Protesters Descend on Department of Public Safety in Phoenix for Latest Rally

Brendon Kleen
Phoenix protesters circled the Department of Public Safety headquarters while another peaceful rally occurred in Scottsdale on Sunday, June 7.
A movement, not a moment.

That was the message behind the protest along Encanto Boulevard on June 7 in Phoenix, as organizers led a crowd of thousands west from Encanto Park to the Arizona Department of Public Safety buildings in memory of Dion Johnson, who was killed by a DPS trooper on Memorial Day.

While initial protests across the Valley were spurred by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the public response in other cities, the message from Phoenix organizers is increasingly centered around Johnson’s May 25 death and the lack of information from investigators in the weeks since.

When leaders from Black Lives Matter Phoenix Metro, Poder in Action, the Black Phoenix Organizing Collective, and other local activist groups arrived at DPS headquarters on 21st Avenue and Encanto Boulevard at around 5 p.m., the back of the pack was still filing out of the park a mile away.

Early in the hour-long march, protesters inadvertently trapped a red Chevrolet Suburban in place, but the man driving it honked in solidarity, a fist out the window, even as he realized he was in for a long wait. It was a show of force from a community that has been protesting daily for nearly two straight weeks.

Among the demands of protester were for the state to publicly release the full police report on Johnson's death and for the unedited highway camera footage. They also want the name of the officer who shot Johnson on Loop 101 at Tatum Boulevard; Johnson had fallen asleep while parked in a freeway "gore area" and allegedly reached for a trooper's weapon in the confrontation. The Phoenix Police Department, which is handling the investigation of the trooper, and the DPS, which is conducting a separate administrative investigation, have so far provided some information, but not enough for Johnson’s family.

So while defunding Phoenix Police was still a topic of discussion among organizers Sunday, they set their sights on more immediate justice for Johnson and his grieving family.

Adrianne Williams, a member of Arizona State University sorority Sigma Gamma Rho, lives about 10 minutes from the site of Johnson’s death. As the mother of four black sons, she felt inspired to act, so she invited members of her sorority to Encanto Park on Sunday afternoon to support the protesters.

“My son drives the same direction (to work) toward where (Johnson) was killed,” Williams said, “so I just felt like I needed to come out here and do something. So I reached out to my sisters, and we came together.”

College-age women from the sorority were among the many volunteers handing out supplies to marchers —  anything from Chips Ahoy snack packs to disposable masks to pepperoni pizza slices. They also hoped to see change come from the ongoing uprising.

“I hope that more minorities and people of color are in positions [of power] so that we have a voice at the table,” Williams said.

Before embarking on the one-mile march west toward the DPS headquarters, the organizers came together to read the names of over 200 people killed by Phoenix Police and the DPS. A man from Mass Liberation broke down in tears before he could even get to Johnson’s name, though the crowd finished the job when it descended on the DPS later in the evening.

The marchers looped around the DPS buildings when they arrived, giving space for the surprisingly large armada of community members who showed up on Sunday to demand justice for Johnson. Organizers led a six-minute chant of “Justice for who?” to which protesters responded “Dion Johnson.” That length was important, as it was the length of time that traffic camera footage shows the unnamed troopers waited before allowing paramedics to tend to Johnson, who lay on the asphalt clinging to life.

Zarra Teacola, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Phoenix Metro, was one of the speakers and told the crowd they were part of a "movement, not a moment." She reminded the revolutionaries in her midst to keep up the fight.

“Dion Johnson was killed by the Department of Public Safety because police do not keep us safe,” she said. “Dion Johnson was murdered for falling asleep.”

Voices hoarse and twilight descending over Phoenix, the organizers then climbed into the bed of the pickup truck that had followed Phoenix Police officers down Encanto Boulevard all afternoon and turned the volume up on a loudspeaker. Through the box, marchers heard a voice in song and were asked to tie their signs to the chain-link fence around the DPS headquarters and create a “public mural” in memory of Johnson.

A peaceful protest also occurred in Scottsdale on June 7, which was the 11th straight night of protests following Floyd's death under the knee of former officer Derek Chauvin, who now stands accused of second-degree murder.