Sumayyah Dawud

Sumayyah Dawud of Phoenix brought an assault rifle to the Gilbert protest, saying she wanted to protect BLM demonstrators.

Since June, members of the East Valley Blue Line Supporters have stood at a corner at Gilbert and Warner roads for weekly rallies in support of police.

Last Thursday was no exception for the Gilbert-based group but it moved to a new corner at Williams Field Drive and Val Vista Road because its message was getting lost in the chaos taking place in the last few weeks at its former location, an organizer said.

“We came out to support law enforcement, our country and our flag,” said a woman, who identified herself as an organizer. She said her group, which claimed 672 Facebook members, will continue to hold the rallies until the presidential election.

She declined to give her name, saying Black Lives Matter supporters have shown up at the homes of women members publicly identified and harassed them. 

The group recently announced it would move to a new location each week, notifying its vetted members privately on where to meet. The group also is kicking out members for not following its guidelines that call for no profanity, obscene gestures or threatening and harassing behavior.  

The woman said about three weeks after her group began staging its rallies, BLM supporters showed up in July and grew in number as time went by.  

“It was an unspoken thing, we each had a corner and it was completely peaceful until other groups showed up and caused problems,” she said. “Our group has nothing to do with them.”

The other groups totaled over 50 people last Thursday and faced off against BLM supporters at Gilbert and Warner roads. They were separated by orange-colored road barricades and police officers. 

The pro-police side waved American flags, Confederate flags, Trump banners and chanted “four more years” and “all lives matter.” 

Across the street, BLM supporters carried signs that read, “My kids are black, please don’t kill them,” “Cops protect public property, not lives,” and “Abolish the police” as they chanted, “Black lives matter.”

Suzie DeWitt held up her sign that read, “Jesus loves you.”

“I’m 73. When I was younger, I wanted to go to D.C. to march with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” she said. “It’s 60 years later and they are still fighting for their rights. Why can’t we all get along?”

Her pastor, the Rev. Andre Miller of New Beginnings Christian Church in Mesa, brought his 18-year-old son to the rally.

“This is purely political,” Miller said. “The police are being used as pawns. This is purely a Trump rally.”

He added if the pro-police groups are really supporting police, they would continue to do so even after the November election.

“Unfortunately, all this violence by the Back the Blue side is costing the town $25,000 a week” for barricades and overtime, Miller said.

Chief Michael Soelberg said the cost was more than that to rotate 140 officers in and out at and near the two locations that Thursday. 

Several of the BLM supporters were armed – like their counterparts across the street. They had homemade wood shields and a few men dressed from head to toe in black and were armed they said to protect the protestors.

Emma Hansen, who has been attending the rallies since July, said BLM supporters started forming at the corner because the pro-police groups were showing their support for law enforcement, which she objected to in light of the July 4 shooting of a homeless man by Phoenix Police.

Hansen claimed radical groups like Proud Boys and white supremacists have been coming to the protests, giving Nazi salutes and shouting “white power.” 

Her friend Sumayyah Dawud came to the rally from Phoenix, armed with an AR-15, a 9mm handgun and a hunting knife.

“It sucks,” that she has to do that, Dawud said but it’s necessary in order to protect themselves. “We only arm ourselves to deter them from attacking us,” Hansen added.

Over at the other side, 19-year-old Ari Hernandez was decked out in a MAGA hat and a “Latinos for Trump” T-shirt while waving a “Trump 2020” flag.

“I love my president,” he said. “I don’t think defunding the police is a good solution to police brutality. I like the police but I think we need reform. It’s kind of sad that it turned violent but I came out here to make sure everything is calmed down.”

The Rev. Justin Hamilton, who is black, was at the pro-police side talking with protestors with his two daughters, 2 and 8, by his side. 

He said he wanted his children to get both perspectives of the issue.

“I think there’s a lot of misconception on both sides,” the preacher said. “I think there is some hypocrisy on both sides but I think that at the end of the day it’s people just expressing what they believe is best for change.”

A big proponent of the pro-police events is Liz Harris, who is running for a state House seat in November and had attended the rallies since they began.

“They are doing this to have a peaceful demonstration,” said the Chandler resident last Monday. “We support our police departments and we support our American flag. We support our Constitution. They don’t want any riots.”

Harris said she’s recently stopped going to the Gilbert protests because she’s received death threats. 

“Basically, I have a target on my back right now,” Harris said. “I’m being targeted because I do not want to defund police. If a police officer has done something wrong, he needs to be reprimanded or dismissed.

 “I’m a mom running for office doing my civic duty and I have a bullseye on my back with death threats. I never in a million years imagined running for office would result in this.”

The rallies had been peaceful up until Aug. 20, when verbal and physical altercations broke out between the two opposing groups, prompting Gilbert officers to position themselves in between the two sides to prevent further clashes.

Other groups such as Back the Blue AZ have also shown up at the rallies. 

Police ended up arresting three people at that protest – one for disorderly conduct, one for assault charges and another for criminal damage but the victim later declined prosecution, according to police spokeswoman Brenda Carrasco.

The incident prompted Mayor Scott Anderson to issue a statement saying while the town supported peaceful protests, it will not tolerate violence. Anderson went on to say Gilbert takes “great pride in our police department and the ace that we are the second safest city in the country.”

Chief Soelberg posted a video on Twitter urging the public to look for “ways to be constructive and have dialogue and look for purposeful direction to where we can make positive change within the community.”

“Standing on the side of the street yelling at each other is not constructive,” the chief said.

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