No Madness Like American Madness

Scenes from a debacle in Phoenix.

Dave Eggers
Aug 31, 2017 · 24 min read
Photo: Getty

In downtown Phoenix, in the space of a few blocks, there were 15,000 Trump supporters and 10,000 anti-Trump protesters. There were Bikers for Trump and a platoon from the John Brown Gun Club, an anti-fascist group carrying loaded handguns and semiautomatic weapons. There were roving packs of weightlifters wearing pro-Trump attire. There were men in sleeveless Confederate flag jackets, and there was a giant inflated chicken made to look like Donald Trump. There was a man with a megaphone who asserted throughout the afternoon that homosexuals were going to hell, drunk drivers should die, and women who wore skirts deserved to be raped. There were anarchists, antifa, and hundreds of heavily armed police officers. This was a week after Charlottesville, the country grieving and boiling in the madness of its most irrational era, and in Arizona, it was more than 105 degrees and felt far hotter.

That no one died that day in Phoenix is miraculous.

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On August 16, Donald Trump announced he would hold a rally in Phoenix. This would be a campaign-style rally funded by his reelection campaign.

Speculation swirled that his reasons for doing so were threefold: First, Jeff Flake, one of the two Republican senators from Arizona, had just published a book that was highly critical of Trump, and Trump wanted to descend on Flake’s state and embarrass him — to call him out in front of thousands of his constituents. Second, Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff of Maricopa County, was facing six months in prison because he, defying a judge’s order, continued to detain people simply because he suspected them of being undocumented immigrants. Trump, it was assumed, intended to pardon Arpaio in a public and theatrical way. Third, Trump wanted to highlight his plan to build a wall along the Arizona-Mexico border.

On the night of August 11 and the morning of August 12, days before the announcement of the Phoenix rally, white nationalists and neo-Nazis gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia. The demonstrators, counter protesters, and a local paramilitary unit brought shields, clubs, bats, and, because Virginia is an open-carry state, dozens of loaded firearms. There were skirmishes in Emancipation Park, of all places. On August 12, Richard Wilson Preston, a grand wizard of the Confederate White Knights of the KKK, was filmed yelling “Hey n____” to Corey Long, who had brought a handmade flamethrower to Emancipation Park. Preston pointed a handgun at Long’s head, and then shot it into the dirt at Long’s feet. Preston was charged with what was apparently the only crime he’d committed: discharging a firearm within 1,000 feet of a school.

After police broke up the main demonstration, two young men, Daniel Patrick Borden and Alex Michael Ramos, were charged with malicious wounding in connection with the beating of 20-year-old Deandre Harris.

As demonstrators and counter protesters were leaving the area, a car, allegedly driven by a 20-year-old white man named James Alex Fields, sped into a crowd of demonstrators who were in Charlottesville to profess their belief in peace, equality, and racial harmony. Heather Heyer died, and 19 others were injured. That night, two Virginia state troopers were killed when their helicopter crashed while they were monitoring the rally.

Three people died and at least 20 people were injured that day. But with hundreds of weapons, including dozens of handguns and semiautomatic rifles carried amid hundreds of demonstrators and counter protesters in a scene of collective apoplexy, it could have been far worse.

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After Charlottesville, and after Donald Trump’s widely denounced response to the events that weekend, Greg Stanton, the mayor of Phoenix, took the almost unprecedented step of asking the sitting president not to visit his city.

“America is hurting,” Stanton wrote in an op-ed published in the Washington Post. “And it is hurting largely because Trump has doused racial tensions with gasoline. With his planned visit to Phoenix on Tuesday, I fear the president may be looking to light a match.”

Doug Ducey, the Republican governor of Arizona, said he would greet Trump at the airport but would not attend the rally.

“I absolutely think it’s inappropriate to be holding a political rally a few days after an innocent woman was mowed down by a neo-Nazi,” said U.S. Representative Ruben Gallego, a Democrat whose district includes downtown Phoenix. “It’s throwing tinder onto an ongoing fire.”

