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15 Protesting Racial Injustice In Phoenix March Face Charges Usually Applied To Street Gangs

By Steve Goldstein
Published: Tuesday, November 17, 2020 - 12:01pm
Updated: Monday, March 22, 2021 - 12:42pm

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Protesters and Phoenix police officers during a protest.
Scott Bourque/KJZZ
Protesters and Phoenix police officers during a protest on May 29, 2020.

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Protests across the country related to police behavior and treatment of people of color have been common since the killing of George Floyd in the summer. Last month near downtown Phoenix, a group was carrying out a protest march. Fifteen of those protesters are now facing charges that typically are filed against street gangs. In response, a number of advocacy groups — including the ACLU and Poder In Action — is holding a news conference [Nov. 17] to say that what they're calling political prosecutions of protesters is unacceptable. Earlier, I spoke with one of the organizers, Lola N'sangou, about — of Mass Liberation Arizona. I started by asking her to explain concerns about the type of charges protesters are facing.

LOLA N'SANGOU: What it allows prosecutors to do is to seek stiff penalties to make an example out of folks. It allows them to prosecute anybody who critiques the county, to remove them from the street, really just essentially to take out their political opponents.

GOLDSTEIN: Was there anything that these defendants did that would warrant these charges in any way?

N'SANGOU: I'm not, I'm not going to, you know, say one way or the other. What, what we have seen is that the charges are inflated. We've seen that the charges are fabricated. I don't know what it would mean to be, you know, similar to any other — like I wouldn't be able to compare this to any other political protest, because I do think that, you know, Arizona has a certain culture, really a history, if you will, of violence against protesters. We've seen it happen in the early, you know, 2016 with the election results there. And that was late 2016. We saw them use militarized, really heavy-duty weapons against the community. We've seen even last year, we saw some, some protesters be taken out by police in a very violent way. And we're seeing it now. So, so this is sort of their M.O.

GOLDSTEIN: Were these charges initiated by the Maricopa County Attorney's Office or from Phoenix P.D.? Are you concerned about that connection there?

N'SANGOU: Yeah, absolutely concerned about the connection. So the police department had issued some charges, but they did never issued street gang charges. And what we had found over the course of the summer, if you watch sort of how this uprising develops, you'll see that the police actually charged folks and many times the lower courts dismissed those charges. They didn't find probable cause. But you see the Maricopa County Attorney's Office turn around and see grand jury indictments and actually achieve those in some cases.

GOLDSTEIN: Do these defendants have recourse at this point? And if so, what is it?

N'SANGOU: Essentially, they are going to be defended in court within all of their rights to defend themselves. I think that the community is going to continue to call attention to this. I know that attorneys are getting on board onto these cases. Attorneys are volunteering for these cases because they can see that this is an egregious abuse of power by the state. So, yeah, I think that folks are going to continue to defend themselves as best they can and just shed light.

GOLDSTEIN: Maricopa County Attorney Adel is going to keep her position at this point. How much does that concern you?

N'SANGOU: That office has a long history of political prosecutions. It goes back to Andrew Thomas and his partnership with Joe Arpaio. And then later, we see this with Bill Montgomery. You know, that office always used political prosecution as a tool or a weapon for anyone who — or to silence folks essentially who disagree with the office. We haven't seen Allister Adel do, do much of anything that's been substantive to come away from that culture. And I think as a result, where we're seeing that office shape up to be just like it was with Andrew Thomas. What I think is really important to call attention to is that critiquing the elected officials who are failing the community, it's, it's a person's constitutional right to do that. Most demonstrators aren't expecting to be met with such heavy-handed approaches by law enforcement and prosecutors. But it doesn't really surprise us because these are the agencies that, the ones that are arresting them and charging them are the agencies that they're out there protesting. You know, when people are demanding that Phoenix P.D. or [the Department of Public Safety] (DPS) stop killing Black people, and they're demanding the county attorney office hold police accountable, it's not a surprise that those folks are being hit really heavily with both physical force and, of course, heavy-handed charges and charging policies around how to address them.

GOLDSTEIN: During the recent campaign, Allister Adel did say there were certain reforms that she wanted to put into effect.

N'SANGOU: We worked really deeply on the county attorney race — watched it very closely for, for a number of years, actually, at the point that Allister Adel was, was appointed. And so, you know, really, you know, it's easy to say that you're going to do such and such. But really what you have to do is look at their actions and look at their, their policy changes and the things that they've done. When Allister Adel came into office, she very quickly put in a first responders' bureau, which is the bureau that actually is where these charges are coming out of. And so it goes to show where her alignment is. It is an office that were — or a bureau that was designed specifically to handle cases for police. We see that Allister Adel has received police union money and police union backing and then also, you know, has even the same spokesperson as police. So just, you know, you can see the political alignment. And so, really, it's, it's a matter of just watching someone's actions versus what they're saying.

GOLDSTEIN: Lola, let's go big picture. Is this indicative of any national trends you're seeing.

N'SANGOU: It has been happening on a national scale. We saw street gang charges come out of Utah. But what we also saw in Utah was that the mayor and city council didn't stand for it and spoke out against it. And subsequently those charges were dropped. I believe that we need to see something similar happen here in Arizona where officials become both aware of and then be clear that they don't stand for this type of, this type of weaponizing of our system.

N'SANGOU: I wonder what your expectations might be for that. Because, of course, on the Phoenix City Council, longtime activist, advocate Carlos Garcia, of course, is a member of the city council now. Does that give you any hope that there will be more attention paid to this or at least the issue is up for discussion, whereas perhaps in the past it wouldn't have been?

N'SANGOU: We have seen a good response out of the District 8 office. But, you know, that's not going to be enough. We do need to see the mayor step into a more active role. And I'm not, I'm not really sure where she's at with this. I mean, we saw recently in the media that she was threatened by a police officer and that that, I'm sure that that was alarming. We've done a lot of work to create civilian oversight for Phoenix [Police Department]. And the City Council has been taking part in that, although they've had a lot of disappointing amendments to the demands of the community. We do still remain hopeful that that's going to be something that they're going to do. So hopefully as they, you know, get a better glimpse of what's happening on the streets by listening to community, I hope that we will see a better outcome there.

GOLDSTEIN: Lola N'sangou is executive director of Mass Liberation Arizona.

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