Thousands turn DPS show of force into a mural for Dion Johnson

By: - June 8, 2020 8:05 pm

Demonstrators hung signs from the temporary fencing erected in late May around the Department of Public Safety headquarters. Photo by Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

The Arizona Department of Public Safety put up fencing around its Phoenix headquarters in late May to stop the family, friends and advocates of Dion Johnson from holding a vigil there. Nine days later, thousands of demonstrators marched to the building, chanting “Justice for Dion!”, and turned the fence into a community mural. 

As a few law enforcement agents stood on roofs of the DPS buildings monitoring the rally, marchers used string and tape to put up cardboard, posters, and paper signs on the chain link fencing. 

“To let them know how many people hold them responsible for the death of Dion Johnson,” said Michael Moynihan, also known as Renaissance, an organizer with Mass Liberation Arizona.

Sunday marked the 11th day of daily marches in Phoenix to demand structural changes to policing and protest the deaths of Johnson, George Floyd in Minnesota and other black Americans who have had fatal encounters with law enforcement.

Johnson died after an DPS trooper found him sleeping in his car on the side of a north Phoenix highway just after sunrise on May 25, and shot him. 

The Phoenix Police Department is investigating the fatal encounter. The family has called on the U.S. Department of Justice to step in. They also have demanded the release of the name of the trooper who shot Johnson, the official report of the incident and video footage of it. It’s unclear what video exists: The trooper wasn’t equipped with a body-worn camera and there are not dash-cams on patrol motorcycles.

On Sunday, demonstrators chanted for six minutes in front of the DPS headquarters. That’s roughly the amount of time Johnson can be seen shot, writhing on the ground of the highway with no apparent medical aid, according to a video following the shooting recorded by a TV station. The video showed an ambulance stationed several hundred feet away. 

“Justice for who?” protest leaders yelled Sunday. 

“Dion Johnson!” the crowd of thousands responded. 

DPS Dion Johnson rally
Khalil McCullen (left) of Drinking Gourd Farms and Mariam A. (right) chant “Justice for who?” and the crowd in front of the Arizona Department of Public Safety responds, “Dion Johnson!” during a rally on Sunday, June 7, 2020. Photo by Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

The Sunday demonstration, which began at Encanto Park in the afternoon and concluded there 30 minutes before the 8 p.m. statewide curfew, was organized by Black Lives Matter Phoenix Metro, Mass Liberation Arizona, Black Phoenix Organizing Collective, Phoenix Local Organizing Committee, Drinking Gourd Farms, Trans Queer Pueblo, and Poder In Action

Holding signs and wearing face masks, the demonstrators marched down Encanto Boulevard and through the historic Encanto neighborhood for about a mile before arriving at DPS headquarters. 

Chazayah De Los Monteros, 20, marched near the front line. A black bandana covered her face and mouth. She held a sign that read, “Land stolen from Natives. Built by slaves. Keep beautiful by Latinos.”

De Los Monteros, who identifies as Black and Latina, said it was the first time she attended a rally, but she was inspired to attend to speak up against the deaths of Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement. 

“I’m a minority. I’m not OK with people dying. I’m not OK with police officers getting away with killing people,” she said. “We won’t stand for a country that likes to kneel on us.” 

An organizer leading the march prompted chants as they marched. 

“Justice for who?” he said. 

“Dion Johnson!” De Los Monteros and hundreds behind her responded. 

DPS Dion Johnson rally
Thousands marched down Encanto Boulevard in Phoenix to bring attention and ask for accountability in the case of Dion Johnson, who was shot and killed by a DPS trooper who found him asleep in his car on May 25, 2020. Photo by Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

At the intersection of 21st Avenue and Encanto, where the DPS headquarters sprawl for a few blocks, the march stopped. Metal chain link fences held down with sandbags that the public agency put up last week limited access to the DPS parking lots and buildings.

Standing in the back of a U-Haul truck loaded with cases of bottled water and granola bars, Khalil McCullen spoke through a megaphone. 

“Today, we came to turn this fence into a community mural,” McCullen told the crowd. “We didn’t expect to have this many people. Now, we are going to surround DPS, peacefully, and turn the whole perimeters into a mural.” 