Knowing that his rally in Phoenix would likely attract white supremacists, protesters, and counter protesters and the possibility that anyone in the crowd, expected to be at least 25,000, could be armed and could fire any weapon at any time — because, like Virginia, Arizona is an open-carry state — Trump did not cancel the event.

Knowing that a hurricane was bearing down on the Gulf Coast and was predicted to make landfall shortly after the rally, Trump did not cancel the event.

Catherine H. Miranda, an Arizona state senator, said, “We highly recommend the president visit Charlottesville and heal that city.”

Trump did not go to Charlottesville to heal that city. He did not stay in Washington to monitor what would become one of the most devastating storms to hit the United States in decades.

He went to Phoenix.

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By midmorning, the temperature had already exceeded 100. By noon, it was 106. The city was utterly still. There was virtually no one moving. On any given block of downtown Phoenix, there was perhaps one person walking, making their burdened way from one air-conditioned building to the next.

The Phoenix Convention Center, an indoor venue in the center of the city’s small downtown area, was quiet. On the corner of Washington and Second Street, a lone man held a large handmade sign that said “Police Lives Matter.”

By 2:00, a few hundred Trump supporters had arrived and were in line along Second Street. The convention center was scheduled to open at 4 p.m., with the rally beginning at 7 p.m. Those in line were not dressed in white robes or brown shirts. They were in shorts and T-shirts, sitting on beach chairs and cooling themselves with American flag fans. They looked like they were headed to a patriotic barbecue or a Diamondbacks game.

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Photo: Getty

Though the attendees were mostly white, in line there were African-American men and women; there were people of Asian and South Asian descent; there were Latino families; plenty of elderly people, children. They did not yell, chant, or say much at all. The vast majority of them simply stood in line, trying to stay cool and hydrated.

But their numbers were small. By 3 p.m., there were only about 500 Trump supporters, and depending on how it was configured, the convention center could hold between 19,000 and 29,000. There existed the possibility that Trump had grossly overplayed his hand — that very few Arizonans wanted to come to a partisan rally so soon after the national tragedy of Charlottesville.

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I went to Civic Space Park, where the Puente Human Rights Movement had called a gathering and march. Puente is a local organization that advocates for the rights of the undocumented — and had long been opposed to Joe Arpaio. En route, I passed the downtown campus of Arizona State University, where hundreds of college students in shorts and sandals walked to and from class and waited for buses on North Central Avenue, white earbuds in place. There was no sign on campus that anything else was happening in Phoenix that day.

At Civic Space Park, about 50 people of every age and color were standing and sitting in the dappled shade. There were pallets of bottled water arranged in leaning gray pyramids. A few people were still creating the signs they would carry. A heavy-set African-American man wore a T-shirt that said:


— Rosa Parks, 1965

On the grass and ringing the group were a number of homeless men and women sitting under the park’s low stand of trees. One shirtless man sitting on a tattered sleeping bag periodically yelled unintelligible directives from the woods.

I talked to a few of the march organizers, who said they planned to walk to the convention center at 4:30. I mentioned that I had just been there and that the crowd was thin. If the convention center opens at 4 p.m., I said, by 4:30, the few Trump supporters might all be inside.

I went back to the convention center to confirm this. Trump had won Arizona by only a few percentage points, and the most recent statewide poll by OH Predictive Insights indicated that a majority of Arizonans, 52 percent, disapproved of his performance as president. There seemed to exist the possibility that his declining popularity and the unspeakable heat — it was by now 108 — had suppressed whatever enthusiasm was left for seeing Donald Trump stand onstage for an hour, saying whatever came into his head.

At the entrance to the convention center, I saw the same people who had been there since 2 p.m. The doors still hadn’t opened. I walked past them and down Second Street. The line now extended the length of the block. There were elderly white couples, groups of middle-aged men in Trump/Pence shirts. Men and women in matching pink polo shirts. A woman in a wheelchair. A man holding a sign reading “Old Chicano Male for Trump.”

