Tempe police tackle protesters and arrest a man during a protest on June 27, 2020, then deploy a chemical agent to scatter remaining protesters.
Two days after protesters gathered to draw messages against racial injustice on Tempe sidewalks and streets, many were still questioning the series of events that ended with three people in police custody.
The dispute, protesters and Tempe police said, hinged on a silver pickup truck turning into a crosswalk where some protesters were drawing with chalk. A woman stood in its path and hit the car’s hood with her hand.
To protesters on the ground, she was defending people in harm’s way, but to police, she and another man involved had engaged in disorderly conduct.
The family-friendly evening was shaken on two separate occasions when police wrestled protesters to the ground to make their arrests. Officers forced some people away by spraying a chemical agent in their faces, according to video from a protester who watched it unfold.
Tempe police would not confirm Monday that officers used pepper spray, although spray cans are visible in videos of the arrest.
“I’m still looking into the deployment of any chemical agents,” said Detective Natalie Barela, a spokeswoman for the department.
Later on Saturday, police stopped a car of protesters on their way home and questioned a passenger about using spray paint at the shopping mall — an intimidating and false accusation, the driver said.
The show of force may have been shocking in the moment, but protester Lisa Vu, 20, said it came as no surprise.
“This has happened to us before, and we just kind of expect it from the police,” said Vu, who can be seen getting sprayed by an officer on video she took of the arrest.
“It’s kind of desensitizing,” said Ryan Tice, 22, who was also at the chalk-drawing event on Saturday. In Vu’s video, a police officer sprays Tice while he’s demanding that officers state their reason for making arrests.
“They want to censor our message,” Tice said of police. “They’re afraid of the change.”
Stand-off in crosswalk leads to arrests
Tempe police arrested Caitlin Clifford and Christopher Alex Johnson on suspicion of disorderly conduct and obstructing a public thoroughfare, according to a statement from the Tempe Police Department on Monday. Johnson was also arrested on suspicion of criminal damage.
Police arrested a third person, Derrick Geoffrey, after they said he intervened in Clifford’s arrest. The three were booked into Tempe City Jail.
Most people driving by the protest that evening had been waving, giving a thumbs up or honking in support, said former Arizona state Rep. Steve May, who attended the chalk-drawing event. Unlike other passersby, the silver pickup appeared threatening to him.
Tempe police released drone footage of the pickup truck turning left onto McClintock Drive when exiting the shopping mall. By then, a few protesters were drawing chalk messages in the crosswalk of the street. The truck tried to pass through.
In the police video, a woman runs in front of the pickup and holds out a hand, stopping the car from approaching the people behind her. She throws an object at the windshield, then bangs her hand on the hood when the vehicle tries to advance again.
Barela, of the Tempe Police Department, said the pickup truck had a cracked windshield and “visible damage to the hood of the car.”
Both May and Ashley Cuber, a street medic who has attended protests throughout the Phoenix area, watched the scene from the sidewalk. Protesters were only drawing in the crosswalk when they had the walk signal, Cuber said, and they left the street before the green light ended to let cars pass.
“It was going great,” she said.
But when the pickup truck loudly revved its engine, Cuber said the driver “just went for it,” despite people still kneeling in the street.
May saw the driver as an imminent threat.
“That is the guy who I think endangered the public. He didn’t yield. He could have run somebody over,” May said.
He wondered why police didn’t block traffic as they had for marches and protests in Phoenix.
In the police video, someone throws an object at the pickup truck as it finally drives away. It was a piece of chalk, Cuber said. She saw it hit the tailgate and shatter into dusty pieces and doubted anyone had damaged the car. The whole episode lasted 45 seconds, and she hardly imagined it would lead to pepper spray or handcuffs.
May gestured to the children and chalk drawings on the sidewalk in a Facebook Live video he posted from the protest Saturday night. He passed a table handing out water bottles, snacks and hand sanitizer as he walked along Rio Salado Parkway. People were drawing pastel-colored messages in almost every square of the nearby sidewalk.
“Tempe police aggressively came after us,” May said in his video after the arrests. “They create chaos, not peace.”
Police spray protesters to force them to leave
Officers arrested Clifford and Geoffrey around 7 p.m, then returned again about an hour later to arrest Johnson, according to videos from Vu.
Protesters were outraged and confused on both occasions. A crowd of people engulfed Tempe police officers when they first arrived, demanding the reason for arresting Clifford, according to multiple video clips. The woman can be seen lying on her side in the street as police put her in handcuffs.
The protest was nearly over by the time police returned with face shields and helmets to arrest Johnson. In Vu’s video, officers hold out blue cans of what appeared to be pepper spray as protesters again demanded the reason for the arrests. One officer responded, “None of your business.”
When a female protester who was sitting with her hands raised stood to move, an officer pushed her down, according to the video.
Tice, who stayed to witness the arrest, was sprayed once in the face and again as he was walking away. He said he didn’t expect such force at a family-friendly evening.
“I don’t know how much more positive (a protest) can be than just drawing on the sidewalk,” he said.
But Tice has been to many protests this year. He’d worn goggles in case things escalated, although they didn’t protect him from the sting of the pepper spray. That night, he and Vu spread baking soda over their face and body but were still in pain Sunday morning.
“Our face, our body were all red. … Everything was still burning,” Vu said.
Police allege criminal damage, follow protesters in their car
For some protesters, the police response continued even after the chalk-drawing event had ended. A car of protesters leaving Tempe Marketplace was pulled over at about 8:30 p.m. Saturday.
Renaissance, a leader with Black Lives Matter Phoenix Metro which organized the event, live-streamed the traffic stop on the group’s Facebook page. He said in an interview Monday that he turned on the camera thinking of all the other Black men and women, including Philando Castile, who have been shot by police during traffic stops.
In the livestream, a Tempe police officer said he stopped Renaissance for making a wide turn and driving with broken tail lights. Within 10 minutes of the traffic stop, the officer also tried to question a backseat passenger about his involvement at the protest.
“I need to speak with him,” the officer said, asking him to roll down the back window. He told Renaissance he personally witnessed the passenger spray-paint four objects at the protest.
“They stopped me under a false pretense. They lied. They didn’t identify all the reasons that they pulled us over,” Renaissance told The Arizona Republic. He believes police followed him as he left the demonstration, shortly after they sprayed protesters and made their final arrest.
Police left after ticketing Renaissance for the improper turn. Barela, reached Monday, said she was not aware of the traffic stop and could not comment.
Renaissance said he came to the protest to take pictures and film the event. He saw dozens of young people “drawing statements of anger and hurt and pain onto the sidewalk, and writing messages of the world they would like to see come about,” he said. “Like — what is justice? What is hopeful, where does equity stand?”
He wholeheartedly denied the officer’s allegations against the fellow protesters in his car, he said. Vu, Tice, May and Cuber also said no one at the protest used spray paint on city property. Any materials other than chalk were strongly discouraged at the event, they said.
“I did not see it, I did not smell it. It is unimaginable to me that anyone would have spray paint. That would defeat the whole purpose of what we were doing,” May said.
“The message of our protest is to do things within the confines of the law,” Tice said. “If someone were doing anything with anything but chalk … we would disavow it immediately and say, ‘You need to leave.'”
For May, who has lived in Tempe 13 years, the use of force at Saturday’s protest was a sign of the police department’s systemic aggression. He added that he’d like to see Tempe police describe how they could have handled the crosswalk incident without using violence on residents of their city.
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