Phoenix Walmart Becomes Battleground for Gun-Toting Nativists, Latino Activists

Come shop at Walmart and Home Depot, stay for the fisticuffs. 

That could be the pitch for the shopping center at 37nd Street and Thomas Road in Phoenix, where each of the chains has a store. The parking lot there recently has been the site of angry confrontations between heavily armed nativists and a group of Latino civil rights activists.

The latter group is led by Sal Reza, whose organization, referred to as the Barrio Defense Committees, is protesting Walmart's treatment of the day laborers, or jornaleros, in Spanish, who have been on one side of Walmart's section of the parking lot for the last several years, offering their services to passersby. 

Reza is urging people to boycott the location. He says Walmart is threatening to trespass the day laborers, and the store gave him their reasons during negotiations leading up to the current demonstrations. 

"They basically said that they had made a corporate decision to start trespassing people," Reza tells New Times, "because they said we have the right to control our space, and there have been a lot of complaints by their customers, and it's dangerous because people run around the cars and it's not safe; they had a whole list of things."

He said Walmart recently had relented on this threat, and the day-laborers were allowed to remain near the sidewalk close to the street, as opposed to where they had been before, in a better-trafficked area.

But the longtime civil rights organizer believes that Walmart will crack down if the protests cease. So he says his group will continue to protest on Saturday mornings until Walmart and the day-laborers come to a lasting agreement.
Aaron Mullins, a spokesperson for Walmart, said that the store has not trespassed any day-laborers so far.

"They will ask them to move from time to time, if they are obstructing customer traffic," Mullins explained. "We have legal ways of trespassing people from our store, but that has not happened."

A group of local nativists showed up on Saturday to counter the pro-jornalero protesters. The grizzled bunch bore guns, yellow "Dont Tread on Me" flags (also known as Gadsden flags) and signs declaring their support for anti-immigration stalwart Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

Tempers flared, as can be seen from a couple of videos shot by Reza, showing local nativist Jim Wiliams arguing with Latino activists about white birth rates and Welfare. 

Reza says Walmart allowed the nativists to counter-demonstrate and did not trespass them. He took photos of the group gathered in the Walmart parking lot. 

But Mullins says that the store was aware of the counter-demonstrators, and they were "asked to step off property for the demonstration."

Mullins says it is Walmart's policy "across the board," to ask demonstrators to leave the premises, and that this will be done to both groups on Saturday.

Asked what Walmart was doing to protect the public, Mullins said that local law enforcement has been made aware of the situation, and that off-duty cops in the store's employ would be on hand Saturday as well, to keep the peace.

This could be difficult, Reza warns, if the police do not ask the two sides to keep their distance from each other, as has happened at previous protests of this kind. 

The police cannot enforce it, as the sidewalk is public, but usually opposing groups will comply, if asked. 

However, Reza says plainclothes Phoenix police officers he spoke with last Saturday declined to ask the groups to separate. He fears that the mingling of the two groups may lead to physical altercations.
"I'm always concerned about violence," he said. "We always have peaceful protests. But when you get people like [the nativists], they come and basically bring a lot of anger. Some people are not used to demonstrations like this."

A spokesman for Home Depot, Stephen Holmes, tells New Times that the retailer has a blanket policy of prohibiting all solicitation on its property, including charitable groups.

The day-laborers are not singled out, according to Holmes.

He declined to comment on the irony that many of the people who offer work to the day laborers, have just bought goods at Home Depot.

Holmes said that there were "procedures in place" at Home Depot locations to deal with any emergency, and that if there was any violence, the store would contact law enforcement.

Reza concedes that Walmart, like other stores, legally can trespass the day-laborers if they want.

"I told Walmart they have the right to trespass," he said. "And we have the right to buy wherever we are treated respectfully."
He argues that Walmart has "an obligation to the community," because, "60 or 70 percent of their clients are Mexican."

Reza's been down this road before, with the massive 2007 protests at Pruitt's Furniture, which is due west on Thomas Road. Armed nativists went toe-to-toe with Reza's group at the time, requiring a large commitment from the Phoenix Police Department. 

Sheriff Joe Arpaio became involved, providing security for Pruitt's and doing patrols of the area. It was the beginning of Arpaio's anti-immigrant sweeps of Latino neighborhoods, which ultimately were halted by a federal judge's rulings in the ACLU's civil rights lawsuit Melendres v. Arpaio

Reza said he warned the Walmart reps that nativists groups would pick up on his group's demonstration, and respond with counter-protests.

The scene would turn into a free-for-all, he told them, with the potential for violence, as the nativists are armed to the teeth, and both sides hate each other.

As things stand, Reza's predictions have proved accurate.