I turned the corner, and the line continued. It extended down Washington for a long city block. All along the backside of the convention center, blood-orange garbage trucks had been parked, presumably to protect those in line from the possibility of another car attack. I walked the line until I thought it ended, at Fifth Street. But there it jumped across the intersection and ran all the way back on the other side of Washington. Then it went down a side street and back again. It took me half an hour to find the end of the line. But there was no end. Every minute, more people arrived, with the newest additions more everyday-seeming than the more ardent who had been waiting since the beginning.

They carried no signs or props. They couldn’t. On Washington, there was an enormous LED screen that cycled through the items prohibited in the convention center:

This gave a distinct advantage to the tableau of protesters who had gathered on the steps at Third and Washington to confront them. They had signs, horns, drums, and costumes. There was a woman holding a “Go Mueller!” sign and a man with a “Bernie Fucking Sanders” shirt. There was a man dressed as a nun holding a sign reading “They said there’d be a party…Wait. Wrong party.”

Elsewhere in the city, the police had done a masterful job of ensuring that large groups of pro-Trump Americans were separated from groups of anti-Trump Americans. The two groups were usually placed on either side of wide barricaded streets, but on this corner, there were no barricades, no police nearby, and access between the two groups was unobstructed.

Which made it all the more surreal and tragic how genial and almost embarrassed the interactions were.

The way the steps were arranged and the way the line was formed made for an almost theatrical introduction of Trump supporters to protesters. As the Trump people made their way down Washington to Third Street, a high wall hid them from view of the protesters and hid the protesters from them.

Thus, when they passed by the high wall, the rally attendees, in their red shirts and white shorts, with their VFW hats and in their wheelchairs, were suddenly confronted by a high tableau of fellow Americans yelling, chanting, and carrying signs declaring the Trump supporters Nazis and fascists.

The Trump supporters looked up and down at their sudden audience, and, if they could get over their astonishment, smiled and held up their phones to take pictures.

And when the protesters saw just how unarmed and unassuming most of the Trump supporters were, and how free they were of signs, weapons, anything — they were left speechless.

That was a strange thing. There were a hundred or so protesters standing on the high steps, and at any given time a few dozen Trump attendees passing them on the sidewalk, but for much of the time they were in close proximity, and no one said anything.

Something was happening there, in that close confrontation between the two groups. There was recognition. There was the uncomfortable knowledge that they were in many ways very similar people. The rally attendees were not frothing at the mouth and were not spouting racial epithets. They were moms, dads, teenagers, and families who for whatever reason have an exceedingly high tolerance for wretched behavior and the absence of moral leadership from their chief executive.

Thus the protesters were flummoxed. It seemed cruel and strange to yell “Nazi” to a pair of grandparents in yellow polo shirts, or at a trio of Eagle Scouts, and so given the chance to say something directly to Trump supporters passing by them, mere inches away, much of the time they said nothing.

In one especially strange moment, a young male protester began chanting “USA! USA!” This is not a common chant among anti-Trump protesters, given it’s long been associated with young drunk white men, so only a smattering of fellow protesters joined in. The Trump people waiting in line were initially confused, but soon they also chanted “USA! USA!” The two groups’ ideas of exactly what those initials meant was likely not the same, but anyway, it was a moment of relative harmony in a darkening day.

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The United States is most assuredly the only industrialized country that allows civilians to bring loaded firearms to a political protest. It is self-evident that this makes everyone attending, including the police, far less safe.

But Arizona is an open-carry state, which means the police cannot prohibit one human, holding a valid gun license, from arriving at a protest like this one in Phoenix, with a weapon and enough bullets to kill 100 other humans.

That the heavily armed contingent on this day were anarchists purportedly drawn from the white working class only underlines the uniquely lunatic nature of American life under Trump.

