On Tuesday, August 22, Donald Trump made a hastily scheduled visit to Phoenix, Arizona. The event at the Phoenix Convention Center was another in a long list of post-election "campaign rally" style events that the President has come to be known for. Fresh on the heels of the violent white supremacist protests in Charlottesville, Virginia that left dozens wounded and one person dead, Trump came to town to apparently double down on his remarks supporting white supremacists, and hinted that he might also pardon former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's recent conviction on Criminal Contempt of Court. Predictably, thousands of protesters converged on the event to show energized opposition to the President, Joe Arpaio, and to both organized and systemic white supremacy.
A host of local organization had called for protests, rallies, and other events in response to Trump, and many of them collaborated ahead of time to ensure their efforts would support each other. One of the local groups that mobilized was the Phoenix John Brown Gun Club, a branch of the Redneck Revolt network, a nationwide formation dedicated to community defense against reactionary violence and counter-recruitment to oppose white supremacy. Approximately two dozen members of the Phoenix John Brown Gun Club mobilized for the protests outside the Trump rally. We formed five operational fireteams on the ground, composed of four armed teams and one unarmed street medic and escort team.
Most of the protest marches and actions originated at Civic Space Park. Many local group had planned rallies, marches, and other group convergences to start from this location and then head toward the Convention Center. One of our fireteams remained at the park for the duration of the protest to guard the sanctuary area that had been established, with street medics, food, water, and Gatorade. We had many positive conversations with other protesters about who we are, and our intentions with armed community defense. A few curious onlookers asked for information about joining the organization. We helped provide security at the park for the duration of the night.
Throughout the protest, all of our fireteams worked closely to support Phoenix Urban Health Collective, as well as other street medic teams from around the state. One of our primary objectives was clearing space when medics were operating, escorting medics through chaotic street fights to get to folks who needed medical attention, and assisting in treatment on the ground if needed. Another objective was keeping an armed presence at the main sanctuary space at Civic Space Park to provide a known shelter in the case of reactionary violence or attacks. As with every armed action, an underlying goal was to provide a strong deterrent and counter to the armed members of reactionary formations present on the ground, which included white supremacists and Nazi street formations.
From the early part of the afternoon and into the evening, the mobile armed fireteams worked to identify threats in the crowd, monitor them, report information to local organizers, and ensure that there weren't threats to other protesters. Several members of local militias were observed attempting to blend into the crowd, carrying concealed firearms and working in obvious teams. Our armed fireteams identified two such groups in Civic Space Park even before the planned marches left for the Convention Center. Along the march route to the Convention Center, our fireteams also came across various unidentified armed militia members and worked to monitor their presence and ensure they were not behaving in a threatening manner towards protesters. There were also unidentified, fully masked armed contingents reported to us by the members of the crowd, but we never spotted them ourselves or were able to establish whether they were overt fascists or militia members. Our armed fireteams were staggered to arrive throughout the afternoon as the crowd grew, and by the time Trump's speech began, we had one unarmed and three armed fireteams stationed in the protest zone around the Convention Center, in addition to our armed team at Civic Space Park.
The barricaded protest zone around the Convention Center was very large, comprising several city blocks. Thousands of people had converged as the various opposition marches, protests, and rallies met in the area in front of the Convention Center. Many of the protesters' signs and banners invoked the recent clash with white nationalists and Nazis in Charlottesville, VA. Within the mostly liberal crowd, there were large contingents of radical organizers from the American Indian Movement, Anti-Fascist Action Phoenix, medic teams from Flagstaff and New Mexico, and an anti-colonial, anti-fascist bloc. For the next several hours, our teams worked to help people suffering from the heat get to street medics and sanctuary tents. We also worked to create a security presence to deal with the wide variety of reactionary threats mingling amongst the crowd. These included armed and unarmed reactionary individuals and small groups, as well as reactionary counter-protesters with incendiary and racist banners and signs, looking to provoke the crowd. It was a tense situation, with small flareups occurring between those opposing Trump and those supporting him.
Late in the protest, we received a call for support from some allied medic teams to move to the Southern end of the Convention Center due to rising tensions and fighting. This was the area most heavily filled with Trump supporters and various reactionary groups. Our team that responded to this call came into contact with another armed militia unit from the Southern Arizona Militia, a three person team, which began to hover very close by. Not knowing their intentions, back-up was requested and two more armed fireteams were deployed to the area. Shortly after the speech ended, the Trump supporters began filing out of the Convention Center. As the situation began to get more intense on the North end of the Convention Center and scuffles broke out, the SAM militia members left the scene. Police started to fill in behind our teams in the South, and dispersal orders were given. All of the back-up fireteams then left to head back to the Northern zone, which was starting to feel like a powder keg as Trump supporters filed out of the Convention Center into the crowd.
