Tales of protest and brutality from Phoenix’s LGBTQ community

Courtesy of Nevaeh McKenzie / Karrington Valenzuela

Story and photos by Logan Lowrey-Rasmussen

While we live in an era where police officers monitor our mainstream Pride events and accept sponsorships from weapons manufacturers like Raytheon (I’m looking at you Tucson Pride), it was not historically long ago when trans women of color like Marsha P. Johnson alongside butch lesbian Stormé DeLarverie symbolically “threw the first punch” in 1969, joined by Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, Craig Rodwell, and Sylvia Riveria.

The historic protests turned violent when Manhattan police officers assaulted civilians, sparking our community to rise in large-scale self-defense and mobilization, marking a major event in American history. What was later named the Stonewall Riots, or simply “Stonewall,” evolved into a uniting factor which brought LGBTQ- rights to the forefront of the mainstream where the white heteronormative majority couldn’t ignore it any longer.

As we approached the sweltering summer months of 2020, the protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin and his associates became the breaking point for people of color and subjugated minorities; protests facilitated by Black Lives Matter spread throughout our country’s city centers, with riots occurring only after police departments launched tear gas alongside other atrocities like the improper use of rubber bullets on peaceful protesters. While police departments had influence over media coverage in the past, the rise of unedited social media utilized to film police brutality has shaken the status quo as departments cover their badge numbers during protests under the guise of “mourning their fellow officers” and destroy medic areas with supplies trying to aid protesters.

After all, it was only memorial day when Dion Johnson was murdered by a DPS officer off of Tatum Boulevard and the 101 in Scottsdale, where we received confirmation there is no bodycam or dashcam evidence confirming the alleged “struggle” Johnson gave to the officers on the scene; not even five days ago, a black Louisville EMT named Breonna Taylor was gunned down in her own home, with the media later reporting the “no-knock” warrant served was illegal. These stories of misconduct will not only ring familiar to civilians in Detroit and New York where systematic, historical evidence of police brutality is recorded but also in Phoenix: a department plagued with stories of misconduct extensive to the point of the Phoenix New Times, who constructed an official timeline of incidents in 2019. 

As the modern civil rights movement for police brutality and accountability stretches over fifty states and eighteen countries, members of our community have stepped up to risk their way of life in the name of justice for the marginalized; below are firsthand accounts from LGBTQ individuals on the front lines who have experienced forms of police brutality alongside stories of peaceful protests.

*Content Warning: these firsthand accounts contain graphic depictions of violence and assault; the names of certain individuals have been changed to protect their identities.

Andrew S.

“I was there for the full weekend.”

“There were police stepping out of line on Friday and Saturday with the rubber bullets, kettling, and the tear gas; Sunday was something else,” says Andrew.

“I’m assuming they were taking orders from the national guard because they were using straight-up military tactics on us; [while we were driving to the protest] police vehicles were following us and shooting at us without restraint; it was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before, like a blitzkrieg,” Andrew continued. 

 “[We avoided] cops coming in and out of utility doors like a “first-person shooter,” except only [the PD had guns].”

“We were full out running from cops the majority of the time I was there, [while others] were having panic attacks and having a hard time keeping up; we were threatened with live rounds and tried to leave while we were afraid of being kettled into a neighborhood,” says Andrew.

Andrew says the only violence from protesters he witnessed was when a suspected undercover officer broke the window of a local Jimmy John’s: 

“It felt like we were in a warzone.” Andrew says him and other protesters were tear-gassed after this incident, with the rubber bullets and violence continuing against protesters after the general curfew began. “There was definitely zero violence leading up to the cops shooting us on the way to the protest.”

We later heard that cops were towing protestors cars to trap them downtown, and when we were stopped by the cops, they were towing vehicles in the background. We were arrested trying to leave the protest in a vehicle. What I experienced was exactly like the post apocalyptic video games and dystopian authoritarian novels people read. That’s not far off, that was here on Sunday, and it has happened many times in our past.

“We were arrested leaving [and as the arrestees] were gathered en masse with our hands cuffed around our back, I realized we were all young, people of color, or LGBTQA individuals which “looked” like protestors and weren’t older white men and women” says Andrew.

“Older white locals were walking past and through us and even mocking the cops:

“Hey, can I stand here? How about here?” The cops ignored them even though we were yelling:

“Why us but not them?” 

