Phoenix police crack down on peaceful protesters, seemingly without warning

"We were trying to evacuate, but it was hard to see. I was coughing. You were disoriented. People were really scared."

Smoke billows after Phoenix police used tear gas outside the Phoenix Convention Center on Tuesday night. CREDIT: AP Photo/Matt York
Smoke billows after Phoenix police used tear gas outside the Phoenix Convention Center on Tuesday night. CREDIT: AP Photo/Matt York

After hours of peaceful protest outside President Donald Trump’s campaign rally in Phoenix on Tuesday evening, police abruptly changed tack and filled the downtown area with clouds of tear gas and pepper spray.

The sudden shift in police response created a chaotic scene captured in dozens of short chunks of video from reporters and rallygoers on the downtown streets surrounding the Phoenix Convention Center. Trump had just finished his pep rally inside when the riot police began firing tear gas and pepper spray into crowds.

Multiple eyewitnesses say officers failed to give clear orders to disperse before deploying the crowd control measures, though city officials disputed that claim Tuesday night. The decision to get aggressive with the crowd was prompted by aggression from a tiny minority of those within it, police leadership said.

“We had tens of thousands of people downtown peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights. What’s unfortunate is that a very small number of individuals chose criminal conduct,” Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams said Tuesday night. Some in the crowd threw bottles and rocks “and also dispersed some gas in the area,” local Fox 10 News reported, citing a statement from Phoenix Police Sgt. Jonathan Howard.

Multiple reporters on the ground said they did not directly witness any protester toss a gas canister at police from their vantage points at the large downtown protest. In one incident captured on video from multiple angles, a protester moves forward to kick a canister of police gas back toward a line of riot cops, one of whom almost immediately shoots him with one or another type of non-lethal projectile — likely a pepper ball grenade or gas canister, as a police spokesman said officers never used rubber bullets on Tuesday.

In another, a protester picks up a gas canister and tosses it back toward the police line as others nearby can be heard shouting at people to “stop throwing shit.”

At least one local reporter present at Williams’ press conference Tuesday disputed her recounting of the police response. “There were two bottles thrown at police officers. There had been bottles thrown earlier in the day, a few of them, not many. There was no order to disperse. Once the second one was thrown pepper spray was used, and then it was on,” the reporter said. “There was no request or announcement to disperse by anyone, they just started moving in with pepper spray. Is that what you guys expected? I know it was a lot of people, but it was chaos here.”

Other eyewitnesses echoed the claim that police failed to give the “tens of thousands” of peaceful marchers a clear dispersal order before deploying concussive “pepper ball” grenades, directed pepper spray, and eventually gas canisters. A woman named Reyna Montoya told the Arizona Republic she got caught up in caustic gas and ran away from police for a block before hearing a first warning to disperse from a circling department helicopter. “We were trying to evacuate, but it was hard to see. I was coughing. You were disoriented. People were really scared,” Montoya told the paper.

Another rallygoer, 22-year-old Carson Harris, told the Republic “he saw several protesters behind barricades ‘throwing empty water bottles and yelling at police,'” then “saw a ‘small spinning firework or something’ thrown toward police” just before officers popped tear gas and pepper balls into the crowd. A third attendee said he saw a single bottle thrown toward police, then a flurry of projectiles from officers who “opened fire into areas where no one threw anything.”

While other details vary, witness accounts are consistent in describing a sudden shift in police behavior toward the assembled crowds. City officials told local reporters the police department’s heavier response began at 8:48 p.m., shortly after Trump left the convention center stage. The Phoenix New Times pegged the shift in police response to an earlier moment, around 8:30, when reporters heard several loud booms from the convention center area and then saw crowds flee the gas. “Sixteen-year-old Isabelle Henderson said she and her friends were peacefully protesting near the convention center when everything went up in smoke,” the paper noted.

Large crowds of anti-Trump protesters had begun massing in the downtown area surrounding the convention center more than three hours earlier. Groups organized through local churches and civil rights organizations turned up, as did heavily armed civilian militiamen in battle fatigues. As pro-Trump rallygoers arrived, city police used barriers to keep the president’s supporters and opponents on opposite sides of the street — a basic crowd control tactic which decision-makers in Charlottesville opted not to employ two weekends ago in a far more tense environment.

By the end of the night on Tuesday, Phoenix police made three arrests at the protest site. But Mayor Greg Stanton (D) went out of his way to note that those arrested did not appear to be affiliated with any of the organizations that had brought peaceful counter-protesters to the site in large numbers.

“We have no reason to believe that anyone who engaged in assault of a police officer were part of any organization that were encouraging people to come down here,” Stanton said.