Cops and Counterinsurgency: Phoenix Police State 2014
For Phoenix area anarchists, 2014 has been a year of confrontation with the Phoenix Police Dept and an escalation of their counterinsurgency tactics against demonstrators. In April, anarchists demonstrated at the International Police Conference to draw attention to the 19 people who had already been killed by Phoenix cops in 2014. In response to that action, the police chief, Daniel V. Garcia, gave a press conference announcing an independent review of police killings for the last five years and an updated count of “officer-involved shootings.” Since that press conference, the number of people killed this year by Phoenix area officers has risen to 52. Compare that to the Department of Justice’s finding that the Albuquerque police force “engaged in a pattern or practice of excessive force” after 27 people were killed by Albuquerque police between 2009 and early 2014. The August 9th murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Mo. heightened tensions over police brutality nationwide, particularly against historically marginalized minorities. Five days after Mike Brown’s death, a 50 year old woman was shot and killed by a Phoenix police officer who had been called to assist her mother in transporting her to a mental health facility. Phoenix PD claimed that Michelle Cusseaux answered the door armed with a “claw hammer” and that the officer was in fear for his life. The backlash from that incident was so intense that Michelle’s family carried her casket through the street from Phoenix City Hall to the US Attorney’s office. On August 28th, Phoenix anarchists began a series of anti-police actions in solidarity with Ferguson protesters and the family of Michelle Cusseaux.
At the first anti-police action, the Phoenix PD followed the action closely and set up street blockades several times, but refrained from engaging the demonstrators or ordering disbursal. Many activists expressed the belief that this behavior was an avoidance of the backlash that the Ferguson PD had received by cracking down hard on protesters. To test that theory, several demonstrators walked between police SUVs in the street barricades and even did circles around cops on motorcycles. When the police continued not to engage, the other protesters became emboldened and also taunted the police by walking straight through the police lines, yelling in their faces and holding megaphones to their ears. There was even an impromptu dance party in the middle of one of the busiest streets downtown, in front of several nightclubs.
The second anti-police action was planned during the busy First Friday art walk in downtown Phoenix, but prior to the action, some of the local organizers began to suspect they were being surveilled. One local activists noticed that a dark SUV with tinted windows had begun to follow him as he drove around town. To test his theory, he pulled off the freeway on a random exit and into a residential neighborhood. The SUV followed him all the way into a cul-de-sac, then turned around and left. The day of the second FTP action, a car with activists in it was pulled over by an unmarked SUV en route to downtown. Once they pulled over, several other unmarked vehicles pulled up and plainclothes detectives asked all of the occupants of the car to get out and sit on the side of the road. The driver was separated from the group and told that she had an old warrant that was being served, but that she should speak to the Phoenix PD Community Liaison team about it. She was offered a cell phone several times to speak to someone on the Liaison team, but she refused, stating that she did not need a detective, she was just heading to the art walk. The Community Liaison team is known locally to activists as the Red Squad, since their primary function is to infiltrate political activist groups, cozy up to organizers and ensure that protest actions remain controlled and regulated. While the driver of the car was refusing to speak to a Red Squad detective, plainclothes officers were harassing the other occupants of the car by dropping personal details about them without asking for their identification. One activist was asked where his guitar was, another was asked about the gun he owns. All involved activists refused to engage with the detectives until it became clear that they were going to arrest the driver of the car, at which point one of them took custody of her belongings and vehicle and the group continued to the action without her. She was held in the county jail overnight and was questioned several times by detectives about who the organizers of the FTP actions were and what her relationship was to them. They also made veiled threats about her status as a single parent and warned her that she could draw the attention of Child Protective Services if she continued to associate with anarchist organizers. She continued to refuse to talk to the police and was finally released the following morning with a court date to follow up on an 8 year old warrant that had somehow just “caught up” with her.
During that second action, the Phoenix police continued their hands off approach until the demonstrators turned onto 5th Street, the heart of the First Friday art walk. At this point, the police moved in closer and began driving an SUV slowly into the middle of the group of protesters. When demonstrators refused to move out of the way of the SUV, bike cops began shoving the people blocking road. Several protesters sat down in the street, and after a few tense moments, no disbursal order came and the cops were forced to back the SUV all the way down the street. Shortly after this incident, a group of agitators joined the crowd and began walking through the action, heckling protesters and making threats. They stayed with the action for the next hour in the streets and at several points their interactions came to blows with the demonstrators, but each time split up when the cops started to close in. After the action disbursed, one of the protest photographers followed the agitators for a bit and caught several shots of them walking as a group with the bike cops and another person who had been identified as a probable undercover early on in the action. Pictures of the agitators were shared widely over social networks (and memed) over the next few weeks.
