Anger and activism met with the blunt reality of police force on the streets of Phoenix on Friday night in a dramatic, hours-long confrontation filled with tear gas, pepper spray, and pepperballs.
New Times was, at times, at the heart of the action that stretched into early Saturday along Seventh Street between roughly Fillmore Street and the Interstate 10 freeway, capturing some of the intense moments on video (see below).
Civil rights leaders planned the "Rally for Justice" to begin at 8 p.m. at Phoenix City Hall, then march up Seventh Street. Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton had asked the organizers to delay the demonstration following the deadly shooting in Dallas on Thursday that left five police officers dead. But leaders decided to go ahead with the event.
"A specific route was provided to police. However, that route was changed and at one point the group expressed intent to march onto the I-10 freeway," Phoenix police spokesman Vincent Lewis said afterward. "A skirmish line was established and nonlethal pepperballs were deployed to move advancing demonstrators back."
It was a diverse crowd of mostly young people — brown, black, and white. Over loudspeakers from helicopters, police announced repeatedly that the event had been declared an "unlawful assembly." Officers began firing tear gas at the mass of people in the street just after 10 p.m. and didn't appear to achieve full control of the situation until about 90 minutes later. They used mass-deployment tactics that involved well over 100 officers in riot gear preparing, firing their non-lethal weapons, advancing, evaluating the situation, then repeating the actions.
While New Times observed several people experiencing the effects of tear gas and pepper spray, including one man who was sprayed in the face at pointblank range, the scene stopped short of violence or true chaos. The tense atmosphere and action, much of which was broadcast initially on TV by hovering news choppers, drew dozens of curious onlookers who seemed as interested in obtaining good video as being part of the protest.
Police arrested three people who had thrown rocks at officers, Lewis said. The officers were struck on their helmets and protective gear but weren't injured. At least six people were injured, having been struck by pepperballs or fallen down.
At about 10:30 p.m., police kicked several protesters out of a Circle K just south of Roosevelt Street off Seventh Street as tear gas floated down the block. One woman appeared to be in distress, suddenly suffering from shortness of breath (see video), causing anger at police who were standing by. Another individual can be seen being carried away by fellow protesters as a line of police fire more rounds of pepper spray and tear gas. Parts of Seventh Street became like the fringes of a combat zone, with coughing, wheezing people stumbling down sidewalks or being attended to by friends.
"I want you to document what they did to us!" a woman who'd breathed some tear gas shouted to a reporter. Many police and protesters were sweating — not from the tear gas, but from the 100-plus-degree evening temperature. Police downed bottles of water between their mass-formation marches, littering the streets with empties.
The intersection of Roosevelt and Seventh, which bustles one night a month during the area's First Friday art walk, became a surreal zone of floating gas and orbiting helicopters with spotlights and voices yelling down from above to disperse and go home. But numerous protesters, some wearing masks or bandannas over their faces, presented a stubborn, resilient force that would not go home — not quickly, anyway.
"I want to go home, but I can't. I'm parked right over there," one man told New Times as he filmed the action with his cell phone, motioning to an area gridlocked by police cars, police SUVs, and war wagons.
When one man standing near a bus stop just south of Roosevelt Street didn't move quickly enough, an officer in riot gear and a face shield stepped up and gave him a blast of pepper spray in the face at pointblank range.
The man, who identified himself as Mark Kincoff, said his last words to the officer before getting the dose of spray were, "I can't hear you." He doubled over, holding his eyes in pain and complaining for 10 minutes that he couldn't see.
Standing in a cloud of gas, police warned the remaining crowd they would continue to shoot pepperballs and spray gas "more and more" if people didn't get in their cars and go home. Yet by 11:30 p.m., two or three dozen protesters remained at the Shell station on the southwest corner of Roosevelt and Seventh streets, holding hands and taunting police, though less forcefully than before.
Besides Phoenix police, state troopers from the Department of Public Safety and men in full camouflage uniforms, some trailed by dogs on leashes, converged slowly on the remnants of the protest.
"It's like an occupying force," said one man from Tucson who'd wandered over from a work-training session to see what was happening.
At least one protester came to the event armed. The young man carried a large, black, semiautomatic handgun openly in a holster past rows of police. Asked why he brought it, he said softly, "It's a sign of trust."
A small group of protesters walked north on Seventh Street after police began opening up the roadway, seeming bent on trying the freeway again. One woman who'd been at the protest for about two hours, Jessica Villa, said she dissuaded a man who'd seemed bent on rushing police guarding an I-10 on-ramp.
"I said, 'Don't become another victim of this — don't let them hurt you. It's what they want,'" she recounted. She came to the protest, she explained, because she "didn't want to be another person sitting on my couch while bad things happen to people who don't deserve it."
Officers seemed to take great care not to hurt people, for the most part.
"I was impressed with the police," said Raii, (she declined to give her last name), watching the last of the crowd leave.
Police later released the names of the three men arrested: Andre Hendrix, 24, on suspicion of aggravated assault on a police officer and obstructing governmental operations; Christian Soto, 21, on suspicion of aggravated assault on a police officer and obstruction of governmental operations; and Devin Brooks, 24, of disorderly conduct and refusal to disperse.