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Boiling Point: Race And Policing Long Connected In Arizona

By Tom Maxedon
Published: Tuesday, July 28, 2020 - 5:05am
Updated: Friday, July 31, 2020 - 2:19pm

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In the five-part series "Boiling Point: Policing In Arizona At A Crossroads," KJZZ examines policing in Arizona, from the Wild West to the current day, exploring the complex intersection between race and policing, the culture of law enforcement, the impact of modern technology — and what lies ahead. In part two of the series, KJZZ examines the intersection of law enforcement and racial dynamics through some flashpoints in Arizona’s past and present — where minorities have long felt under-represented and oppressed.

Black Lives Matter protest
Signs from supporters of Black Lives Matter in Phoenix protest Dion Johnson's shooting death by an Arizona DPS trooper.

Arizona and the nation face a new reckoning on race relations and law enforcement. And the present situation is a culmination of what has happened in the past.

The 2018 documdrama "Bisbee ’17" by Robert Greene re-creates one of Arizona’s most egregious examples of racial discrimination and oppression: the kidnapping and deportation of some 1,300 migrant copper miners and their families in 1917 from Bisbee to New Mexico. 

Bisbee Deporation March
Bisbee Mining & Historical Museum, a Smithsonian Affiliate
The exiled men were marched a few miles out of Bisbee to the Warren Ballpark, still in use today. Many of them were on a list provided by the mining companies of time, and others just got caught up in the fray.

When it came to “police tactics” used to achieve those ends, a town posse rounded up workers, many of Mexican descent, at the behest of the Bisbee mining companies and the business class.

Pamela Stewart, historian and senior lecturer in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts at Arizona State University, said, “The Citizen’s Protective League, as it was referred to, called on citizens to basically round up miners in Bisbee. They did not notify state or federal officials."

This vigilante group was deputized by then-Cochise County Sheriff Harry C. Wheeler who was also the third captain of the Arizona Rangers, according to Georgetown University historian Katie Benton-Cohen, author of the 2009 book, "Borderline Americans: Racial Division and Labor War in the Arizona Borderlands."

Stewart said workers were deemed “vigilantes” because they called for better working conditions. 

And for Latinos, the state’s largest minority group, the echoes of Bisbee can still be heard a century later. 

In 2010, the state enacted SB 1070, a strict law meant to crack down on illegal immigration that drew international attention and widespread condemnation.  

“SB 1070 explicitly authorizes and maybe requires racial profiling,” according to G. Jack Chin, professor of Law at UC Davis who spoke at an American Constitution Society forum following the passage of the law when he was teaching at University of Arizona.

“Before SB 1070, the Arizona police had to turn over someone that they'd stopped to the federal authorities for them to do whatever they wanted to do and for the most part federal authorities did not prosecute strawberry pickers merely because they were undocumented,” said Chin.  

And the effects of SB 1070 in Maricopa County alone?  

“We have always had a traditional ebb and flow across our borders but they started criminalizing our immigrant communities and not only our undocumented but everybody who is a citizen in Arizona,” according to Mary Rose Wilcox, a fourth-generation Mexican American and longtime Maricopa County supervisor who spoke at the same forum.

Paul Atkinson/KJZZ
Joe Arpaio in 2015.

Even before SB 1070, ex-Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio conducted the infamous 2007 raid of Guadalupe, a show of force that included 50 police squad cars and a tank.

The office led by Arpaio was eventually found to have engaged in systemic racial profiling of Latinos, leading to the historic Melendres class-action settlement.

Blacks have faced similar challenges in Arizona, where they’ve long been underrepresented.

According to the 1910 census, two years before Arizona officially became a state, 84% of its residents were white, and just 1% were Black. At the same time, Blacks made up 11% of the national population.

The U.S. Census Bureau has had its own complicated history classifying minority populations, particularly in how it has identified Latinos. But, however the data is viewed, whites have been the predominant ethnicity throughout Arizona’s history.

In the 1960s, in the throes of the civil rights movement, Arizona’s population was 90% white and just 3% Black — and nearly nonexistent in law enforcement, a point echoed in a radio broadcast by Lincoln J. Ragsdale Sr., then vice president of the Maricopa County NAACP. The broadcast was featured in a documentary about the movement, titled “Civil Rights Movement: Phoenix, Arizona,” by Manny Ocampo, Jonah Krall and Kijana Embry.

During the broadcast, Ragsdale said, “I went out to the state highway patrol and I looked around out there and I saw that we didn’t have one Negro working for the state highway patrol of Arizona.”  

At that time, accounts surfaced of Phoenix police roughly treating peaceful protesters who took to the streets, according to Stewart. “These young people were threatened certainly more in ways of being really physically rough with them, throwing them down rather than simply putting handcuffs on them, using language of course that was highly offensive, threatening them with loss of jobs," Stewart said. 