“Most of us were there for “violating curfew,” [but] arrested us for protesting; It had nothing to do with the curfew.”

“An FBI agent later interviewed me and opened with:

‘You are aware that Trump has declared protestors, rioters and looters to be terrorists,’

while I asked him about my free speech; he rolled his eyes and said:

 ‘It’s not illegal to protest.’

But after everything I had just gone through and how different it was from anything I’d previously experienced I genuinely didn’t know if that was true.”

“As for injustices, trans people [were] being forced into isolation and we were misgendered, obviously,” Andrew says, on the topic of injustices suffered post-protest.

“On the way [to the station], they forced trans-women to disclose their “biological sex;” [while much] of that is unfortunately expected, it’s unacceptable.”

Andrew says him and his fellow protesters were bound hand-and-foot, even in isolation.

“One LGBT individual was sexually assaulted and retaliated against [the officer] with an additional charge; these atrocities were all for the crime of “looking like” protestors; nothing else. 

“Trans individuals, especially trans people of color and trans women of color are much more vulnerable when we go to jail, prison, or are processed by the system in any way,” says Andrew.

“We are very liable to be sexually assaulted, and we are put in isolation, which is torture; protect your trans and friends of color when you are protesting, because [white, cis-gendered, heteronormative individuals] will be having a way easier time.”

“We need white cis people to be at the front of the movement and taking the risks because the stakes are way higher for us than you.”

____________________

Anonymous

“I had protested on Sunday night; The group  I was with arrived a bit after 8 p.m. It was to my awareness that there was a curfew that began that night, but I proceeded anyway.”

“Our original plan was to provide resources like water and supplies, which relieve the effects of tear gas. As the group got together, there were changes in attitude as to how involved we were going to get,” the anonymous participant continued. 

Three out of five of us agreed to assist with [the tear-gassed participants], by bringing large orange traffic cones, homemade gas masks, and heat resistant gloves to stop the gas from dispersing.  We as a group integrated ourselves with several other groups so that we could run and enter into the quarreled area with all the protesters.”

“In the process of running around the cops, we were then shot at with rubber bullets, and a large sonic bang was shot in the sky; we ended up letting go of some of the items we were carrying, like water and the cones, since they slowed us down.

The anonymous protester says they didn’t expect these types of military tactics at first, but their group realized they were vulnerable and unprepared once they arrived into the main group of protesters.

“There was tear gas thrown repeatedly at us, and large vehicles used to push us further, and rubber bullets were fired at us constantly,” says the anonymous participant.

“There was a moment when we were in front of the Jimmy John’s near the Garfield neighborhood, and I saw various protestors trying to hold back an individual with a bat, who had the intention of breaking the glass entrance of [the restaurant]; it appeared the individual was trying to incite violence, and successfully escalated the situation.”

“The individual who broke the glass got away, while three individuals were arrested,” the participant continued.

“After, we were pushed into the neighborhood when I had thought one of the folks from our group was arrested; I panicked, as there was no way for me to go and save them without possibly assaulting an officer to get them off the person I thought was arresting my friend. I found two of the folks in our group, and we proceeded north into the Garfield neighborhood, [and] about a block down, the rest of the group reunited.”

There were [many people of color] who were swept up by Phoenix PD,  mass discriminatory arrests [and] when we were arrested, we were brought to Central and Buckeye, all placed outside while being interviewed by FBI agents and then by Police Officers,” says the anonymous participant. 

“Only a few individuals were provided water throughout, while many folks were denied. The protestors who were also arrested had additional water and shared with [the other protesters]; many were dealing with the negative effects of dehydration.”

“While in jail, I was sexually assaulted by an officer in the process of being pat down; as the officer misgendered me, [they] reached under both my shirt and tank top and groped my tits,” the participant continued.

“When being transferred to the Fourth Avenue jail, I requested a female officer to pat me down, which a female officer did for the first half, when a male officer took their place and finished the rest of the pat down. There was someone placed in an isolation holding cell in front of me who requested insulin, and in the three hours until I was released, that individual did not receive any medical assistance.”

“If you experience sexual assault in custody by an officer, do not report it to an officer while you are locked up,” the participant advises.