As protesters began to walk the half mile to circle the DPS offices, Alberto Luis Rojas stood at the turn of the first corner. He smiled at demonstrators and gave them a thumbs up as he stood in front of his small, two-wheel ice cream cart. Some in the crowd briefly peeled away from the march to buy strawberry and lime Mexican ice pops from him.  

DPS Dion Johnson rally
Alberto Luis Rojas sells strawberry and lime Mexican ice pops on the corner of 21st and Lewis avenues in Phoenix during a march around the Arizona Department of Public Safety on Sunday, June 7, 2020. The rally marked the 11th consecutive day of protests against the death of black Americans after encounters with law enforcement. Photo by Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

Throughout the afternoon, Bandak Lul held a stick with a large South Sudan flag. Lul said he arrived in Arizona in 2006 as a refugee. He is now a researcher of human trafficking at Arizona State University. 

“I’m South Sudanese-American. I’m a Black man in America. The issues concerning Black people in America also concern me,” Lul said. “I’m here for my brothers, for Dion Johnson, for George Floyd. I don’t want to be the next victim.”

He said that it was the second rally he’d attended. 

“I see unity. I see solidarity. I see young people asking for change,” Lul said. “This is a global movement.”

DPS Dion Johnson rally
Bandak Lul (right) raises his fist in front of the Arizona Department of Public Safety headquarters in central Phoenix on June 7, 2020. The demonstration drew thousands to bring attention to the case of Dion Johnson, who was shot and killed by a DPS trooper who found him asleep in his car on May 25, 2020. Photo by Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

Celena Tevoh, 19, helped tie and tape protest signs to the fencing outside DPS. She said she’s been attending demonstrations like this since she was around 11. 

“It’s been an ongoing fight,” Tevoh said. “They can’t hide it anymore. They think they can get things past us, but it’s different now. We’re not standing for it anymore.”

She added that she saw Col. Heston Silbert, head of DPS, say at a press conference last week that he hasn’t spoken to Johnson’s family

“That’s not how you treat a community you’re supposed to protect and serve,” Tevoh said. “It’s important to recognize his family, to understand they’re in intense mourning (right now).”

DPS Dion Johnson rally
Celena Tevoh ties protest signs on the fence surrounding the public buildings and parking lots of the Arizona Department of Public Safety on June 7, 2020. The demonstration drew thousands to bring attention to the case of Dion Johnson, who was shot and killed by a DPS trooper who found him asleep in his car on May 25, 2020. Photo by Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

For almost seven years, Synthia Winston, 64, has lived adjacent to DPS headquarters. It’s a quiet neighborhood, she said. She wasn’t planning on participating in the rally, but stumbled upon it. 

Seeing the young Black community out there made her proud, she said. 

“Everybody was trying to be as one. It really touched my heart, because I think we have made a statement,” she said. “I’m proud of what has taken place right now. I’m full (of) a lot of emotions, especially being an African-American woman. … I’m proud of them, I am, I am.”

Winston shared that her family took part in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. 

“I’ve seen it all. For me to see this, this was like reversing it back. This is the ‘60s, not quite as bad as the ‘60s, because we had dogs on us, we had the water on us, but they’re still killing our people,” she said. “The message is still the same, it’s just a different era. So, we gotta make some changes. When is enough, enough? … Have we not paid the price yet?”

Lashae Brown, with the Black Phoenix Organizing Collective, ended the event with a brief breathing exercise and meditation. 

“Healing is essential to what we believe. To be free, we have to be healed,” Brown said. 

The gathering ended with hugging, and volunteers handing out cool bottles of water. Shortly after 7:30 p.m., police announced in English and Spanish the emergency curfew, which runs from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m.

On her way out, Miriam A., an activist with Black Lives Matter Metro Phoenix, reiterated the demands the advocacy groups are making in relation to the case of Johnson: release the official report of the incident, the name of the trooper who shot and killed Johnson and any footage of the encounter.

She said Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego has also failed in responding to the demands from Johnson’s family and advocates. 

“Defund the police is the strategy, abolish police is the goal, and fuck the police is the attitude,” she said. 

Roughly two hours after thousands in Phoenix made the community mural to show DPS they’re not forgetting about Johnson’s case, DPS troopers wearing bulletproof vests took down the signs.

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Laura Gómez
Laura Gómez

Laura Gómez Rodriguez previously covered state politics and immigration for the Arizona Mirror.