Donald Trump this summer. We then edited them into a five-minute compilation that details how that unrest began shortly after 8:30 p.m. on August 22 and how it unfolded. It's a story of drama, tension, and confrontation.
But the hundreds of videos and photos fail to answer conclusively key questions about the unrest.
The images were released after New Times and other media outlets made formal public records requests and one week after the American Civil Liberties Union sued to retrieve those records “promptly,” as state law requires.
Footage supports some, but not all, claims by police.
A police camera on Monroe Street clearly shows a water bottle and then a blue smoke bomb lobbed at the line of officers across the street from protesters before any trouble began.
Police responded by bringing in reinforcements, donning riot helmets and gas masks, and firing a volley of pepper balls across the street to the throng clustered alongside Herberger Theater Center.
But police have insisted all along that officers gave commands to that crowd before deploying less-than-lethal weapons.
Video evidence does not confirm this official account. Sound only accompanies some of the footage. No audio clip released picks out any verbal commands at that scene.
Protesters and other witnesses at the scene said they never heard any commands before the sharp cracks of pepper ball guns ripped through the hot evening air.
The videos, though, do not conclusively refute the police account, either. Police surveillance video from the scene clearly reveals some kind of amplified police communications at that time. Some of it is indecipherable, while other clips sound like commands to officers, telling them to get their shields up before moving.
Hours after the unrest, Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams and Mayor Greg Stanton both declared the police response to the Trump rally a success. Police arrested only a handful of people, while the Phoenix Fire Department reported no serious injuries, only a few dozen heat exhaustion cases on a day that topped out at 108 degrees.
But witness videos suggest, as protesters have insisted, the medical concerns were more acute.
Several clips show bystanders calling out for medics and ambulances. One person is clearly suffering the effects of tear gas, as volunteers pour water on the stricken protester’s face.
Police released a selfie video of a self-proclaimed Antifa activist calling himself “Camacho.” From a hospital bed, he shows his bandaged head and an ice pack on his groin. Footage from police surveillance cameras and television broadcasts shows police fired a canister of white powder that stuck Camacho in what he called his “tiddledywinks.”
The ACLU said in a prepared statement earlier this week, “the protest ended abruptly when Phoenix police officers began using excessive force against the crowds. Many Arizonans went home from the protest with cuts, bruises, and other injuries because of police actions.”
Police and protesters have also differed over how they characterize the unrest.
Protesters have used words such as violence, chaos, and panic to depict the minutes immediately after police responded. Police have insisted their actions were measured, proportional, and controlled.
Again, video evidence lends weight to both sides.
After the first volley of water bottles and gas bombs flew south across Monroe Street at police lines, command officers are seen casually strolling behind them. Officers slowly suit up and then about eight raise rifles and fire pepper balls at the crowd.
Over the next few minutes, police lob green-and-white smoke bombs and tear gas into the throng in front of the Herberger.
Audio clips reveal angry reactions from within that crowd. Some scream at police “C’mon!” while others call them white supremacists and Nazis.
Still others are screaming “peaceful.” It’s unclear of those shouts are directed at police or other protesters, but one woman is heard screaming, “Stop throwing shit. We’re better than that.”
Just as she does, the first of a string of loud explosions booms out from the Herberger’s courtyard. It’s accompanied, on other footage, by a bright flash.
The source remains unclear. Police confirmed that they used procession devices, and the boom sounded at the time like a “flash-bang” grenade SWAT teams use to disorient suspects before they enter a building.
But surveillance footage from the public parking garage overlooking the scene from Second Street picks up two officers, acting as spotters, talking.
“You see who threw it?” one asks.
“Got him,” says the other, as a helicopter spotlight scans the crowd.
Whatever the source of the first explosion, it prompted mass exodus.
As the ghoulish green smoke began wafting west along Monroe Street, crowds left quickly and power-walked or broke into a light jog. After the boom, video picks up people screaming and a flood of protesters running to get away.
Another video, apparently on Third Street, shows a stream of people hurdling traffic barricades. Some have panicked expressions, others are drenched in water. In a video taken at the Herberger, a man in a gas mask is screaming, “Get out of here! Get out of here now!” as he directs the running protesters to a safe exit.