Stewart said the tactics used weren’t as severe as in Alabama for instance, but the intent to stifle peaceful protest was the same.

In 1961, Arizona honored the centennial of the Civil War by flying a Confederate flag over the state Capitol, and a prominent memorial to Confederate Troops was erected nearby.  

Twenty-two of the state’s 23 governors have been white, including Evan Mecham. 

Upon taking office in 1987, he rescinded the state’s holiday to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The controversy eventually led the NFL to relocate what would’ve been the state’s first Super Bowl and inspired a 1991 protest song by Public Enemy “By the time I get to Arizona.”

That was then. Is it now? 

After decades of rampant growth, the state has become more diverse. The latest census figures put Arizona’s population as 83% white, but that figure includes both Caucasians and Latinos. The Black population, however, remains relatively small, at just over 5% in Arizona — compared to 13% nationwide. 

Ethnic dynamics have been closely examined as law enforcement tactics are being questioned by residents and politicians.

Calls for reform grew louder after Phoenix police led the nation in officer-involved shootings in 2018. And the push for reform has grown more intense in recent months with the shooting deaths of a Valley Black man, Dion Johnson, and a Latino man, James Garcia, in concert with the national Black Lives Matter movement.

Reginald Bolding
Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services
Reginald Bolding in 2019.

Reginald Bolding, House Minority Co-Whip said, “The fact of the matter is when you see these videos, when you hear stories, noncompliance turns into violent situations with officers. When officers feel disrespected, or someone is not complying, those individuals then have a higher likelihood of either being shot or use of force incidents occurring and that can’t be the standard for our law enforcement officers.”  

Bolding chairs the state’s Black Legislative Caucus. He and other state Democrats in the House and Senate asked Gov. Doug Ducey in June to convene a special legislative session to examine police reforms.

Ducey hasn’t agreed to a special session.

Many don’t think those requests go far enough and are calling for the defunding of police departments and, in some cases, the outright abolition of them.  

Talima and her daughter Qairah
Talima and her daughter Qairah in Phoenix at a Black Lives Matter protest of Dion Johnson's shooting death by an Arizona DPS trooper.

“Abolition is the goal because we’ve been working to reform the police. But when you think about it, policing as we know it is rooted in slavery, like it’s inherently racist,” according to a Valley activist who goes by the name Talima. She said, “It’s a violent institution. Just like slavery was a violent and racist institution, the only answer is to abolish it.”

Talima identifies as a Black woman with Puerto Rican heritage and is currently working with groups to end mass incarceration of minorities in the state.

Members of the law enforcement community continually push back against assertions of systemic racism perpetrated by officers and are troubled by calls for defunding or dismantling of police forces.

In a June press conference prior to the passing of the Phoenix budget that increased funding for the city’s police, Michael “Britt” London, president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association (PLEA) spoke in defense of police agencies across the state.

“We’re seeing an orchestrated campaign across the nation calling for the defunding and disbanding of police departments based on the false and offensive notion that all police, regardless of skin color, are violent and racist,” said London. “Phoenix is not Minnesota. We aren’t Minneapolis. That incident occurred 1,200 miles away. You can’t blame everyone for that incident.”

Arizona Democrats
Tony Navarrete (left).

But state Sen. Tony Navarrete, who is Latino and a member of the LGBTQ community, pushed back against London’s assertions, saying, “Whether PLEA knows it or not, they have to understand that when they make comments like that it really just shows how much they are detached from the issue and how much disconnect they have with the community.”

Navarrete said increasing minority representation on police forces and in government will lead to better policing. 

State public records law does not require departments to compile the ethnic makeup of their forces and even if they did, it’s important to remember the ethnic makeup of one neighborhood or region differs, and therefore raw statistics can paint a skewed picture and public perception.

One Valley officer who wished to remain anonymous said, "Painting the ethnic makeup up of Arizona law enforcement with a broad brush without taking into consideration the racial composition of each community could potentially lead [people] to make inaccurate conclusions. In major cities you have different communities, each with their own unique racial makeup and different police districts that serve those communities."

For people of color who have long felt overlooked and overpowered in Arizona, progressions and pitfalls are evident in 2020.

Phoenix City Council in late February did approve a civilian oversight board but also increased police funding by $25 million in the budget that passed last month, a move London welcomed.

Some law enforcement leaders have stepped into the streets to march peacefully with protesters like Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams, who recently called on the FBI to investigate Garcia’s death.

Last week, two Confederate monuments — including one that was placed outside the state Capitol in 1961 — were taken down. 

But for many, far bigger goals still lie ahead.  

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated for clarification with more context from an additional source.

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