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‘People Were Gasping and Terrified’: Excessive Police Force in Phoenix After Trump’s Rally Tuesday

Tina Vasquez

"It appears officers planned to utilize tear gas and other chemical irritants as a crowd dispersal tool, rather than using [them] to address a serious public safety threat or widespread violence."

An investigation has been launched by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Arizona into the Phoenix Police Department’s use of excessive force—including allegations that protesters were barricaded into a small area and subjected to tear gas, pepper balls, and 40-millimeter flash-bang grenades—following President Trump’s Tuesday night rally.

Alessandra Soler, executive director of the ACLU of Arizona, told Rewire that by 9 a.m. Wednesday, her organization had received more than 20 complaints from protesters regarding use of force by local law enforcement.

The ACLU had more than 70 legal observers deployed to Phoenix to document the actions of law enforcement officials during protests. Many of these observers were also hit with chemical irritants.

“So far a bulk of the complaints are from individuals who were tear-gassed and feel like it was unprovoked, unnecessary, and say they received no warning from police before being gassed,” Soler said in a phone interview. “Our belief is that police responded in a way that was not only unnecessary, but extremely dangerous. They made a deliberate choice to use the chemical agents, instead of de-escalating the situation, which endangered dozens of people who were peacefully protesting.”

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Jason Odhner was present for the entirety of Tuesday’s protests as a member of Phoenix Urban Health Collective. The organization had 30 physicians, nurses, EMTs, and other medical professionals on the ground during Tuesday’s protests against Trump, who was rumored to be in the city to pardon the notorious—and according to immigration advocates, racist—former Maricopa County sheriff, Joe Arpaio. Arpaio was recently convicted of criminal contempt for disobeying a court order stemming from a 2007 racial profiling case that required him to stop targeting undocumented immigrants.

In the days since the rally, news stories have circulated that tear gas and other chemicals were deployed by the Phoenix Police Department because, officers said, protesters were throwing rocks at them. Soler told Rewire she has yet to encounter any proof of this. Odhner, who was on the scene, said only empty water bottles, not rocks, were being thrown in the direction of officers.

The medic said police were present throughout the day, but were largely hands off. This was echoed by Amy McMullen, another member of the Phoenix Urban Health Collective, who spent Tuesday operating a standing medical station on 3rd Street near St. Mary’s Basilica.

“Earlier in the day, before they began deploying chemicals, we saw officers in riot gear respectfully walk through crowds of protesters in order to talk to an armed militia group [supporting Trump]. There was no issue,” McMullen said. “But why they reacted the way they did because of empty water bottles being thrown at them, I can’t say. I have no answer for that. It was a totally different response and I’m not sure what orders came down or from whom, but near the end of the rally, things escalated very quickly.”

Odhner told Rewire that as the rally inside the convention center neared its end, police lined up on Monroe Street opposite the protesters. There were fence-like barricades set up on the north side of Monroe where the protesters were, and police began lining up on the street’s south side, where the convention center is located.

“When such a large number of riot police lined up on the south side of Monroe, it didn’t initially cause me concern or alarm,” Odhner said. “I figured it was just preparation for a motorcade or something of that nature because after Charlottesville, we figured there’d be extra security with a head of state visit. But then I heard a loud boom.”

What ensued was chaos, according to the medics who spoke to Rewire. Officers with the Phoenix Police Department, outfitted in riot gear, began throwing tear gas grenades and shooting 40-millimeter flash-bang grenades directly into the crowd.

“I can confirm with absolute certainty there was no order to disperse prior to this and no warning given prior to this,” Odhner said. “Our first warning was that the tear gas and flash bang grenades were going off. Most concerning to me was that they were being dispersed using grenade launchers, which is very dangerous. They’re high velocity items and they can injure somebody or be potentially fatal if they hit you in the head.”

It’s unclear to the medics if officers or city officials were responsible, but at some point near the end of Trump’s rally, large, water-filled plastic barricades were positioned to block off Monroe St. and 2nd Street surrounding the convention center. Odhner told Rewire he was certain these were not in place earlier in the day.

“Because of these big barricades, you couldn’t move west of 2nd Street without climbing over them. If you were young and able, you were fine, but there were young children present, older people present, disabled people present. People with existing cardiopulmonary illnesses, like asthma. One person there had her leg in a brace and she was on crutches from a recent knee surgery. There was a lot of people who couldn’t get over these barricades, so their only exit would be to head on 3rd Street, north toward Van Buren,” Odhner said.

The problem was that officers began flooding Van Buren with tear gas and every direction protesters needed to go in to disperse was either flooded with chemical irritants or blocked off by barricades, according to Odhner.

“People were panicking and terrified. They were gasping for air and there was no way out,” Odhner said. “The tear gas was worst along the only escape route police officers left for the protesters. People, gasping, were trying to wait it out for areas to clear so they could get out of there, but long before an area had a chance to clear, police began throwing more tear gas into the same area. There was really no way to escape.”