At around 5 p.m., on the other side of the convention center, I started noticing small clusters of young men and women wearing green army gear and bulletproof vests. On their chests they had written, with black magic marker, “John Brown Gun Club.” It looked like they were carrying semiautomatic weapons. I approached one of them, a tall man with a rust-colored beard. I asked his name. He said it was John Brown.

“Is that real?” I asked, pointing to what seemed to be an AR-15, a lightweight combat rifle with a 30-round magazine. He carried it tensely across his chest, his index finger covering the trigger. Tucked into his waist were two additional ammunition clips.

“Yes, sir,” he said, “Arizona is an open-carry state, and Phoenix is an open-carry city.” He was sweating profusely, and though he tried to exude confidence, he looked nervous and spoke haltingly. “We are a community defense organization,” he said. “We are anti-racist. We definitely align ourselves against the white nationalists.”

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Photo: Getty

They were affiliated with a national group called the Redneck Revolt, which has chapters around the country.

The Redneck Revolt website asserts that they are an “aboveground militant formation” that “stands against the nation-state and its forces which protect the bosses and the rich.”

Increasingly, its members appear at events where white nationalists are gathering, and they present a mirror image of the disaffected whites who helped turned the election for Trump in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Ohio. “White working class participation in state and paramilitary organizations and formations like the Ku Klux Klan, the Minutemen, the U.S. Armed Forces, and the Council of Conservative Citizens has undermined the struggle for freedom among all people,” reads their manifesto.

“It is with these conflicting histories in mind that we hope to incite a movement amongst white working people that works toward the total liberation of all working people, regardless of skin color, religious background, sexual orientation, gender identity, nationality, or any other division that bosses and politicians have used to fragment movements for social, political, and economic freedom.”

A few feet away from this John Brown, two Phoenix police officers were ensuring a safe distance between a wall of protesters and a man with a megaphone holding a sign reading “All true Muslims are jihadists.” This was the same man — he spoke most of the day, without a supportive audience from either side — who asserted that women who dress in skirts deserve to be raped.

I asked the man calling himself John Brown how the local police were reacting to the presence of an armed militia in downtown Phoenix.

“They’ve definitely been looking at us carefully,” he said.

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All day, the Phoenix police had acted with calm professionalism. Most were dressed in their everyday uniforms and moved fluidly throughout the crowds without any hint of overreaction. They watched the crowds from rooftops and from the five floors of an open parking garage at the corner of Second and Monroe.

It was easy to believe that despite the presence of the John Brown Gun Club moving freely between 25,000 people baking in August heat, the chemistry of that particular day in Phoenix favored calm and relative amity. In a freak stroke of chance, there were no neo-Nazis, at least not demonstrating or assembling in numbers. There were not, in fact, any armed right-wing attendees visible. In an unexpected reversal, it was the anti-Trump side that was louder, that was more confrontational, and among whose ranks there was a heavily armed militia. There was only one even vaguely threatening sign held by a Trump supporter. He sat most of the day at an outdoor café across from the convention center, his placard leaning against the table: “Don’t Start No Shit, Won’t Be No Shit.”

Most of the protesters were there to confront the men, women, and children there to attend the rally. By 5 p.m., at least 5,000 protesters were lined up on Monroe across from the convention center. The Trump supporters who had been standing in the 108-degree heat, winding their way around downtown Phoenix, finally reached the corner of Second and Monroe, where there was a police security screening to ensure they had none of the items listed as prohibited on the LED display.

Immediately after the screening, like cattle herded into a chute and then sent to slaughter, the Trump supporters were confronted by 5,000 protesters yelling at them from the other side of Monroe. “Are you a Nazi, yes or no?” the protesters screamed. A group of young protesters singled out each Trump attendee, critiquing their clothing and physique. “You gotta work out, dude!” they yelled at one overweight man wearing a Trump shirt; it failed to cover the totality of his belly. “Your shirt’s too small!”

