Mass movement confronts police violence and structural racism

Story and photos by Jeff Kronenfeld

Widescale outrage over the killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black father of two, by a Minneapolis Police Department officer on May 25 spurred people of diverse backgrounds to take to the streets of Phoenix and communities across the nation demanding for an end to police violence against black people. The same day of Floyd’s killing, Dion Johnson — a 28-year-old black man — was shot and killed by an Arizona Department of Public Safety trooper on the Loop 101 near Tatum Boulevard, adding to the swell of public outrage. Mass protests have continued to take place daily in response to these and other acts of police violence against communities of color.

On June 3, Black Lives Matter Phoenix Metro, Poder in Action, and thousands of people gathered in front the Phoenix City Hall to pressure the City Council to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to standing with people of color. The groups called for the Phoenix Police Department to be defunded by 25 percent and to stop collaborating with ICE. They also demanded the City Council fully fund the recently created Office of Accountability and Transparency and to raise $3 million dollars for a fund helping undocumented immigrants, according to a tweet from Poder in Action.   

A scene from the June 3 rally to defund the Phoenix Police Department organized by Black Lives Matter Phoenix Metro and Poder in Action.

“The Phoenix City Council is going to pass a budget that allocates more funds to policing and we don't think that they should be doing that right now,” said Miriam, an organizer with BLM Metro Phoenix. “We think they should be reallocating those funds to communities.”

The event’s organizers want funds in the city’s budget redirected from the PPD to programs like healthcare, mental health services, addiction services, affordable housing, education, youth programs, jobs programs and others according to Alejandra Pablos, who works with Poder In Action and the Puente Human Rights Network. Identifying herself as a Mexican woman, Pablos thought it was an important time to show solidarity with the black community.

“I think the reason, especially right now, people want to defund police is because, of course, we're seeing what's happening in the streets. Dion Johnson just died. Black people are dying [from COVID] at rates higher than anyone else,” Pablos explained. “There's all of these law enforcement agencies being funded yet our schools are not.”

Panche Be Ink silk screening posters at the rally.

As protestors shouted phrases like black lives matter outside in sweltering triple digits, leadership was mostly absent from the air-conditioned City Council Chamber. The meeting was presided over by a glitchy Mayor Kate Gallego, with only Councilmember Laura Pastor and Councilmember Carlos Garcia physically in attendance. Garcia showed similar courage when lobbying for his proposal to create the Office of Accountability and Transparency back in February. The office is intended to provide civilian oversight of the PPD. It includes a Community Review Board but currently is only allocated a fraction of the funds needed for the job. “What they've done is they've cut the funding,” explained Miriam. “It was a million dollars. Now, it's only four hundred thousand dollars."

Councilmembers Laura Pastor and Carlos Garcia.

While the roughly $3 million Garcia believes the Office needs may sound like a lot, it’s tasked with no small job. An analysis in the Arizona Republic found that in 2018 the PPD shot more people than any other city in the country, including L.A. and New York City. In that year, there were 44 shootings by PPD officers resulting in 22 deaths. A disproportionately high number of those shot by police were black or Hispanic.

This overrepresentation continues when it comes those who survive being arrested in the state.  According to the Prison Policy Institute, Arizona had the eight highest incarceration rate in 2018, at 877 per 100,000. This number includes more than just prisons and jails, but also counts those on probation, parole and other systems of confinement. Sadly, this population has grown recently due to the mass arrest of protestors last weekend. On Saturday, May 30, 121 protestors were arrested, with 215 more taken into custody the following day.

Thankfully, tensions have somewhat deescalated for the moment. The PPD hadn’t arrested any protestors for the past several days, according to the PPD Public Information Officer Tommy Thompson. Wednesday’s event was not only peaceful but also efficiently organized. Coolers filled with ice and bottles of water available for free were all around, as were snacks and even slices of pizza. Volunteers offered to spray people with sunblock or a cool mist of water as needed. The Phoenix Urban Health Collective rushed to help protestors in distress, which occurred somewhat regularly given the day’s extreme heat.     

The Phoenix Urban Health Collective aids an overheated woman.

Relatives of people fatally shot by the PPD and organizers spoke between the rolling chants. The protestors listening bore signs of different colors, sizes, and shapes, but their message of solidarity with the black community remained consistent. Even before the formal start of Pride Month, many in the LGBTQ community were marching in support of the cause. Some supporters were associated with organizations like Trans Queer Pueblo and Equality Arizona. Others were highly motivated individuals like Chris Amarillas, who brought a large rainbow flag with the message, “Dykes 4 BLM,” drawn on it.

“I am just out here to try and represent the LGBTQ community,” said Amarillas. “I might get emotional talking about it, but queer folks, we owe our lives to black and brown trans women. I think it's about time we show up, because racism is very rampant in the LGBTQ community. We're sick of it. I just want to pay tribute to the legacy of people like Marsha P. Johnson.”

“Without them throwing the first bricks at Stonewall, we wouldn’t be nearly as progressed as we are today. As a younger person in this community, I'm just trying to carry that on."

A scene from the June 3 rally to defund the Phoenix Police Department organized by Black Lives Matter Phoenix Metro and Poder in Action.

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