The biggest difference between President Donald Trump’s August 22 rally at the Phoenix Convention Center and the campaign rally he held there in the summer of 2015 was the number of anti-Trump protestors outside of the building.
I am proud to say that I participated in both protests, but was disappointed by the small size of the one at Trump’s 2015 rally. Looking back, I attribute it to a mistaken presumption that Trump had no realistic chance to win the 2016 presidential election. Also, the outdoor temperature that day was 106°F. The outdoor temperature at the recent rally was the same, but this time it didn’t stop thousands of people from showing up to voice their displeasure.
But even though we were there to protest, our overall spirit was joyful because of the camaraderie we felt from being with so many other Americans who also believed that Donald Trump’s presidency has been an unprecedented disaster for our country. There was almost a fun, carnival atmosphere, with lots of clever signs, inspiring music, and potent chants, like “Walk of Shame” directed at the people filing into the convention center to hear Trump speak. I especially enjoyed the guy who wandered through the crowd with a small amplifier slung over his shoulder broadcasting a recording of Trump saying, “Grab them by the pussy,” in an infinite loop. The giant inflatable figures of Trump and Joe Arpaio, wearing a KKK outfit and prison garb respectively, were pretty good too – and had obviously taken a lot of work to make.
The diversity among the anti-Trump protestors was a stark contrast to his supporters on the other side of the police line across the street. They were almost entirely white people – more than 99%. But the Trump protestors seemed to encompass almost every demographic in the U.S. The were, of course, many Latinos because of Trump’s support for Arpaio. I found the Native American protestors especially effective because they reminded everyone they have been subjected to oppression longer than any other group in America.
The news media made a lot out of the fact that a handful of troublemakers provoked the Phoenix police into unleashing tear gas and flash bang grenades on all of the remaining protestors near the end of the event. Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams defended her officers actions, but many of the people who were still protesting peacefully said the police overreacted and gave them no warnings.
I didn’t see what happened. I was in a nearby restaurant having an ice-cold beer by then because I couldn’t take the heat any longer – having been outside for more than an hour and a half. (It is difficult to describe how quickly the Sonoran Desert’s summer heat can debilitate you.) But I can say that 100% of the protestors I encountered were peaceful, and that’s the most important thing to remember about the protest.
Among the tiny minority in the crowd that weren’t joyful were four young white people, one with a very long hillbilly beard, that trailed each other through the crowd dressed in faux combat clothes, wearing armored vests and carrying AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifles across their chests. I wondered why they were carrying what I presumed to be loaded weapons, and I overheard other people wondering the same thing. The four of them had completely neutral expressions on their faces and didn’t look directly at anybody as they passed through. Who did they think they might have to shoot?
There was also a very small group of people dressed from head to foot in black, wearing helmets, dark sunglasses, and bandanas to hide their faces. They were standing still, at attention, in an ominously tight formation, and the rest of us looked upon them with suspicion and gave them space. I presumed they were an Antifa group. But if they were, I think it was odd that their black and red flag looked like the flag used by Ukrainian fascists.
Almost all of the Trump supporters across the street were in a line to enter the convention center. Some of them yelled back at us and gave us the finger as they slowly passed by on their way into the building, but most of them just watched us, seemingly surprised at the size and enthusiasm of our protest.
But there was also a very small group of pro-Trump demonstrators gathered on the corner. They had some hateful signs and one fellow had a very loud electrically amplified megaphone. He used it to almost unceasingly shout insults at anti-Trump protestors. Some of the things he said were so awfully racist that people, including myself, gasped and asked the person next to them if he’d really just said what it sounded like he’d said. I noticed that one of the black policemen keeping the different protestors separated dropped his head and shook it in response to one of the guy’s most racist rants. I wondered what, exactly, that policeman was thinking.
I think that the police behaved well and performed their duties objectively – at least during the time I was at the protest. I had several polite and friendly discussions with officers on the edges of the crowd, where they seemed to like to stay. I’m sure, however, that there will be some investigations into their conduct at the end of the event. I hope there will be an independent one that answers all of the questions about what happened.
In the meantime, my only criticism of the police is that I think they should have tried to do more than simply keep the two sides apart. I know they had a difficult job, but why, for example, did they seem to be ignoring the people dressed like wannabe militia walking through the crowd with AR-15s? Why didn’t they seem concerned about the Antifa squad that appeared poised for mayhem? And why didn’t one of them go over and talk to the guy who was literally trying to incite a race riot by screaming horrible things through his megaphone?
I realize there were First Amendment and Second Amendment issues involved, but I can’t help but wonder if the protest would have stayed peaceful if the police had been a bit more proactive. I’m not saying they should have made any preemptive arrests or told anybody to shut up. But it seems to me they could have at least tried to initiate some communication with all of the protestors to try and reduce the tension.
In November 2017 the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Arizona sued the Phoenix Police Department in order to collect public records regarding its use of force on protesters during President Trump’s August rally.
On November 30, 2017, the Phoenix police released several videos of the police taking action against protestors at the end of rally.
On January 29, 2018, the Phoenix Police Department released a report wherein they admitted they failed to provide adequate warning to peaceful protesters before they abruptly released “pepper balls,” which released a gaseous irritant, deployed pepper spray, tear gas, and fired foam batons into the crowd.