'I felt very scared': Arizona DPS, senators describe escalation of Phoenix protest

·6 min read

Up to an estimated 8,000 people gathered in downtown Phoenix on Friday evening to protest the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade.

What was a peaceful protest escalated into “anarchical and criminal actions by masses of splinter groups” at the Arizona Capitol complex, according to a statement issued by state police on Saturday.

Protesters pounded on the glass doors and windows of the state Senate building and defaced several state memorials.

Despite the escalation, the Arizona Department of Public Safety reported no arrests or injuries in connection with the demonstration.

“As groups realized the state legislature was in session, they attempted to breach the doors of the Arizona Senate and force their way into the building,” the DPS statement said. “The violence of their efforts literally shook the building and terrified citizens and lawmakers who occupied the building.”

Multiple protesters told The Arizona Republic at the scene they didn't know lawmakers were in session at the time.

'I felt very scared'

The ruckus was enough to attract attention inside the Senate chamber — a windowless and cavernous room at the center of the building — as well as drawing the attention of Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, a Scottsdale Republican.

She walked to the building’s lobby, where she saw the crowd gathered outside the glass wall. In her dozen years at the Legislature, and through massive protests over education funding and other issues, Ugenti-Rita said she had not seen anything comparable.

“They were actively screaming profanity, banging on the glass,” she said. “The doors were shaking hard. Security was yelling at them.”

Building occupants were instructed to move to secure locations. Senate President Karen Fann abruptly called a recess to Senate work and evacuated lawmakers and staff to the Senate basement.

“I felt very scared,” Ugenti-Rita said.

Ugenti-Rita took short videos of the crowd, offering a view from inside the Capitol as Department of Public Safety officers formed a line to guard the doors. Soon after, Ugenti-Rita and other lawmakers were moved to interior hallways and ultimately a smaller hearing room to finish the Senate's work.

At the same time, “spillover criminal misconduct in the form of felony criminal damage and the defacing of state memorials was occurring in Wesley Bolin Plaza,” the DPS statement said.

Tear gas, SWAT team clear the area

According to officials, after multiple warnings, and notifications of trespass and unlawful assembly, state troopers deployed gas about 8:30 p.m. from the second floor of the historic Capitol building. Multiple protesters told The Republic at the scene there was no warning beforehand.

Hundreds of protesters immediately scattered and retreated as the gas pervaded the state Capitol grounds.

Shortly after, law enforcement officers in SWAT gear lined up from the state Capitol and advanced toward the remaining protesters who had gathered at Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza.

One officer on a megaphone declared an unlawful assembly and ordered the remaining protesters to leave the area. Some remained, shouting expletives at law enforcement officers, but eventually fled when officers fired additional tear-gas canisters.

After the protesters had largely dispersed, one person broke a window at the state Department of Agriculture building on Adams Street, while others booed the person for doing so.

Clouds of tear gas lingered heavily in the courtyard between the Arizona Senate and House of Representatives buildings, preventing anyone from entering the area.

By 9:30 p.m., crowds had left.

Phoenix police blocked off vehicle access to the state Capitol as protesters could be seen walking away from the area on foot.

'What I had to endure today wasn’t cool'

The lingering tear gas in the chamber forced the Senate to finish its session in a first-floor hearing room where the air was not so irritating.

Ugenti-Rita called the tumultuous final day of the session an exclamation point to her legislative career. She will not return to the Senate next year because she’s running for Arizona secretary of state.

“We have to work together. We can’t be showing up at capitals and homes with sticks in our hands and banging down doors," she said. “Hopefully, if there’s a silver lining, maybe ... there’s going to be more precautions and protocols for next session.”

At the end of the night, Sen. Lupe Contreras, D-Phoenix, spoke briefly about the security alert because of the protesters. He said the tears in his eyes were out of anger, because his wife and children were in the building and he was “scared to all hell” for them.

“What I had to endure today wasn’t cool,” he said.

After the plaza was cleared, officers identified the buildings and memorials in the area that had sustained criminal damage:

  • Wesley Bolin Memorial Amphitheatre

  • 158th Regimental Memorial

  • Arizona Peace Officers Memorial

  • Korean War Memorial

  • Arizona Law Enforcement Canine Memorial

  • Operation Enduring Freedom Memorial

  • Lt. Frank Luke Jr. Memorial

Demonstrations were held throughout the state on Friday, including in Flagstaff and Tucson.

In Tucson, about 500 protesters attempted to take over Interstate 10, said Bart Graves, a DPS spokesperson.

"All of them except six people left after troopers blocked off the frontage road. The six protesters were charged with trespassing," he said.

Group parked in House lobby for hours in 2020

Another unauthorized attempt to enter a state Capitol building occurred in December 2020, when a group entered and stayed for hours in an attempt to have lawmakers decree the November election fraudulent and declare a victory for then-President Donald Trump.

When security opened the sliding doors on the west end of the building to allow a pizza delivery person to enter for a lunch delivery, a group of people “ran across the plaza” and entered the lobby before the doors could close, according to Andrew Wilder, a spokesperson for Republican House members.

The sliding doors are meant to be an exit. The designated entrance to the Arizona House leads to a metal detector.

“Their entry was unauthorized,” Wilder wrote in an email, “and bypassed the security screening area.”

The group made sure at least one person stood in the doorway, triggering the doors to remain open and allowing others to enter, he wrote.

Security officials told the group to leave, Wilder said, but none complied. The officials then made sure the group remained contained on the west end of the lobby, Wilder wrote.

Eventually, according to video of the incident, some Department of Public Safety troopers assisted with security and read a notice that the group was being asked to leave. They did.

This article includes information from Arizona Republic reporter Richard Ruelas.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Arizona DPS, senators describe protest escalation after Roe overturned