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Photo: Getty

In response, the Trump supporters smiled, took pictures of the protesters — they all took pictures; it was odd — and very occasionally gave the protesters the finger. Then they disappeared into the convention center.

The rally began at 7 p.m., and the majority of the protesters waited outside, remaining at the Monroe barricades. There was the strong possibility that Trump would pardon Joe Arpaio, in which case the protests could become belligerent. But in the meantime, the protesters waited. They cooled off with water provided by the friars standing in front of St. Mary’s Basilica. There were drums, and people checked their phones for news of what was happening inside the convention center.

A lone woman in her 60s, no more than 100 pounds, stood on the sidewalk with a sign that said “Free Hugs.” She was doing a booming business.

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The rally began at 7, and Trump gave a rambling speech, wherein he: hinted that he would pardon disgraced Maricopa Sheriff Arpaio and seemed to be asking for the crowd’s approval (it was strong but not overwhelming); called out the media for being not-real and not fair to him; insulted Arizona’s two Republican senators, Jeff Flake and John McCain; encouraged his supporters to endorse the jailing of his presidential opponent, Hillary Clinton, whom he defeated nine months ago; failed to mention the 10 U.S. sailors recently killed in a collision with an oil tanker; failed to mention the two state troopers killed in Charlottesville; claimed that there were very few protesters in Phoenix, when there were at least 10,000; and rewrote the history of his reaction to Charlottesville, omitting only and precisely the words that had provoked the opprobrium of the majority of the nation and world.

At about 8:15, the rally was ending. It was still well over 100 degrees, the air thick with incense and sweat and the smell of hot pavement. Throughout the day, more than 50 people had fallen ill to heat-related illness, but there were still about 2,000 protesters on Monroe Street, there to verbally confront the Trump supporters again as they exited.

But this was not to be.

“Look,” someone said. I was standing on the corner of Monroe and Third Street, leaning over the barricade facing the convention center. I looked up to see a catwalk connecting the venue’s south building to its north. The catwalk was glass, about 30 feet up — a transparent hallway crossing Third Street. And it was filled with people walking briskly out of the rally.

Someone had discovered a different way for the Trump supporters to leave. They were avoiding the protesters’ gauntlet completely. Instead of walking along the Monroe sidewalk in stifling heat, being verbally assaulted, they were high above, behind glass, striding through an air-conditioned hallway.

We could see this happening from our position on Third Street, and the deflation among those assembled on our end of the barricades was profound. But the rest of the protesters, extending down Monroe toward Second Street, couldn’t see this orderly escape.

They continued to wait.

Phoenix police officers in riot gear and shields stood in the street, watching dispassionately. All day, the police had been cool-headed and professional. They had moved freely and calmly among the protesters and Trump supporters and had, from my perspective at least, treated everyone with civility and good humor.

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Photo: Jedidiah Woods

Soon, prompted by no change in the protesters’ size or mood, the number of police grew. About 20 emerged from the convention center in riot gear, and another 10 arrived on mountain bikes and positioned the bikes as shields between themselves and the protesters. There were about 70 officers visible along Monroe, all wearing gas masks.

The mood began to shift. As if reacting to the gas masks and seeming escalation of menace, the protesters began reminding the Phoenix Police Department of their right to demonstrate. “Peaceful protest! Peaceful protest!” they chanted. And: “Who do you serve? Who do you protect?”

An older African-American woman near me began taunting one of the officers standing behind his mountain bike. “You. You’re a little one. A little fella,” she said. “I could fit you in my bra. I guess you need to compensate for your size with all that equipment…”

She was funny. She riffed along these lines for about five minutes. The officer did not react. None of the officers were reacting. It had been calm all day, and it was calm now. Most of all, it was rational.

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Photo: Jedidiah Woods

All day, no one had done anything stupid, even though there were the makings of madness.

