On October 17, "nearly every attendee" of a protest against police brutality in downtown Phoenix was arrested by the Phoenix Police Department after the demonstrators marched in the street, toppled barricades, and allegedly tossed smoke bombs at officers, according to an Arizona Republic report at the time. A total of 15 adults and three teens were arrested.
Now, 15 of those individuals have been charged with assisting a criminal street gang, online records show. The felony offense came with a host of other charges for the protesters, including rioting, unlawful assembly, and obstructing a thoroughfare. The Maricopa County Attorney's Office charged the protesters first with direct complaints; those charges with later dismissed in lieu of grand jury indictments for the charges.
Jennifer Liewer, a spokesperson for the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, said she could not comment directly on the rationale for charging the protesters with assisting a street gang because the case is ongoing.
The charge brought swift condemnation by some observers.
"To label a bunch of protesters who are out exercising their First Amendment rights to protest police brutality as a criminal street gang is a stretch of the imagination," Heather Hamel, an attorney with The People's Law Firm, told New Times. "They’re not MS-13."
In video of the October 17 protest filmed by AZ Patriots Leader Jennifer Harrison, a small group of black-clad protestors can be seen marching through downtown in a huddle with a handful of umbrellas pointed outwards, with police behind them. A few of the protesters topple plastic cones and a construction sign behind them as they pass through the roadworks outside city hall. Around 25 minutes into the video, police rush in and arrest the group, ripping the umbrellas away and pointing riot-control weapons at them.
Activists have long been decrying the Phoenix Police Department's handling of anti-police brutality protests in Phoenix as political persecution, citing instances like the mass arrest of protesters back in late May, and people being arrested weeks after they allegedly participated in protests. A recent Phoenix New Times investigation found that Phoenix Police Department counterterrorism personnel have been monitoring activities of victims of police violence.
"What we have had for the last summer is a police department that is actively ... targeting, surveilling, and attacking people that they do not agree with," Viri Hernandez, executive director of Poder in Action, an anti-police brutality group, said at an October 30 press conference. She and other activists at the press conference, held at Maricopa County Superior Court in Phoenix, called for the release of a protester arrested on October 17. "They're trying to suppress our First Amendment right to speak out. These are false charges. Some of the charges include that we are doing criminal gang activity."
The charges also got the attention of state Representative Diego Rodriguez (D–South Phoenix), who quickly criticized the gang-related charges on Twitter.
"Charging peaceful protesters under gang statutes is an outrageous abuse of power which is most likely influenced by system racism in law enforcement and the office of the Maricopa County Attorney," Rodriguez wrote.
Staff writer Erasmus Baxter contributed to this report.