“They will use [the incident] to retaliate against you, as police are not on our side; wait until you [leave confinement] and speak with an attorney to compile your experience for a class-action lawsuit against the Phoenix PD.”

“The transphobic violence from cis-male protestors needs to stop, as we are on your side; if you’re a cis-male and you see a trans woman (AMAB) arrested with you, be there to advocate for them,” the participant continued.

“Police intentionally use humiliation as a tactic of breaking down and jading transgender individuals; they succeed mainly because they publicly alienate and misgender trans-women in front of people in the holding cells.”

“Your transphobia is used as a weapon against trans women while incarcerated or jailed.”

____________________

“The Human” —

It was Saturday, when I arrived, as we were all peacefully protesting by using our words. [The police officers present] then started to fire rubber bullets and tear canisters into the air directly into the crowd; [we retaliated by] throwing them back,” described the anonymous protester calling themselves “The Human.”

“One shot directly at me and then later shot me with rubber bullets [while] I ran away.” The Human says he surmised the violence was worse against his group since they were trying to stop them from hurting the rest of the crowd. The human says the police officers started the violence, and their stance was to fight this exact abuse of power and oppression.

“We’re done being abused and we’re going to stand up for ourselves and fight back,” The Human continued.

“The only thing we have considered non-lethal weapons were rocks, water bottles and anything that we could do to equal the level of power [the weapons of law enforcement has].

The Human says he believes these weapons of protest are necessary because there always needs to be a “peacemaker” to make the peace, referencing the Colt Peacemaker BB gun. 

“Same thing with rocks and gas canisters: you need to be the peacemaker to have peace, [and] it has to make you equal in force to the abuser when the abuse begins.”

“[Since the goal is to protest peacefully], the only way we have to fight back is to match their non-lethal tactics equally. [The police] were aiming their guns at us, had snipers on the buildings [and] told us they would shoot us within five minutes. We, unfortunately, had only maybe a thousand or two thousand people there and which is small compared to 1% of Phoenix, which is 60,000 people,” The Human continued.

“If 1% of people actually stood up and came out in Phoenix, we would have 60,000 people; we need numbers.”

“One of my personal missions was how I could be one of the people on the front lines who can take the onslaught of rubber bullets; we were making them turn around from driving at us by using rocks we found off the ground.”

“We passed the homeless encampment area, and [people inside] were all chained around them and [reminded me of] a Nazi concentration camp.”

“The police are killing us, beating us, buying us with police stocks and shooting us with rubber bullets, real bullets, and tear gas; you can corner a mouse or a dog into a corner and hit it until it grows, but once it is grown and once it gets mad at all of your abuse, there’s no more room in the corner [and we have to defend ourselves]. 

“We are the majority, and we will succeed if only we have about one percent of the Phoenix metro area to participate.

____________________

Jane J. —

“I participated in the protest on Sunday, May 21, 2020; I was offering first aid and providing water to those in need, [while] The group [I attended with arrived] pretty late.”

“By the time we joined the main crowd of peaceful protesters, they had [began launching] tear gas and rubber bullets,” Jane tells Echo.

“[My friends and I] were chased by the police while they shot rubber rounds at us; it was peaceful when we joined the main crowd, [but after the tear gassing], they [cornered us] into a nearby neighborhood as they began picking us off.”

“I do remember one or two protesters who became violent being immediately shut down, but by other protesters; however, those events were after the police had taken violent action against us.”

“Additionally, I will say that I was picked out of a group of people to be taken to jail who were a majority of POC, trans and or queer individuals, while the others were let go.”

“While in custody I saw injured people not being treated for injuries, ziptie cuffs which were too tight, and officers bragging about arresting us to our faces,” Jane continued.

“I was placed in a paddy wagon with at least 13 girls where they kept us in the dark without air-conditioning, for at least 30 minutes.”

“While in jail, I heard stories of a mother and daughter being arrested together who weren’t involved with the protest, while [others] were denied medication, including a girl with epilepsy,” Jane says.

“What I experienced only solidified what I believe to be wrong with the way police treat black people and other minorities; it has also opened my eye to how far these injustices go.”

____________________

Nevaeh McKenzie / Karrington Valenzuela —

“[I have protested] since Saturday; when I watched the news, [at first I felt] maybe joining would be “overstepping” or inserting myself in a place which wasn’t my own; I didn’t want to disrespect [that boundary], but I couldn’t look back at my life and regret not doing something [for the cause],” says Karrington Valenzuela, AKA drag performer Nevaeh McKenzie.

