Peaceful Phoenix rally turns tense when march pushes to freeway and police use pepper spray

PHOENIX – A peaceful protest that moved through downtown Phoenix Friday night turned tense when protesters wanted to move onto Interstate 10 at Seventh Street and police formed a barricade, releasing pepper spray to try to get the crowd to disperse.

A few hundred gathered at Phoenix City Hall at 8 p.m. to protest police brutality. The crowd marched a route through downtown, remaining peaceful while chanting for justice and holding signs for Black Lives Matter.

Five officers in Dallas were killed and another seven wounded in the attack, along with two civilians.

But about an hour and a half into the rally, organizers decided to move the protest to the freeway – a tactic taken in cities such as Oakland and Atlanta. Police talked to the crowd to discourage them from entering the freeway and then set up a barricade at 7th Street and Fillmore. When the crowd moved forward, police released pepper spray and the two groups had a standoff.

At about 10:30 p.m. the group broke up, but there were random tense moments as some protesters lingered and clashed with police.

The later part of the rally was in contrast to the beginning, when there were several calls to keep the march nonviolent from those in the crowd.

A multi-racial crowd of a few hundred gathered outside of Phoenix City Hall. Police stayed on the margins of the rally, with some officers moving through the crowd on bicycles.

The protesters held signs reading “Black Lives Matter” and shouted “no justice, no peace,” among other chants. But the crowd remained composed.

Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton and Police Chief Joseph Yahner urged organizers to postpone the rally, worried that tensions were too high after a Dallas rally turned into an ambush of police that left five officers dead. Jarrett Maupin, organizer of the Phoenix protest, refused to postpone the march, saying the timing was right for the rally, which he said would be peaceful in nature.

And the march was mostly peaceful as the crowd marched a route through downtown. There were a few tense moments when counter-protesters confronted the crowd, but nothing escalated.

About an hour and a half into the march, the crowd was getting ready to move onto the I-10 freeway at 7th Street. Crowds in other cities have pushed onto freeways and it seemed the Phoenix crowd was ready to do that.

Phoenix police worked hard to keep the crowd from approaching the freeway – moving to close the freeway onramps and threatening to arrest anyone who tried to move through a police road block toward the freeway.

The crowd was resolute and a little after 10 p.m., police deployed pepper spray to stop the crowd from moving onto the freeway and set a police line at 7th Street and Fillmore

The rally was planned days ago as a response to the deaths of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively. Both were African-American men shot dead by police.

Fears for the safety of those attending in Phoenix did not escalate until Thursday night, when a peaceful protest against police brutality in downtown Dallas turned violent when an assailant targeted several police officers with sniper fire.

Five officers were killed and seven others were wounded in the shootings. Two other bystanders were injured in the attack.

According to Dallas police, the man who is believed to be the shooter said he was angry over Black Lives Matter and had intentionally targeted white police officers in his assault.

He was killed in a confrontation hours later when police deployed a robot to set off a bomb. Officials are investigating if any others were involved in the shooting.

The attack caused fears of violence at the Phoenix protest, resulting in calls for the postponement of the previously scheduled rally by Mayor Stanton, Councilman Sal DiCiccio and others.

Maupin said he had rejected an offer by police officials for a meeting with he and other supporters at a local restaurant, calling it a poor replacement for the rally.

“No one has any intentions of violence,” Maupin said. “This is more about unity than fear.”

Earlier Friday, Arizona officials expressed support for those in Dallas.

“May we always remember sacrifices law enforcement, 1st responders make to keep us safe,” Republican Sen. John McCain tweeted.

The Arizona Department of Public Safety, in a statement, said it is “closely monitoring” the events in Dallas but has determined so far its procedures should remain the same.

“When any event affects the community and law enforcement such as this, we look closely to determine if a change in patrols or procedures are needed to ensure the safety of our troopers and the public,” the statement says. “ At this time, we have not deemed it necessary to change or modify our processes or procedures. As information and facts are gleaned from this crime, we will evaluate it and ensure our policies and procedures protect our troopers and the public as much as possible.
“We want to express our deep care, love and concern for the families of those officers killed and injured in Dallas. We extend our support to the Dallas Police Department and the Dallas community,” the DPS statement says.

Tempe police game officers the option to patrol in pairs, according to a story on azcentral.com.

This story was updated at 11:17 p.m.