Trump rally becomes free speech battleground

President Donald Trump speaks at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Feb. 19, 2020. (Kiersten Moss/DD)

Several years after the chaos at the 2017 Trump rally, local Phoenix protesters and supporters of President Trump’s ‘Keep America Great’ rally flung insults at one another from across W. Encanto Boulevard Wednesday.

While attendees to President Trump’s rally on Wednesday evening camped in line the night before for a chance to see him, local activists protested on the move, marching over a mile and a half to 18th Avenue and Encanto Boulevard, a parking lot away from the rally venue at the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

The Puente Human Rights Movement, based in downtown Phoenix, organized the march that had more than 80 people in attendance. Other demonstrators, including members of Faith Leaders, the Tohono O’odham tribe and the LGBTQ community, joined Puente on their walk, battling Trump’s immigration policies, demanding climate action, and condemning border wall construction through indigenous land.

American Civil Liberties Union organizer Cynthia Diaz, 24, attended Puente’s demonstration. Like many Puente members, her advocacy was a direct response to lingering oppression still felt 10 years after Arizona passed SB1070, known informally as the “Papers, Please” law.

This law requires adult aliens to carry identification papers at all times or risk a felony misdemeanor. A child of Mexican immigrants, Diaz watched her community “become smaller out of fear,” which she said inspired her to pursue social justice and immigration policies.

“For far too long we’ve lived in silence because we’ve been threatened with fear,” Diaz said.

Breaking the silence, the demonstration outside of the Coliseum included chanting, the beating of a traditional Native American drum, wailing sirens, and echoing megaphones. Painted faces, signs and advocacy attire lined the street for several yards.

Máxima Guerrero, 29, a coordinator for the Puente movement, said the outcome was dwindling after the 2017 Phoenix Rally ended in tear gas. According to Guerrero, who was present at the time, a water bottle was thrown from an unknown source in the crowd, causing police to fire upon the protesters with pepper spray and tear gas.

“Many people were traumatized and told me they wouldn’t come out for their safety,” Guerrero said. “It increased our alertness around the police.”

Sgt. Kameron Lee, the Public Information Officer for the Arizona Department of Public Safety, said that, while every situation is handled on a case-by-case basis, a police intervention of that nature is not necessary unless physical violence has occurred.

A coalition of dozens of State Troopers, Phoenix Police officers and EMTs patrolled the free speech battleground on Encanto Boulevard, keeping protesters on the north sidewalk and ‘Keep America Great’ advocates to the south.

“We prepare for the worst, but hope for the best,” said Lee. “Everyone has their First Amendment right, and we hope each side can say their peace, peacefully.”

Both parties did take the opportunity to exercise their free speech in nonviolent, but not always peaceful, ways. Even after the Puente movement had dispersed, verbal volleys of taunts, obscenities, curses and hand gestures crossed the street well into the evening. A demonstrator on the north side tore up an American flag and stomped on it before the Trump supporters.

Nevertheless, no tear gas was fired nor punches thrown, making this a calmer night than the last rally in 2017. Those who came to observe the event saw a display of ideologies. Shandra Martinez, an Independent voter and midtown Phoenix resident, attended to inform herself on President Trump’s platform in time for the primary election, watching the rally and protests from a distance.

“I may not always agree with [Trump’s] policies,” Martinez said. “But as in all things, you
have to take the bad with the good. Nothing is 100% perfect.”

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