“I was invited by the protest hosts on Sunday to show that there was an LGBTQ presence; I didn’t want to speak about an experience I know nothing about, [so I could] only speak to our LGTBQ history and why it was important we stand in solidarity.” Valenzuela then began naming the aforementioned acts Marsha P. Johnson did in the name of civil rights during the Stonewall riots:

(Karrington Valenzuela) Courtesy of Nevaeh McKenzie / Karrington Valenzuela

“Her actions of fighting back started the movement which provided a spotlight of our presence to the U.S. and sparked a demand for change; members of the black community stood by us and have continued to stand with us; it is our time to stand with them now.”

Karrington did not witness any police aggression, and mentioned every protest they have joined were only peaceful demonstrations. 

“I would like to encourage all of those who  feel the need to take action, to not only band together with us in the streets, but also take this time to get informed, get involved, and get vigilant.” 

“Read up on true black history, stream videos with educators like Angela Davis, Jane Elliott, and Cornel West. Also, people can sign up to volunteer for groups like “Arizona FAMM,” which advocates for Criminal Justice Reform and “Black Lives Matter Metro Phoenix.” 

“I am looking to start a group here in Phoenix called “No Pride Without Justice” which will band together LGBTQ members of all colors, to volunteer for these types of groups. I’m very blessed to have the platform as a drag performer, and I plan to use my place in the community to inspire whomever to get involved and bring about positive change.”

(Nevaeh McKenzie) Courtesy of Nevaeh McKenzie / Karrington Valenzuela

____________________

Eli Krause AKA Rebecca Goodhead —

We went on Monday, June 1, 2020, [and noticed] tension in every part of our community in the day leading up to our attendance; people are uncomfortable, [but] these issues of human rights and injustice need to be spoken about. Many members of the LGBTQIA+ are humans of color whom we consider friends and family, [and we couldn’t] just stand by and hope for the best. This is an issue that is greater than any of us. How can you sit by and watch your loved ones be murdered without speaking your mind? 

“The role our group took was from a place of peace and all-encompassing love; on the day of the protest, Ben Alter and I looked at each other after a three-hour conversation regarding the state of the country, and later messaged everyone we knew who would join us on short notice,” says Eli Krause.

“We received donations for supplies, and purchased as many water bottles and snacks we could fit in our coolers; once we arrived in downtown Phoenix, we stopped on a corner of the street as [we witnessed] many beautiful, empowered humans walked toward us, demanding to be heard.”

“As we sat on that first corner and handed out cold water and food to the protesters that had been in the heat all day, we were overwhelmed by the amount of thanks we received; people of all colors, ages, and sexual identities were bound together, shoulder to shoulder, demanding to be seen. Demanding to finally be heard,” Eli continued.

“We followed the crowd through the streets of Phoenix, hearing what everyone had to say and helping everyone we saw; protesters and law enforcement alike. Our idea was to keep the peace and open lines of communication to bring more light to the idea that this is everyone’s fight; it’s scary and uncomfortable, but the ideas our grandparents protested and fought for [where the] exact same human rights, [while] we’ve only gotten this far as a society almost 100 years later; that is what we are fighting for,” says Eli Krause, who is also known as Rebecca Goodhead.

Eli described the event as “nothing short than powerful.”

“As we walked around [and] joined in the chants, we were supporting and demanding change. Everyone [at the protest] had a story of prejudice and racism, which pulled at a different part of the human emotion: 

“Anger, rage, and disgust were met with education, love, and prosperity, which made time stand still.”

“It’s okay to be angry and to be filled with rage! Use that energy and help create change.”

Eli Krause says allies should stay informed and be present in conversations about these injustices we are at the forefront of, even if it requires you to ask questions and be briefly uncomfortable. 

“Reach out to your resources and fight, no matter what form that may come in; go protest, raise money, start conversations with people from all sides of this story,” says Eli Krause.

“Knowledge is our best chance at changing the system in place which represses our fellow humans of color; this is not an issue we can close our eyes on and assume it will blow over in a few weeks.”

“This is history in the making and longer we take to choose our stance, [the more time  we spend complacent] and not bettering the world we live in.”