Trump's speech ended at approximately 8:30pm, but by 8:40pm Phoenix police escalated tensions dramatically by attacking the crowds of people assembled to protest against Trump on the North side of the Convention Center. The official story from Phoenix PD is that one of the protesters threw a water bottle at the skirmish line, and that somehow justified the deployment of multiple waves of tear gas, pepper spray, and flash-bang grenades that followed for over an hour. Having witnessed how heavily armed and armored the Phoenix PD were, and how much space was between the protester barricades and the police, we do not feel like there was ever any credible threat to the police officers, nor was there any justification for the heavy-handed dispersal tactics used. Many of the people we assisted or treated who had been pepper sprayed or injured by Phoenix PD reported they did not have any warning that the police were about to open fire, nor did they hear any dispersal warnings.
It is also significant that although dozens of small scuffles were breaking out between Trump supporters and protesters on the South side of the Convention Center, police rarely appeared to intervene, and definitely did not deploy chemical or other weapons against the crowd in that location, which was heavily pro-Trump. There was even an incident of a Trump supporter using a cane to beat on several minors that went unchecked. Instead, the police focused their use of tear gas, flash-bang grenades, and a host of other chemical irritants to disperse the anti-Trump crowd to the North.
Several of our fireteams mixed into the crowd to the North when the police attacked. Knowing that one of the main risks at this point came from people trampling each other to escape the tear gas, our members started directing people who were trying to leave the area as the Phoenix PD attack started. We were able to help escort many people to safety, while other protesters remained to hold the line, or observe police behavior. One team went back to Civic Space Park to assist the sanctuary team, but redeployed to recover and escort a team of stranded medics and civilians. Other branch members found themselves assisting medic teams to evacuate wounded protestors, including having to carry members out of the crowd to safety.
One branch member described the chaos:
"I was separated from the medics at this time, so I focused on carrying people out. I carried one man who was panicking, and helped an asthmatic woman. I was screaming for medics and an inhaler, and finally they found us and administered an inhaler. We moved down the street away from the police while they kept firing canisters. Medics administered care and I did crowd control where necessary... This repeated until the crowd died down and we congregated at Civic Space."
Our unarmed medic team deployed to the North end to assist in treating the injured, administering eye flushes and other first aid in the midst of the tear gas and pepper spray attacks. Police continued the attack, firing "less than lethal" munitions and deploying more flash bangs. Our medic team helped escort the injured and others back to Civic Space park for treatment and decontamination.
A member of our unarmed team further described the situation:
"We made it through the crowd and around the corner directly next to the clouds and were checking in with individuals making sure if folks were in need of assistance. Another canister of gas went off and left us in the middle of the gas. Our eyes and throats began to burn, though we had done our best to cover ourselves. While walking through the gas, flash bangs began going off around us, and the unmistakable sound of pepper ball guns being fired. The crowd around us was screaming and running up the street the opposite direction of where the riot cops were marching towards us. We made our way to the top of the block, escorting a few individuals who were having trouble seeing through the gas. Threats of pepper spray were being announced over a speaker from the helicopter flying above us. In response we made a bottle of LAW mixture (Liquid Antacid Wash), to help assist those hit. We intercepted a number of people coming up the street and helped treat them before directing them to the safe zone at Civic Space Park. When the crowd stopped coming we began to make our way there as well. We reconvened at the park and folks formed a group to go back in for further crowd extraction from the dangerous areas."
As the scuffles in the streets continued, our fireteams worked to escort medics and wounded protesters, and to keep dispersal points open to prevent police or reactionary kettling. As the night continued and the situation in the streets deescalated, our teams worked their way back to Civic Space to decompress, hydrate, and rest. After 9 hours in the streets, our teams safely left with everyone accounted for and no one arrested, although many members had a mixture of chemical weapons symptoms and related minor injuries.
Overall, our contributions to the night were just one small part of a much larger community event involving thousands of people from all walks of life, and representing a wide diversity of tactics. We hold so much love and solidarity for all those in the streets, especially all of the people we met including old friends and new. Our sincerest love and appreciation goes out to Phoenix Urban Health Collective, and the community of other organizations and people who held the streets and stood in opposition to white supremacy, and the political and social system designed to destroy our lives.