“This approach says that somebody that’s white with an AR-15 is less threatening and gets more protection than my Black skin.”
Protesters have been a fixture outside the Maricopa County elections center for days since the General Election.
Many were armed as they defended debunked claims that votes had been stolen from President Donald Trump. Black, military-style semiautomatic rifles were a more common sight than masks among the crowd. Others carried Trump flags and screamed at media members, separated from a designated for the protesters by a simple aluminum fence.
They repeatedly demanded that they wanted their votes to be counted even as that exact act was going on in the very building where they held their conspiracy-fueled vigil.
Throughout it all, deputies with the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office stood by and watched. The officers remained in their traditional khaki uniforms. There were no arrests, riot gear, or pepper spray as the Trump supporters grew louder and angrier.
The scene and the subsequent police response was a stark contrast from the protests that filled the streets of downtown Phoenix for weeks following the death of George Floyd in May, who died after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck until he lost consciousness.
Dozens of people rallying against police brutality were arrested and charged in connection with the protests. These demonstrations, which often started with speakers calling for change and urging attendees to vote, many of the summer protests ended with Phoenix police clad in riot gear deploying flash-bang grenades and pepper spray.
While the events involve two different law enforcement agencies, because one occurred on county property, local activists say the differences only highlight the disparities deeply embedded in the system between the way police have treated racial justice activists and right-wing protesters.
“This approach says that somebody that’s white with an AR-15 is less threatening and gets more protection than my Black skin,” said Kenneth Smith, one of the leaders of local activist group Unity Collective.
“This Is the Inequalities You See”
The summer protests always started out as peaceful demonstrations among racial justice activists.
Demonstrators often gathered outside the state Capitol or Phoenix City Hall before marching through the streets of downtown Phoenix. They called for an end to the killing of unarmed Black people by law enforcement, for the officer that killed Floyd to be charged, and for local leaders to be proactive with police reform and properly disciplining officers accused of police brutality.
Their route through downtown always ended outside Phoenix police headquarters. During multiple protests, officers would be waiting behind the glass front doors of the building already clad in riot gear. A barrier was put up around the property after the glass doors were broken by protesters on one of the early nights.
As the night wore on, heavily armed officers would make their way out of the building to face the crowd in a sort of standoff. Police called the demonstration an unlawful assembly and utilized flash-bomb grenades and pepper balls in an attempt to disperse the crowd.
Police officials said protesters launched water bottles at the officers and “incendiary devices.” A police car was damaged during one such protest.
Dozens were arrested in connection with the anti-police brutality protests over the last six months.
In most cases, those arrested were accused of launching “incendiary devices” or blocking a roadway, according to Phoenix police officials. BLM organizers say they didn’t carry weapons and only a select few — who they described as misaligned with the movement — were employing violent tactics.
Activists argue that Phoenix police have strategically made arrests in an attempt to stop the protests, which typically lasted a few hours, while the armed pro-Trump demonstrators have gathered outside the county building for days. Racial justice activists also allege that Phoenix police have intentionally arrested their leaders and members without cause in an attempt to quell the movement.
“You have law enforcement who are targeting Black and brown bodies who are unarmed,” said Sarah Tyree, another leader of Unity Collective. “They are harassing them and intimidating them then allowing our white sisters and brothers who are armed and aggressive intentionally to get off free. This is unacceptable.”
Arizona allows people to openly carry firearms in public.
The MCSO deputies assigned to the scene at the Maricopa County elections office have typically been outfitted in the traditional street uniform, excluding the first night when some donned pieces of riot gear as members of the 300-strong crowd attempted to storm the building where volunteer poll workers counted votes inside. Some chanted “count the votes!” as they tried to get in to apparently see the counting for themselves. MCSO deputies were ultimately able to diffuse the situation.
Some vote center workers and media members were escorted out of the building for safety.
“This is the inequalities you see,” Smith said. “You have people during an election that are walking into a county building armed and there’s no telling what their intentions were. Frankly, they looked like thugs — like they were rioters ready for extreme violence.”
Protests Handled Differently by MCSO, Phoenix Police
The majority of the anti-police brutality protests were handled by Phoenix police, while MCSO has claimed the pro-Trump demonstrators outside the elections center as the county building is part of their jurisdiction.
The agency, which is led by the elected Sheriff Paul Penzone, quickly created a designated space for the demonstrators to gather outside the building without affecting the vote-counting inside and shut down the street outside.
As of Thursday, no arrests have been made in connection with the continuing protest outside the elections center. Smith credited Penzone for creating a space for demonstrators in order to protect their First Amendment rights. Phoenix police have yet to set up anything similar.
When asked about the allegations, Penzone said there was no validity to the claims.
“We can only speak for our actions in the events in which we were involved. Our agency will affect arrests when crimes are committed. We work with any and all parties in advance to promote lawful activities and promote free speech. The allegation of differential treatment is inaccurate and untrue. There were anti-police brutality protests managed by our Office in Fountain Hills and Queen Creek on more than one occasion. These events were organized and attended by minority activist groups. All events were handled the same, no arrests were affected and there were neither occurrences of violence, injury nor property damage. These assertions attempt to portray differing practices by our Office and that is a false assertion.”
Phoenix police did respond to a request for comment for this story.