Watch as Protesters Hurl Objects at Phoenix PD: But Who Started It?

Screen grab from Phoenix Police Department video

(First half of video above; second half at end of story.)

New video of the clashes at the Phoenix Convention Center after President Donald Trump’s rally shows a small faction of anti-Trump protesters lobbing smoking and burning objects toward a line of static police officers, but still leaves questions about the flashpoint that ignited the confrontation.

Phoenix police released the 13-minute compilation of footage from security cameras and social media posts, one day after angry protests over the investigation of the incident disrupted a city council meeting.

The new footage, some not publicly seen until now, clearly shows provocation toward police and what appeared to be a measured, escalated response. Before the night was out, Phoenix police had fired foam projectiles, pepper spray balls, pepper spray, inert smoke canisters, and tear gas at some protesters.

At a press conference Thursday, police asked members of the public to share any footage of the incident, which climaxed at Monroe and Second streets between 8:30 and 9:30 p.m. Tuesday last week.

The same press briefing, though, raised new questions and left others unanswered, while revealing some new details and clouding others.

Phoenix Police Sergeant Jon Howard said the new footage is only a “perception” of events, not conclusive, and that the Department’s detectives in the Professional Standards Bureau and assault unit are in the early stages of their investigation, which could take “four to six weeks.” Howard said if they find evidence that protesters broke the law, more arrests are possible beyond the four made that night.

click to enlarge
The crowd was relatively calm before Trump rally, letting their signs make the noise.
Zee Peralta
Howard revealed that people in the crowd of thousands outside the convention center had been throwing “projectiles” at police for hours before events boiled over. Police didn’t intervene, Howard said, because the attacks were “sporadic” and didn’t come as Trump and his supporters were leaving.

The bulk of the disturbance occurred at Monroe Street in front of the Herberger Theater. Police said they began firing nonlethal weapons in response to bottles, rocks and bricks being thrown at them, and only after verbal commands. They also said police responded to protesters trying to topple a barricade separating the factions.

Audio on the newly released footage does not pick up any police commands on the street.

Footage clearly depicts one section of the barricade was bundled, but not knocked over, where the protesters with black flags and masks were concentrated.

Immediately after, the footage shows police firing pellets of smoke directly in front of those protesters. Howard said these were pepper spray balls, intended to stop those protesters specifically. Police feared a collapse, a crush, and their inability to continue separating factions.

But it clearly shows a can of blue smoke land behind the police line, something Howard said is not used by police, who did not know what it was. Footage also shows some masked protesters throwing flaming objects and water bottles, which Howard said contained ice.

The response was directed at a clump of protestors clad in black and waving black flags, thought to be Antifa supporters. At one point, a dark flag is hurled toward police like a javelin.

After the protest, state Representative Jay Lawrence, a Republican from Scottsdale, touted on Facebook: “I am in the process of initiating legislation that would unmask (through criminal penalty) those who, at political parades or demonstrations of any kind, wear hoods or masks in order to hide their faces, wear hoods or masks while being involved in any acts of violence, or wear hoods or masks while interfering with those at the scene trying to maintain order.”

Howard said Thursday that police positioned plainclothes officers in the crowds to spot and soothe agitators. Phoenix police, he said, had intelligence tips that some people were known to be attending, intent on disruption.

That’s different than what Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams said at a press conference the day before Trump’s visit, when she told reporters authorities had received no intel suggesting outside groups were planning to attend and provoke violence.

Tensions were high one week after a white-supremacist group was blamed for running down and killing a protester in a racially charged event in Virginia days earlier.

Howard later explained that community organizations made police aware of Antifa’s plans locally, but no credible large-scale threats were received.

That small knot of protestors captured most of the police attention

For most of the salvo, police had riot helmet visors up, no gas masks and stood statically eyeing the crowd, video from the convention center shows. On witness video from within that crowd, a woman is clearly heard screaming, “Don’t throw anything.”

After police fired gas and smoke, most of the crowd fled quickly, some screaming, many covering their faces, some in distress. Many protesters have questioned the official account that police issued verbal warnings first.

Many in black, some wearing gas masks, didn’t leave.

“This group is choosing to remain. It’s pretty obvious this is an unlawful gathering,” Howard said.

It wasn’t until after several salvos of tear gas that the loudspeaker from the police helicopter overhead warned protesters who stayed in the area that they faced arrest for unlawful assembly. Howard said the helicopter was delayed going aloft pending Federal Aviation Administration approval to fly in restricted airspace as the rally broke up.

Police are now going through an undisclosed, but voluminous number of police surveillance videos, officer body-cam footage, police reports, witness statements and more to determine if the response was appropriate. Williams has called the action a success.

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Sean Holstege is a former editor of Phoenix New Times. He's been a print news reporter for 35 years. He was an investigative reporter at The Arizona Republic and the Oakland Tribune. He won a Sigma Delta Chi award for investigative reporting. He’s covered transportation, terrorism, the border, disasters, child welfare, courts, and breaking news.
Contact: Sean Holstege

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