Maricopa protest

Protesters and Maricopa Police Chief Steve Stahl take a knee during a demonstration on Monday in Maricopa.

Last week PinalCentral journalists covered protests in Phoenix, Maricopa, Casa Grande and Coolidge.

People across the nation took to the streets to express their grievances following the death, captured on a horrific video, of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.

Some of the protests deteriorated into looting and violence resulting in curfews being set in place, including Arizona. But that didn’t stop the protests.

The protests in Pinal County were all peaceful. They were small, mostly under 100 participants, but no less significant.

Our reporters and photographers were on the scenes and talked directly to the participants, documenting their own personal stories as well as reasons for protesting. There was no conflict, outside of some pettiness exhibited between two groups in Casa Grande as to who should get the proper credit for organizing the event.

We published hundreds of photos and more than a dozen stories online, resulting in more than 1 million page views for the week, a record. We also had significant coverage in our print publications.

The protests were pretty similar in style with the same chants, signs and function as those elsewhere. But the protests in one community stood out — Maricopa.

While there was underlying tension for many of the protests in the communities, the journalists who covered the ones in Maricopa said there was a different vibe. The protesters were treated as members of the community rather than agitators or interlopers.

While social media in other communities reflected angst ahead of the planned protests, Maricopa residents seemed to accept and welcome those exercising their free speech rights.

This attitude was also reflected at the scene of the protests.

A small group of police officers were on hand to monitor the June 1 protest, but there was no tense standoff like we saw in other cities. In fact, Maricopa Police Chief Steve Stahl walked among the protesters, meeting with anyone willing to talk to him. He also joined protesters in taking a knee near the end of the evening.

“We want to set the example, to be the example, to let them know that every life is important to us,” Stahl told Pinal County Editor Joey Chenoweth. “Some people just need to be heard, so a lot of what I’m doing is listening. I don’t have all the answers, but I want to hear what people have to say.”

Maricopa Councilman Henry Wade, who is black, also showed up at the protest with a group bringing cases of water for the protesters and police officers. He praised the relationship between the police and the community.

“We’ve got a respectful relationship with each other, and that goes a long way,” Wade said.

Stahl said the protesters had a message they wanted to get across and they were doing so in an uplifting way rather than through anger. He said that showed him they want to be a part of the solution.

At a later protest outside Maricopa City Hall, Stahl and other city officials conducted an impromptu Q&A with protesters. City Manager Rick Horst even made a spur-of-the-moment proclamation, committing $5,000 out of his budget to help put together a public education campaign.

For Horst, the issue of discrimination hits close to home.

“Between my children, their spouses and my grandchildren, we speak seven languages — well I don’t, I barely speak English,” Horst joked in a follow-up interview with reporter Katie Sawyer. “I have grandkids that speak Mandarin, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Lesotho — believe it or not, an African native language — and I have two grandchildren of color.”

Horst is now in talks with several people from the event who reached out to him to share ideas about how best to use those funds.

Maricopa is Pinal County’s second largest city with a population of just under 55,000, but it is a young city with the median age being under 36, while in Pinal County it is 40. Many of the residents commute to jobs in the Valley, but unlike other Phoenix suburbs, they have developed a sense of community. Their community identification is more in the present than the past.

That identification is also reflected in their diversity. Three of the seven members of the City Council are people of color.

Many social media comments after the protests reflected how proud people were of their community. That sentiment was echoed by their chief.

“I’m so impressed with the city of Maricopa, the people here, the diversity in this city, the humanity in this city,” Stahl said.

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You can reach Andy Howell at ahowell@pinalcentral.com.

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