Face-off: Protesters show up at ‘Pro-America’ rally in Phoenix park

PHOENIX – The scene at Cactus Park last Saturday was an intimate snapshot of politics in America in 2018: A red sea of Trump supporters in Make America Great Again hats and T-shirts listening to “pro-America” stump speeches, confronted by black-clad anti-fascists chanting slogans and voicing support for DACA recipients.

Police officers and several armed members of the Arizona National Guard stood by to make sure the Make America Great Again rally, which lasted four hours, remained peaceful.

About 250 people – in patriotic clothing with Old Glory predominant – attended the conservative rally, which featured authors promoting their political volumes and decorated tables offering information on right-wing causes. Meanwhile, two U.S. Senate candidates, former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Dr. Kelli Ward, mingled with the crowd before delivering prepared remarks touching on lower unemployment, the fight to end Obamacare and the promise of a border wall.

Ward, a Republican running for Jeff Flake’s U.S. Senate seat is a former physician and Arizona state senator. Part of her speech at the rally focused on the importance of supporting a “pro-America” agenda. Ward has been a strong supporter of President Donald Trump, who has praised her strong position on border regulation.

“Great to see that Dr. Kelli Ward is running against Flake Jeff Flake, who is WEAK on borders, crime and a non-factor in Senate. He’s toxic!”

“This is a group that supports the United States of America, the America-first agenda that Donald Trump talked about on the campaign trail and has been delivering on in Washington, D.C.,” Ward said. “Getting rid of Obamacare was step one – we still have a little work to do on that – growing the economy, bringing jobs back to the United States, putting money into American citizens pockets, making sure our military is built back up to the strength that it needs so that we can achieve peace through strength in the world because when America is strong, the world is a better place.”

A woman attending the Make America Great Again rally makes clear her support for President Trump at Cactus Park. (Photo by Alexis Berdine/Cronkite News)

Despite her support for tougher border policies, Ward said recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program should have some flexibility when it comes to their immigration status.

“We can’t entice people with amnesty and that’s what the DACA deal actually is,” she said. “I think the DACA population should be extended some temporary privileges to work and to go to school.”

Things got tense when about 15 protesters showed up at the rally. Some of them identified themselves as members of the antifa movement, which opposes fascism through direct action. The movement consists of a number of autonomous anti-fascist and anti-racist organizations, and although the majority are non-violent, some antifa groups have been known to cause harm.

At the Cactus Park rally, the protesters were dressed in mostly black and red. Some hid their faces behind dark sunglasses and wrapped bandanas over their mouths and chins. Their overall message was opposition to Trump policies and those who support him.

“They all say, ‘Show your faces,’ but every time we do, the police come and attack us for free speech that we’re supposed to have,” said Asana Garvey, one of the protestors. “For coming out here and doing what our government says that we can do, they always want to target us, so that’s why we have to cover our face.”

Families gathered in support of “pro-America” policies at the Make America Great Again rally at Cactus Park. (Photo by Alexis Berdine/Cronkite News)

The protesters said they were there to denounce hate speech and defend DACA recipients.

“We want to make it known that we’re not going to let people walk through the streets being racist, being hateful,” Garvey said. “We can’t sit here and let that happen ’cause free speech doesn’t mean hate speech.”

About a dozen Phoenix police officers and armed members of the Arizona National Guard were on hand, making sure both groups remained separated. Other than to warn both sides to keep back from the police tape, they did not intervene.

Garvey stood alongside other protestors who chanted, “You’re on stolen land!” and “No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA!”

Two of this most discussed issues by members of both sides were immigration and the border wall.

“That border is an imaginary line. They (undocumented immigrants) are more indigenous to this country than any of these European settlers,” Garvey said, referring to conservatives at the rally.

On the flip side, Trump supporter Hope Coleman, who’s African-American, said people like herself within the pro-America group are minorities with “common sense.”

Coleman shared a story about how she helped a friend immigrate legally to the U.S. and studied with her for her citizenship test.

“She had to leave her child behind,” Coleman said. “She had to work hard to bring her child here.”

Coleman expressed sympathy with DACA recipients because they were brought here as children but doesn’t think it’s fair to U.S. citizens to let them stay.

“When they became old enough to understand that (they) weren’t here the right way, (they) should’ve went to that office and filled out that paperwork and got in line and waited for the process like everybody else,” Coleman said.

The majority of DACA recipients are from Mexico, and many others came from such countries as El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. To receive their DACA status, they had to arrive in the U.S. before they were 16, live in the U.S. since June 15, 2007, and have no criminal record.

The Obama-era program allows recipients to legally work, attend college and obtain driver’s licenses. It requires them to pay income taxes, but it does not offer a pathway to become a legal permanent resident or U.S. citizen. About 28,000 of the estimated 800,000 DACA recipients live in Arizona.