Further complicating the situation were white men in a gray Ford truck who reportedly did a Nazi salute aimed at protesters and had, according to protestors who spoke to Rewire, spent the day attempting to instigate fights. After the crowds had mostly dispersed following the police department’s use of chemical irritants, a protester clutching an “I Heart My Muslim Neighbor” sign punched one of the occupants of the truck in the face, the Phoenix Times reported. The truck’s driver backed up, narrowly missing several people. No charges have been filed regarding the incident.

One of the Phoenix Urban Health Collective’s medics was present when the truck backed up.

“Police spent the day working very hard not to let cars in the area because of Charlottesville, but then created so much chaos that this truck with Nazi symbols on it made it into the area. It was chaos. I’ve never seen anything so backwards in my life. We could have easily had another Charlottesville incident,” McMullen said, referencing the white supremacist rally in Virginia that resulted in the death of Heather Heyer.

One protester who spoke to Rewire on the condition of anonymity said she was one of many who registered online for tickets to the Trump rally with no intention of going. “We did this to make the convention center as empty as possible,” She said. “People all over the state—and out of state—did this.” Instead of attending the rally, she participated in the day-long anti-Trump demonstrations near the convention center.

The protester said that on Wednesday morning, she had a “sinking feeling the events of the night would get twisted by the media.”

“I was there all day. I saw what happened. Everything was peaceful all day and then cops basically barricaded people in and opened fire with chemical weapons,” she said. “People got hit with pepper spray pellets that didn’t burst. That’s why initially, there were so many reports rubber bullets being used. If the pellets don’t burst, it’s like being hit with a rubber bullet. I personally helped treat someone who had welts all over the side of their body.”

Phoenix Chief of Police Jeri Williams told local media officers behaved properly and actually refrained “from using more force.”

The protester who spoke to Rewire wasn’t familiar with the medics from the Phoenix Urban Health Collective, but her retelling of the events of Tuesday night mirrored theirs. She said she also saw young children, people in wheelchairs, and elderly people being tear gassed by Phoenix Police Department. She said although she saw people throw empty water bottles in the vicinity of the police, she never witnessed anyone throw rocks.

“And anyway if they did, all that there was around was decorative pebbles around trees. The cops were wearing riot gear,” she said.

The protester asserts that she saw police officers taking pictures of protesters and high fiving Trump supporters who were exiting the convention center after Trump’s rally, which is when she says the police began using excessive force against protesters.

“Without telling anyone they had to disperse, they [Phoenix PD] started firing at the crowd when Trump supporters came out of the rally—and Trump supporters were being rude, trying to instigate fights, and I even saw an elderly white man try to pick a fight with a Black teenage girl. I personally got spit on. If anyone was being violent, it was [Trump supporters]. They were recording people who had been pepper sprayed. I heard one guy say, ‘What does that pepper spray taste like, pussies?’ The police gave the Trump supporters a show by endangering protesters,” she said.

Everyone who spoke to Rewire said Tuesday’s daylong protests were peaceful and that there was no “public safety threat until the police created one,” as one advocate put it.

The Phoenix Police Department did not respond to Rewire‘s requests for comment about these allegations.

For Odhner, it’s important to view Phoenix Police Department’s response to protesters in context, both locally and nationally.

Phoenix Police Department—which is part of Maricopa County, where Arpaio was sheriff—has had some of the highest rates of officer-related shootings in the United States. A 2015 report from Arizona State University found that 64 percent of Phoenix’s officer-related shootings stem from police response to radio calls—presumably people calling for help—and that 69 percent of shootings occur within two minutes of an officer arriving on the scene.

“Not only does Phoenix Police Department have a long, well-documented history of violence, but you also have Trump implying he was coming to pardon Arpaio … [which] signaled to Phoenix Police Department and other law enforcement that they are above the law,” Odhner said. “It’s an alarming message … to essentially say [law enforcement] can break the law and the president will support them.”

Puente Human Rights Movement, an Arizona-based immigrant rights organization, largely coordinated the protests that took place Tuesday. Advocates said organizers with Puente had been in communication with the police department and had multiple meetings. At no time did the police give any indication they would have such an extreme response to peaceful protesters.

“The big question here is: Was this part of the plan all along? We have dozens and dozens of eyewitnesses and over 70 legal observers that were on the scene. Based on everything we’ve heard, it appears responding in this way was part of the plan from the beginning. The police chief has said that seeing officers in riot gear gave protesters ‘sufficient warning.’ That’s simply unacceptable,” Soler said. “It appears officers planned to utilize tear gas and other chemical irritants as a crowd dispersal tool, rather than using [them] to address a serious public safety threat or widespread violence, which there was none of.”

Soler said there is no plan for a lawsuit and that she doesn’t like to “threaten litigation.” The investigation into the police department is ongoing. Protesters who experienced excessive force are being encouraged to share photos, videos, and testimonies with the ACLU via a Dropbox.

As for the Phoenix Urban Health Collective, the medics who spoke to Rewire said they will support immigrant-led groups like Puente and letting them take charge in deciding how best to hold Phoenix officials accountable. Puente Human Rights Movement is urging protesters who experienced excessive force at the hands of the Phoenix Police Department to attend an August 30 city council meeting and provide testimony.

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