At about 8:30, I looked down Monroe toward Second Street and saw smoke. It was unclear how it started. The 20 or so police officers on that part of the block were soon silhouetted in white fog. They looked unconcerned about the smoke, and none of the officers was moving, so I assumed they had instigated the smoke themselves. They wore helmets and gas masks, and none of them made any gestures that indicated they were alarmed or agitated.

Then, a single plastic water bottle was thrown from the protesters’ side of the street. It arced through the white fog and fell amid the phalanx of police. I was about 50 feet away and saw it clearly, and I saw no other provocation.

Then all hell broke loose.

An officer in riot gear stepped from behind his barricade, aimed a gun over the heads of the crowd, and shot. A thunderclap boomed overhead. People screamed and started running in every direction. He then pivoted and directed another shot toward Third Street. Another boom cracked open the sky, as loud as a cannon.

I turned to the young man next to me. He was white, with sand-colored curly hair and blue eyes. “Did you see anything?” I asked.

“Nothing,” he said, and took off.

There had been no words of warning from the police. At least four more booms cracked open the air. There was no way to know what the noises were — actual bombs? There was no information.

It was a melee. In seconds, the few thousand protesters who had been on Monroe fled, leaving just a few dozen remaining.

Now there was a clacking sound. It could have been gunfire or firecrackers. Again, no information coming from the police.

“Oh my god! Oh my god!” a woman screamed.

Helicopters thrummed above.

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Photo: Jedidiah Woods

I ran back to the barricades to see what was happening on Monroe. White fog enveloped the street. The police, in loose formation, walked across Monroe, opened the barricade on the protesters’ side, and made their way into what was left of the crowd.

In front of the Herberger Theater Center, a wedge-shaped mass of Phoenix officers, all of them in riot gear and holding transparent shields, advanced on a pair of protesters. There were about 20 officers shuffling, Sparta-style, toward these two people. One was an African-American man, tall and thin, who held his hands high above his head in surrender. A woman with long dark hair stood next to him, her hands over her head. It was unclear if these two people were going to be arrested. It seemed possible that one of them had thrown the bottle that apparently started all this.

A few feet away, a canister appeared, yellow gas billowing from it. The gas spread and veiled everything in a sickly chartreuse veil.

Because there had been no warning from the police, and because the white smoke, as far as I knew, had been harmless, I assumed this gas was harmless, too. Someone in the crowd yelled “Tear gas!” but that seemed illogical and unlikely.

Tear gas is a chemical agent that has been known to cause respiratory failure, heart attacks, and miscarriage. It’s considered dangerous enough that its use in warfare was banned under the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993. That agreement was signed by almost every nation on earth, including the United States. There seemed no chance that the Phoenix police would a toxic aerosol against American citizens holding pickets, even if one of them had thrown a water bottle.

There was a young woman near me, and we both ignored the yellow gas and walked toward the man and woman holding their hands in surrender.

An older man ran past us saying, “That gas will incapacitate you. It is not to be trifled with. It will incapacitate you.”

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Photo: Jedidiah Woods

We walked toward the man and woman being confronted by the police phalanx. It seemed at least possible, amid the chaos, that the two people, holding their hands in the air, would be dealt with violently. As we neared the police advancing on the man and woman, a gust of wind took the yellow cloud, spread it, and suddenly we were inside it.

The effect of tear gas on the eyes and lungs is not immediate. It took about three seconds before my eyes began burning as if they were dissolving. Instantly, my eyes closed and tears soaked my face — my tear ducts trying to react and flush out the vapor, which coats the eyes and skin. I stopped, doubled over.

When the gas hit my throat and lungs, breathing became impossible. It was like inhaling melting plastic through a straw.

Confronted with a chemical agent, the body fights and rebels in spasms. I choked, coughed, sneezed. My nose ran and my chest constricted. My eyes blinked ferociously, and while stumbling down Third Street away from the smoke, in flashes I saw the smoke-filled scene around me.

