A band of bottle-throwing Antifa radicals instigated the melee outside President Trump’s speech last year in Phoenix, prompting police to deploy smoke grenades and tear gas, according to a newly released report.
The Phoenix Police Department had been accused of overreacting by firing pepper balls and tear gas during the Aug. 22 protests outside the Phoenix Convention Center, but the report released Monday said officers were responding to attacks by Antifa activists.
The group hurled rocks and water bottles at law enforcement, tried to tear down a barrier fence, and threw water bottles at attendees as the left the speech, which drew a crowd of about 11,000 inside the forum and a large protest crowd outside.
Most of the protesters were peaceful, but not all. “Items thrown were rocks, frozen water bottles and regular-filled water bottles. Officers without shields dodged the objects as they continued to maintain assigned positions and observe the crowd,” said the 30-page Public Safety After-Action Report.
After what appeared to be a tear-gas canister was thrown at the police line, officers used smoke grenades in an effort to disperse a group of 15 to 20 activists near the barrier fence, but the report said the protesters threw or kicked the canisters back at officers.
“Several ANTIFA group members donned gas masks and/or other face coverings indicating a preplanned effort to disrupt the event,” said the report. “As TRU [Tactical Response Unit] munitions deployed, some were tossed back toward officers. The intent was for the smoke to defuse the situation, create distance, and to avoid escalating tactics. However, the frequency of items being thrown at officers significantly increased.”
The ACLU of Arizona, which filed a lawsuit in November to obtain more details on the police response, blasted the department for the “officers’ aggressive, indiscriminate use of force.”
“The Phoenix Police Department did not protect the First Amendment rights of protesters and caused many people to go home with cuts, bruises, and other injuries,” Kathryn Brody, legal director of the ACLU of Arizona, said Monday in a statement.
“There are many videos of officers attacking protesters with pepper spray and projectiles at dangerously close range,” Ms. Brody said. “It is shocking and disheartening that the department determined this excessive use of force was justified.”
The ACLU said officers should have warned protesters before deploying tear gas, while the report said Antifa activists were told repeatedly not to engage in violence.
“As ANTIFA members were contacted throughout the night, they were given warnings to demonstrate peacefully,” said the report. “The group would not respond to police communications.”
Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams said she would seek to identify “areas of improvement,” but added that officers “received praise for their professionalism and collaboration in managing a clearly tense situation.”
The Phoenix clash, which resulted in five arrests, came in a year that saw Antifa raise its profile with rioting in a slew of major cities, including Berkeley, California; Portland, Oregon; and Washington, D.C., prompting calls for a crackdown on the secretive anarchist protest group.
Defenders of Antifa describe its illegal tactics as a necessary defense against “fascists,” while the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation has posted a petition urging the Department of Homeland Security to classify Antifa as a domestic terrorism organization.
“Antifa is a diverse phenomenon that includes all different varieties of “far-left” movements: anarchists, socialists, and outright communists,” Marion Smith, executive director of Victims of Communism, said in an email.
“Most antifa demonstrations appropriate communist symbols like the hammer and sickle flag of the Soviet Union,” he said. “All of them believe in ‘direct action’ — including the use of violence and force to shut down speech that they don’t like. This kind of thuggish behavior is extremely dangerous to the traditions of individual liberty and the free exchange of ideas that made our country the greatest nation in the world.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center does not list Antifa as a “hate group,” saying it fails to meet the definition because Antifa groups “do not promote hatred based on race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity.”
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