But to describe the events that night as a stampede would be a gross exaggeration.
Most protesters power-walked away from the gas.
What remained was a knot of about two dozen loosely assembled protesters milling around on Second Street between Van Buren Street and Monroe Street.
Over the next 10 minutes, as the streets emptied out, police steadily formed ranks and corralled protesters away from Monroe Street. There no footage, nor firsthand accounts of a police charge, or use of batons.
While it doesn’t appear on any of the videos police released, the police helicopter was circling, directing the public by loudspeaker to leave immediately or face arrest for unlawful assembly.
Now, on Second Street, the standoff between a committed core of protesters and a slowly advancing phalanx of Phoenix police ensued.
Protesters pulled plastic water bottles out of backpacks and began hurling them at police. Most banged into plastic riot shields. Some sailed harmlessly over the line.
Some of the protesters wore masks, others did not. Some were tracked in a helicopter spotlight.
Two protesters rushed the line and were greeted by streams of hissing pepper spray. One was hit twice, once in the buttocks and once in the groin by a canister of white powder. Felled, he crawled to safety with the help of a comrade.
Police forced the protesters across Van Buren Street and set up another line there. Similar salvos of tear gas and smoke bombs played out in front of the Arizona Republic building.
The Phoenix Police Department is declining comment on the incident until it releases a final after-action report sometime this month.
The ACLU stood on a prepared statement December 4 to announce its lawsuit.
“We filed a lawsuit seeking these public records because Arizonans should be able to see for themselves how the Phoenix Police Department mishandled this peaceful protest,” said ACLU of Arizona Legal Director Kathy Brody.
“The Phoenix Police Department indiscriminately used chemical agents and other violent tactics on protesters,” said ACLU of Arizona Staff Attorney Darrell Hill. “The police cannot simply decide that they want to shut down a peaceful protest because they think it’s time for everyone to go home. That violates the First Amendment.”
Whatever the interpretation of events, most observers and participants agree it could have been a lot worse.
Tensions had been running high all week.
The week before, neo-Nazis and white supremacists unleashed violence on a protest over a Civil War monument in Charlottesville, Virginia. One right-wing activist ran over a woman with his truck, killing her.
In the days after, Trump came under sharp criticism for not denouncing the violence more forcefully.
Then in the days just before his Phoenix political rally, his administration leaked hints that he planned to pardon Joe Arpaio for his federal criminal contempt of court conviction and announce it at the Phoenix Convention Center.
Stanton urged Trump to reschedule to when nerves would be less frayed and passions more tempered.
He and others worried about clashes between Trump supporters and foes, or a repeat of Charlottesville.
Williams said the day before the protest there were no credible reports of violent, armed outside agitators planning to attend.
Still, police were on guard.
Released footage shows police spotters clearly on the lookout for agitators. Numerous photos show images of Antifa activists wearing masks. Others show men in camouflage fatigues bearing what appear to be semi-automatic rifles.
The potential for violence existed. Thousands of people demonstrated or waited in entrance lines for hours in heat that only dipped below 104 after Trump began speaking.
For the most part, police kept Trump supporters and opponents apart, using barricades, lines of police and the width of Monroe Street.
Still, at least one flashpoint was captured on video. It shows a group of people banging on the side of a pickup truck near Central Station. As the truck makes a turn, it suddenly stops, and with a squeal of tires backs up toward the crowd. Then it speeds off, with no one injured.
The release of video and photographic images remains only a small piece in the overall puzzle to determine what happened on August 22 and why.
The day after the protest, New Times asked for police procedures and any surveillance footage they had of the key events.
The next day, New Times formally requested all audio and video recordings and any photos from the area on two sides of the Herberger for an hour, plus all the departmental policies governing use of force, crowd control, and civil disturbances.
The ACLU of Arizona’s public records lawsuit is pending. The ACLU says police have still not turned over many of the records, including police communications, training materials, reports, weapons inventories, and policies related to officers’ actions at the protest.
For now, the public will have to wait for definitive answers.
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