Around the grounds of the Herberger Center were life-sized sculptures of men, women, and children dancing. In the yellow haze, these figures appeared like victims of Pompeii, frozen and flailing, while all down Third Street, actual people were kneeling, running, gagging. An elderly woman was being helped down the street by two men. She was disoriented and confused.

A throng of people surrounded the elderly woman, who could no longer walk. They sat her on the sidewalk, but the yellow smoke was still billowing from Monroe. They lifted her again and made their way toward Van Buren.

In the yellow fog, I caught sight of the young woman who had been near me in front of the theater. A young man with black-rimmed glasses was flushing her eyes with bottled water. She looked up, her face soaked but relieved. She could see again.

There were a few inches of water left in the bottle, and the young man flushed my eyes, too. The effect was immediate. The gas was still burning my throat and lungs, but I could see. I ran down Third Street and caught up with the elderly woman. I tried to offer her water to clean her eyes, telling her that it helped. She didn’t understand. She pushed my hands away.

All around, people were trying to think, breathe, see. They huddled in doorways. A pair of young women in yellow “LEGAL OBSERVER” shirts ran by. “What happened back there?” I asked. They had no idea. “I saw a water bottle,” one of them said.

Helicopters thrummed above, shining high-powered lights down, strobing us all below, throwing jagged shadows. A loudspeaker told the people on the street to disperse.

This was the first message conveyed verbally by the Phoenix police. They had not told the crowd to disperse before shooting their stun grenades and tear gas. There was no warning whatsoever.

Now the gas was blowing quickly down Third Street, enveloping the block. Those who had stopped to flush their eyes and catch their breath now had to run again. They held shirts, handkerchiefs, and towels over their mouths.

Much of Third Street was still open to traffic. Cars and buses were unwittingly driving toward Monroe, into the gas. A protester holding a bandana over his mouth strode down the middle of the street, telling the drivers to keep their windows closed and to turn off their air conditioning. “There’s tear gas in the air!” he yelled. “Close your windows!”

At the corner of Third and Van Buren, in front of a Hooters, a few dozen people had gathered. “Did you see anything?” they asked. No one could figure out what instigated the police reaction. Inside the restaurant, a few dozen people, most of them looking like protesters, watched big-screen TVs, the events in Phoenix unfolding live on the news. Outside the Hooters, in the middle of Van Buren, a white man waved a neo-Nazi flag bigger than himself. He was having trouble getting it to unfold and fly the way he intended; it kept bunching up and wrapping itself around him.

A pedicab driver emerged from the yellow fog on his three-wheeled bike. “I can’t fucking see!” he yelled.

For the next hour, we saw what downtown Phoenix would look like in a war or under martial law. The calm and relative civility that had reigned was gone. The police, calm all day, had overreacted, adding the spark to what was already a combustible mix. It seemed now that anything could happen. Somewhere in the city, there were 25 John Brown Gun Club members, all heavily armed. There were certainly a few Bikers for Trump still lingering. There were groups of young men looking for a fight — I passed a group of four on Van Buren, one with a Confederate jacket. In an open-carry state, there could be any kind of fanatic who might see the opportunity to make a statement with a gun. Or with a car. As in Charlottesville, there were plenty of protesters walking and running on sidewalks; it was a target-rich environment for a martyr to white supremacy.

Passing anyone on the street now was fraught. We looked at each other for signs of affiliation or intent. Another pair of young men passed me in the yellow darkness. They were wearing Trump shirts turned inside out. Helicopters circled, illuminating groups below as they ran down the streets and sidewalks, trying to get home or get hidden. There was no trust. Anyone, it seemed, could do anything.

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Download a free digital mini-book of this reporting here.

Part 2: Not Much Room for Decency and Calm — An anarchist wrestler, a tear-gassed student, two thoughtful Trump supporters in a Carl’s Jr. Plus an interview with Senator Jeff Flake the day after Phoenix.

Marley Walker contributed reporting to this article.

Written by

Writer. Founder of McSweeney’s and co-founder of 826 National.

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