In between Phoenix actions, there was a September Tucson FTP action organized on a busy Saturday night downtown. Media coverage of the Ferguson protests had declined considerably at this point, but several Phoenix anarchists travelled approx. 150 miles to participate. The action moved down the middle of 4th Avenue, an area known for bars and nightlife, but attracted several hecklers along the way. Halfway down the street, the action was met by Tucson police officers, most of whom were riding on segways. They gave disbursal orders several times, but protesters ignored them and stayed close together to prevent anyone being picked off or separated. As the demonstrators approached the underpass at the south end of 4th Ave that connects it to the larger downtown area, it became clear that the Tucson police were planning to kennel the protesters in the underpass. At the last minute before reaching the trap, the action turned abruptly and headed back up 4th Avenue. While the Tucson Police were regrouping, the action quickly disbursed and no arrests were made.
The most recent FTP action was October 25th, 2014, planned to coincide with Oct 22 actions around the country against police brutality, as well as a heavily attended “zombie walk” that would be going on in downtown Phoenix. Media coverage of actions in Ferguson had cooled considerably at this point and turnout was lower than at the previous actions, but no less militant. Phoenix police immediately began trying to steer the action onto the sidewalks with their bikes and SUVs and several disbursal orders were given and ignored. When the action reached the zombie walk event, however, the protesters encountered a police blockade. When they attempted to go around the blockade and cross the street anyway, a police motorcycle pulled right into the middle of the action, hitting several people. Phoenix police ran into the middle of the action and began grabbing demonstrators and throwing them to the ground. When protesters who had already crossed the street ran back to help, one of them threw their flag at an officer, a moment caught on tape and deemed “the javelin of justice” locally. One demonstrator who had been tackled by police managed to get out and sprint to freedom, but the police began firing pepper balls at the protesters and at least two people were pepper-sprayed directly in the face. The pepper balls were the size of shooter marbles and they exploded when they hit, leaving huge open welts filled with powdered pepper spray. Their less-than-lethal status is questionable since Boston PD killed 21 yr old Victoria Snelgrove by shooting her with pepper balls 10 years ago, during the celebratory riots following the World Series.
Three protesters were arrested during the first altercation with police during the Oct 25th FTP and all others disbursed. Although all demonstrators de-bloc’d out of the sight of the cops, several affinity groups found themselves being followed by bike cops and Red Squad detectives. One group of people was walking down the street about 45 minutes after the action when a motorcycle cop suddenly pulled up on the sidewalk in front of them and began shouting at them to stop. They were immediately surrounded by SUVs and bike cops and the Phoenix PD went through the group checking IDs. They called out the names of local activists trying to find specific people in the group, and selectively arrested three of the people from the group. During the course of the arrest, Phoenix PD made several islamophobic jokes about one of the arrested activists, repeatedly calling her “burqa” and insisting she remove her hijab. All arrested activists were held overnight in the county jail and now face charges of blocking a public thoroughfare and disobeying the order of an officer, even though the last three arrested were picked up long after the action and a distance from the original arrests. A few days later, another local organizer was picked up at an anti-capitalist teach-in event being held in a public space. Phoenix PD suddenly swarmed the area in riot gear and grabbed the activist, claiming that he had an old warrant from another city that they had just “found.” On the news, the police spokesperson stated that the activist arrested was “known” to Phoenix PD and had made comments on Facebook about open carrying to the event, hence the group was “known to be armed.” Open and concealed carry of any gun in a public place is both allowed and commonplace in Arizona. The next day, a group of anti-immigrant extremists and border militia held a vigil on the State Capitol lawn for people allegedly murdered by undocumented immigrants, and Phoenix PD were on hand to protect their right to carry assault rifles at the Capitol building. No police spokespeople cautioned the news about them being an armed group.
The activist arrested at the teach-in event was set to be held for a week until his court date, but local activists raised bail funds and got him out within 48 hours. The next few weeks were spent meeting with anarchists around the Valley and discussing tactics. Some gained insights were that the level of anonymity during black bloc has improved considerably over the course of the year, which was partly because it has been several years since any sizable black bloc protest has taken place in Phoenix. Disbursal tactics and jail support were also discussed and improved upon throughout the year. The issue of the counterinsurgency efforts of the Phoenix police will be an ongoing focus for strategy. Phoenix PD collaboration with DHS and the FBI to deter resistance efforts has been heavily researched and reported on in the Dissent or Terror report released in 2012. The videos of the Oct 25 FTP revealed an obvious undercover who dropped his mask and began grabbing protesters during the arrests, then replaced his mask and attempted to follow the disbursing demonstrators. National Lawyers Guild filed FOIA requests in October about the specific activists who are being surveilled and the incident when the organizers were pulled over on their way to an action. Security culture trainings are being planned by Phoenix ABC and Tucson ABC, and several groups are reviewing their internet presence. In spite of the repression tactics, camaraderie and communication have improved considerably over this year and the number of active anarchist groups in the Valley has grown considerably. The focus of all anarchist groups for the next few weeks is on the anticipated grand jury decision in Ferguson. A call out has been made for a black bloc to meet at Tempe Beach Park at 8pm on the day of the announcement, outside of the jurisdiction of the Phoenix police. The response to the state’s persistent failure to even go through the motions of accountability towards police violence deserves to be the most militant and united effort of Phoenix anarchists this year.