Powerless — or the Real Phoenix Protest
I didn’t expect it to affect me like this. But then again, I expected to go to a protest that would be fairly reported. I expected to go to a peaceful protest and to be fairly treated by the police. That’s not what happened at the Phoenix Rally. And I’ve had to deal with a lot of disparate emotions because of it over the past week.
Overall, it was an enjoyable protest, if one can call any protest “enjoyable”. Well, it was hot. Really, really hot (it’s Phoenix after all). But we were motivated. Some protesters were “with us in spirit” since they were fearful to join us in person. Fearful about being run over by cars in some kind of repeat of the Charlottesville situation. Others couldn’t deal with the 105 degree temperatures for several hours. But thousands of us showed up — because we couldn’t stay home.
Though there were many groups of people protesting about different things — at the core, we were all there for the same reason. The issues all stem from the way this administration has attempted to remove rights, sometimes recently won, from every group who at its core isn’t comprised of mostly white, Christian males (and their compliant females). We were absolutely united. Everything we cared about centered around the fact that all people, all colors, all genders, all sexes, whether ill or healthy — everybody matters. And the world where we live matters.
I found it enjoyable because of the great diversity in the crowd. A granddad had one of the best handmade signs we saw, hand lettered with painstaking detail. Kids were holding hands with their parents walking thru the crowd. There were people in wheelchairs. The spectrum of melanin was beautiful. And the smiles and love shared between us all warmed my heart. We were all committed to this peaceful protest. We all cared about each other.
When we arrived, there was a handful of Trump supporters on the Convention Center side of Monroe at 2nd St. The rest of us were held on the other side of Monroe. The supporters had giant machine printed signs and a megaphone. Signs like, “BLM are Racist Thugs” and “Every Real Muslim is a Jihadist”. We had a very diverse collection of hand-lettered signs, and only our voices to reply with. Signs like “Stop Judging our Melanin”, “Black Lives Matter, End all racial profiling”, “Arizona used to be Mexico”, “If you aren’t Outraged, you aren’t Paying Attention”, “No to Bigotry”… and so many more.
They shouted “White Lives Matter!” and we drowned them out with “Black Lives Matter!” These volleys between us went on until about 7:45p. Then they all suddenly left. After that, we periodically chanted some things, but mostly we chatted amongst ourselves. People who had never met before, but were united with similar goals. Equality between us all was the dominant ingredient.
Bit by bit, my cousin and I had worked our way to the front of the barricades. We were sweating. Phoenix isn’t a place where you stay outside this time of year. It was cooler up by the barricades and out of the main crowd. I had packed a street medic backpack (I used to be a nurse and watching recent protests get nasty, I wanted to be able to help). While we were chatting and waiting for Trump to finish, I sat the heavy backpack on the street to rest. The reporters near us commented on how peaceful this protest had been. The police weren’t being overly friendly, but when people made an effort, they smiled and shook their hand. We were pleased and confident we had done something peaceful that they hadn’t achieved in Charlottesville. We were relaxed.
It grew dark. We heard Trump was done and I put my backpack back on. We had been enjoying the Native drumming down the block. And as Trump finished, I heard people get a little louder. Enough to make me look down the block, but not enough to concern me. The barriers by the street were filled with water and very heavy. We heard some chanting starting again and then what sounded like some shaking of the water barriers.
I noticed that the police mid-block were standing in their riot gear, in a line with their plexiglass shields.
And then I saw a water bottle thrown across the street. Followed by another one about 30 secs later. Two plastic water bottles. Thrown across the street at the Police line — standing in full riot gear with their shields up. There were no rocks. There was no gas. Gas makes smoke & I was on the front row, staring straight down the street at what was happening. Two plastic water bottles. Period. The crowd shouted at the person to stop. But before the crowd could handle the lone idiot throwing water bottles, the police in front of us put on their gas masks.
And my brain said, “WHAT? Are you kidding me?” Everything I read prior to this protest said that if police put their masks on, it’s a done deal. You’re about to be shot and you better cover your face. But nothing had happened worth shooting a peaceful crowd over. Two water bottles. There were old people and kids with us. Most of them couldn’t see the police putting their gas masks on for a cue about what was going to happen.
I had a scarf in the medical stuff in my backpack. My cousin didn’t bring anything. She had to take off her shirt and wrap it around her face. Within 30 seconds, and with zero announcement or warning, they shot two gas/smoke projectiles into the crowd. My initial thought was that it was a warning to the guy throwing water bottles. We didn’t know if it was smoke or gas or what it was. The crowd started shouting “PEACEFUL PROTEST, PEACEFUL PROTEST!!” But nope, they followed with three more. And now the wind was blowing it straight into us at the corner of 2nd. With no warning, kids, adults, people in wheel chairs, were being covered in pepper spray. Everyone was trying to get away from it. My cousin and I got separated. Some people ran directly into the parking garage next to us and then were stuck in the gas with no way out the back.
As I was crossing the street, I passed a tall black man. He had no shirt on and his arms were reaching up and out. He was shouting to the police there. I couldn’t understand everything he said, but I heard, “Why,” and “WTF? What are you guys doing?” I didn’t need to understand all his words though. What I saw in his eyes tore out my guts — it still does. I’ve been trying for a week to verbalize it — to quantify it. All I can express is, it was a knowing. It wasn’t fear. It was powerlessness and pain. And it seemed far too familiar to him. And for a fleeting moment, I felt what he’s probably felt his whole life.
I was astounded that a peaceful crowd was being dispersed this way. With no warning and no care for who they might harm. I was angry that my right to be on that sidewalk and speak out had just been removed for no reason. And I felt a complete powerlessness — because though we did nothing wrong, there was absolutely zero we could do about it.
It wasn’t until this point that the police announced anything at all. They said something from a helicopter. I have no idea what it was. We couldn’t understand them. I waited at 1st street for my cousin to get out of the smoke in the parking garage. It was pretty thick in there. We walked around the corner. We could hear the flash bangs and pepper bombs still being shot. It was only at this point that the police started driving around telling people to disperse. We tracked down our other friends who had been at 3rd St and Monroe — who saw the whole thing from the other side. We had seen the same thing from opposite ends of the street.
The police started walking down streets and into the parking garage and shooting more gas at people. There hadn’t been any violence there, so the fact that they couldn’t let people just leave was astounding. Especially those stuck in the parking garage. We were just trying to process and reconnect with people we’d been separated from. There’s video of people simply looking at their cell phones — and getting gas shot at them.
Of course, the images that got all the airplay and tweeted were people kicking or throwing canisters back at police. And these images and videos are sensational. But they’ve been used for why the police started shooting gas at us. And that’s a ridiculous lie. A few protestors sent back the gas that was releasing right by them. They didn’t have it to start with.
And all I can think about is — what would have happened if the gas had never been shot into a peaceful crowd? There would have been no gas to throw back at the police. My cousin wouldn’t be hacking her lungs out two days later. And at the end of the evening, we all could have just sweated our way back to our homes. What was the point of this “show of force”? I’m baffled.
One thing I do know. This has made me more determined to keep marching. To resist. To flip districts. To help people get to the polls. To stop voter suppression and gerrymandering. To make sure elections are fair and monitored. I hope you’ll join me.
And I’m looking forward to the ACLU’s investigation into this incident. My eyes were there, and the public account of what happened is not what I saw.