The video footage, released Friday by the Tucson Police Department to a local television station, illustrates the tense clashes from the Feb. 16 protest there that began peacefully but soon escalated as protesters reportedly began disrupting rush-hour traffic. Three police officers sustained minor injuries and four protesters were arrested.
Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus said the department is investigating but told reporters that he thinks his officers handled the crowd appropriately. Local immigrant rights advocates have spoken out against police conduct at the protest, saying that the arrests were unwarranted and that officers used unnecessary force — particularly against elderly women at the rally. The body camera footage, the rally’s organizers say, “confirms police brutality and repression” of peaceful protesters.
The event, organized to protest recent nationwide deportation raids and in solidarity with the National Day Without Immigrants, began at 4:30 p.m. that day in front of Tucson’s downtown Federal Building. By 6 p.m., at least 80 people had joined the protest — organizers said it grew to 200 people at one point. It “suddenly became a safety and logistical challenge” as crowds began veering off the sidewalks and into the path of traffic, Magnus wrote.
An officer issued an emergency call for assistance, and those on the scene urged protesters to leave the street and return to the sidewalks. “Most of the crowd complied, but a very specific subgroup elected to remain in the road and challenge the directions they were given by the officers,” Magnus said, compromising their safety.
“One of the officers working to get a protester back to the sidewalk was assaulted by that protester,” Magnus said. “When the officer went to arrest this subject and place him in a patrol car for transport, he and the other officers who were assisting him were quickly surrounded by members of the crowd.”
Police arrested David Leon, 24, Joan Cichon, 68, and Tanya Alvarez-Blancarte, 42, in connection with aggravated assault on a peace officer. Najima Rainey, 39, was arrested in connection with obstructing and failure to identify.
Rolande Baker, a retired schoolteacher, was the woman pepper-sprayed. When she saw police arresting Leon, she crossed the street, she said in an interview with The Washington Post.
“I saw the police being way more aggressive than I’ve ever seen them be,” she said. She has been participating in peaceful rallies and protests in Tucson since she moved there in 1987, she said, and has never had any problems with local law enforcement.
She described some of the moments captured by the recently released body-camera footage, obtained in a Freedom of Information Act request by Tucson News Now.
The 86-year-old woman had joined with three other women in locking their arms in front of the police van, blocking it from leaving. After officers unlinked the women’s arms, one pushed her to the ground. Officers then pepper-sprayed Baker in the face.
“Here’s this woman on the ground, and they’re so busy pepper-spraying those who were helping her, they never help her up,” Baker said. “Do we look violent to you?”
The 86-year-old woman, whom authorities have not identified, was not injured, and got back up on her own. Baker, however, was still recovering from the pain in her eyes three days later.
“It’s just terrible,” she said. “Would you do that to your mother? Would you do that to your grandmother? Because I’m about the age of your grandmother.”
Steffanny Cott, a protest organizer with immigrant rights group Lucha Unida de Padres y Estudiantes (LUPE), told the Arizona Daily Star that police overreacted to the demonstration. She said that marchers were going around the police vehicle, and that the officer was revving the engine and the sport-utility vehicle nudged Leon, the demonstrator who was later arrested.
LUPE wrote on a GoFundMe page that at least a dozen people, including two children, a retired teacher, a nurse, and two legal observers were “inhumanely pepper sprayed.” The group wrote that cries of “help me” could be heard as one of the leaders of Tucson Black Lives Matter was pepper-sprayed, pushed to the ground, pulled by her hair, and then dragged to the sidewalk and later into the patrol van where she was arrested.
Baker, along with other protesters present that day, attended a City Council meeting last Wednesday to describe the treatment they received from local law enforcement. City Council members called for an investigation and a meeting between some of the protesters and the police officers, Baker said.
Baker worried about both the “aggressive” behavior of police and a bill that passed the Arizona Senate last week that would subject protesters to anti-racketeering legislation, allowing police to seize the assets of anyone involved in a protest that at some point becomes violent.
“They’re trying to shut us up is what they’re trying to do, in my opinion,” Baker said. “It’s scary that this is all happening at the same time.”