A parent’s fight

The rally went from cheers for Trump and poetry about the American flag to somber silence when a group of parents walked to the podium to describe how their children had been killed by undocumented immigrants. There were tears and then a moment of silence to remember 18 U.S. citizens who, the group said, died from crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. A sign above their photographs read “Their dreams were stolen by illegal aliens.”

One of those killed was Mesa police Sgt. Brandon Mendoza. He was on his way home from work in 2014 when a wrong-way driver who did not have legal status crashed into his vehicle. According to reports, the driver was high on crystal methamphetamine and had a blood-alcohol level three times above the level of presumed intoxication.

Grant Ronnebeck, a graduate of Mesa High School, was working at a convenience store in 2015 when he he was shot by a native of Mexico who was in the U.S. illegally. Reports said Ronnebeck was killed over a pack of cigarettes.

In 2011, Daniel Pollack, 31, died from injuries received when his vehicle was hit by a truck driven by an undocumented immigrant. He was the son of a well-known Valley real estate developer, Michael Pollack.

Tucson police Officer Nick Erfle stopped a man for jaywalking in 2007. According to reports, Erfle determined that Erik Jovani Martinez had a warrant for his arrest. As he tried to detain Martinez, Erfle was shot to death. Martinez had been in the country illegally and had previously been arrested and convicted on sex charges before killing Erfle.

A sign at the Make America Great Again rally lists 18 people who reportedly were killed by undocumented immigrants. (Photo by Alexis Berdine/Cronkite News)

Larry Schweikart, a best-selling author and historian who attended the rally said his feelings towards DACA recipients have less to do with emotion and more with the law.

“They’re here illegally. It’s no different than if they had inherited or got a bunch of money that was stolen in a bank robbery. They do not have any right to that, no they don’t have any right to the American southwest,” Schweikart said.

Protesters argued otherwise. According to Brett Wilkins, who came from San Francisco, there’s no difference between someone who is a DACA recipient and someone who is not.

“This whole country has been stolen from someone, and the system that we have here perpetuates racism,” Wilkins said.

“In San Francisco, you can be from anywhere in the world, you get free health care, free housing, free education. The government doesn’t ask you, the police aren’t allowed to ask you your status. The sky’s not falling.”

He added that DACA recipients and other undocumented immigrants are the friends and neighbors of many Americans, in addition to helping add to the country’s workforce.

“They do jobs that we don’t want to do and for a country that was built on slavery and genocide, to try and build walls and shut doors on these people it just shows at best ignorance, racism, nativism, xenophobia,” Wilkins said.

Dennis Gilman, another protester, said many undocumented immigrants want nothing more than to come to United States for a better life for themselves and their family.

“They come here as refugees to start a new life and to try to do what’s best for each other,” Gilman said.

This sort of back and fourth of an exchange of political opinions kept on for about two hours. The protesters continued to chant profanities at the rally and raised signs, including one that read “death to fascists.”

“Well, we’re not fascists,” Leslie Scarbro, a rally attendee, said laughing. “It’s the First Amendment, they’re allowed to say what they want to say, as long as they don’t touch us, it’s fine.”

“I’m Jewish,” said another rally participant, Devin Stone, “so I would take particular offense to anyone who calls me a fascist. I don’t think these individuals know what fascism means. Nobody came here looking for a fight. I’m sure that everyone here would be much happier if they just simply left us alone.”

Trump supporter Devin Stone, who’s Jewish, takes offense at being called a fascist. “I don’t think these individuals know what fascism means,” he said. (Photo by Alexis Berdine/Cronkite News)

Stone also defended himself against some of the insults yelled across the way. He said opposing illegal immigration does not make someone racist, it makes them someone who supports the law.

Greg Foglesong said a pathway to citizenship is “the right way” to address the DACA program. Others agreed that DACA recipients should stay, but not without addressing what they called open borders.

“I support the pathway to citizenship, but you know, I feel badly for them,” Scarbro said. “But I think we have to have the wall so we’re not like hamsters running on a wheel when we repeat this problem over and over.”

Some of the protestors on the antifa side expressed doubt that anyone at the rally felt bad or sorry for DACA recipients.

“They feel sorry for people impacted by DACA,” said one protester, declining to give his name. “So-called border security and comprehensive immigration reform, and more militarization of the border, and desecration of indigenous peoples’ sacred sites, depopulation of borders …”

The Trump administration, he said, is not helping immigrants whose lives “are on the line.”

Mike Bailey, a member of Patriot Movement Arizona described the DACA situation as “a bleeding heart issue,” but he, too, said he empathizes with undocumented immigrants.

“Their country is a poor area and it’s hard, we feel their pain,” Bailey said. “When you look in on a microscope, it’s easy to be a human being and feel for them.”

Despite this sentiment, he said the U.S. has to be the priority, which is why he supports Trump’s “America first” agenda. From a “bird’s-eye view” Bailey said, the country would be forever changed if DACA recipients were given amnesty.
“It’s a hard issue that we’re going to need to tackle, and hopefully they (Congress) come to a deal on it,” he said.

Sign up for CRONKITE DAILY to catch up on the latest news.