Saturday, March 24, 2018

Phoenix Front Line Report from March For Our Lives

Jason O'Neal, FFWP activist

Local news outlets in Phoenix have estimated there were at least fifteen thousand marchers assembled today in Sun Valley to protest gun violence in schools, but some organizers have placed that total closer to twenty-five thousand.  I was there from start to finish and interacted with various groups of people from student groups and the League of Women Voters registering eligible voters, to those friends and families waving signs and banners, to candidates and staffers from political campaigns.  A positive move to action by those who came out, but without a viable political option for workers in the United States it appears the local participants may be corralled into the progressively liberal wing of the Democratic Party in Arizona.

I arrived at the State Capitol building at about 7:30 a.m. and I witnessed that several dozen event organizers and about two hundred early march attendees wearing bright orange tee-shirts were already there.  Tables and chairs were being setup at multiple locations for this event, but the memorabilia crowd was in place early peddling their silk-screened protest garb for about twenty dollars apiece.  I didn’t ask where the money was going, however, it was eerily similar to the #RedforEd Wednesdays where local teachers have been wearing red clothing to work in protest of low teacher salaries.  The Arizona Highway Patrol and local police were present as well, but I will get to them later.

As I moved from one group to another I was told by an event volunteer to be careful of a man wearing a red shirt and carrying a sign with the NRA written on it.  Apparently, this woman (an elderly white woman who appeared to be a retiree) had already notified event security about this man’s suspicious behavior because he was filming himself at the event and talking into his cell phone.  He was standing by himself on a grass lawn approximately fifty feet in front of the small stage where speakers were scheduled to address the crowd.  Within five minutes the man was surrounded by four law enforcement officers where he was questioned for some time and allowed to remain.

Over the next two hours thousands of people filtered into the plaza in front of the State Legislative buildings and music played over the load speakers which were scattered throughout.  People using camera-phones for selfies with friends and photo-ops with politicians grossly outnumbered the few local television news crews as hundreds of teenage marchers arrived by the busload.  They all gathered with their signs supporting assault rifle bans, background checks, and solidarity with student marchers across the country as they geared up for a walk through the streets of Phoenix and back.  The crowd was upbeat and there were smiles and hugs everywhere.  A man wearing a camouflage tactical vest with a matching cap and dark sunglasses was holding the leash of a dog trained to locate explosives as it brushed by my leg.
Shortly before 10 a.m., I walked from one side of the plaza along the sidewalk behind the stage through a crowd of a few hundred people.  As I crossed the street headed toward an empty parking lot where the portable restrooms were staged, I heard a buzzing noise which sounded like a blown speaker.  I looked up in the air and approximately twenty feet over my head a small four-propeller drone was circling above.  The event speakers took the stage and began shouting out their gun violence statistics accompanied by the legislative success of Arizona against the NRA.  Then they read through a list of reasons why the current governor and legislature doesn’t stand up to the gun lobby now.  Needless to say, the Democratic Party of Arizona was attempting to rope in this movement.

However, not everyone who showed up was willing to cheer for this effort.  A group of approximately 40 anti-protesters assembled with some waving their American flags and wearing Make America Great Again hats.  Many of them were carrying pistols and one even had a military-style rifle hanging by a nylon strap across his chest.  It was a mixed crowd of men and women with several members of color, including many Latino males and an African-American female wearing a green shirt with a logo for the Arizona Border Recon Support Team.  The AZBR is a paramilitary militia composed of former members of the armed forces, law enforcement officers, and security contractors.  They were quickly encircled by police officers and separated from the thousands of protesters present.  

It was at this time I saw someone wearing a black leather vest with an I.W.W. patch on the front pocket and a small pin with a picture of Lenin on his lapel.  I asked if he was with a group nearby to which he showed me a flier he was given by someone he was speaking with earlier.  When he opened it I read, “Make Arizona Blue in 2020.”  I asked him about his patch and he mumbled something and walked away.  Then a woman quickly approached me and asked if I had heard of Our Revolution.  I politely told her yes and she moved on.  I was scanning the crowd for any sign of the left groups which usually frequent these types of events, but perhaps I was looking in all the wrong places.  Or, maybe they just weren’t there.  I did see one guy was wearing a shirt for the Green Party of Arizona, but that group was over-run by Berniecrats and #DemExit(ers) after the Vermont senator's capitulation to the neo-liberals at the Democratic National Convention.

Suddenly, I saw the “suspicious” guy who the cops were talking to earlier.  I noticed he had a ball cap with “working class” embroidered on it and I started up a conversation with him.  Turns out he was a march supporter wearing a shirt with #I’mwithEmma (Emma Gonzalez is the very articulate young woman with short-cropped hair who was one of the more vocal survivors of the mass killing at a Florida High School this past Valentine’s Day).  He said his name was Karl and I thought I might have found someone whose consciousness may have been elevated.  Although he was receptive to a few comments, it became apparent he was not familiar with Marx.  However, he did have an interesting story.  Karl told me the police approached to ask him to leave the area and assemble with the counter-protesters.  They had mistakenly assumed he was a Trump supporter trying to antagonize the crowd until an officer read one of the four signs he had made for the event.  His NRA reference was about them trying to sell more guns.  We both had a laugh and I told him how that sweet little lady said that I should be afraid of him.  After we shared some ideas about a few other political issues he gave me his contact information.

Now the protesters filed out of the plaza and down the street.  Most of those who remained were organizers and event staff who mingled from table to table.  Many were activists and non-profit workers who recognized each other from their time spent on the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign in 2016.  One commented to me that facial recognition technology was in use today as he pointed to a tower about ten feet high with a camera on top positioned toward the lawn in front of the stage.

A few minutes later I was chatting with a college professor who claimed she was from Australia, but was now living in the U.S.  She gave me the rundown on her political activities against the local Republicans in office, but she was not a fan of Bernie.  We discussed his weakness on foreign policy and support of the religious state of Israel in the Middle East.  She also said she was disappointed in many policies during the Obama Administration, but she remained committed to reforming the Democratic Party.  She gave me her email address and disappeared.  I didn’t see her again for about an hour.

Sometime after 12 p.m. the crowd began to return to the Capitol and a large group engaged with the counter-protesters.  It was at this moment that an event organizer took the stage and instructed the crowd to not confront them.  No one listened.  I saw the Australian woman again, but this time she was carrying a megaphone as she was leading the crowd in chants against the pro-gun group.  They moved away but by 1 p.m. more pleas came from the stage.  Eventually the rally was dispersed with one organizer blaming a small group of protesters for not behaving very well, but most of the attendees had already left by then.  

As I walked back to my car I ran into the Australian professor.  She made another reference about the number of events she has participated in at the capitol, but she says she doesn't vote.  She's not a U.S. citizen.  When she began lecturing me on intersectionality and white feminist privilege I walked away.

Progressive politics was the word of the day in Phoenix.  Let's hope the movement isn't co-opted completely.

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