Dion Johnson was shot and killed by a DPS officer on Monday, May 25th. He was driving home when he pulled over to the side of the road because he was tired and wanted to take a brief moment to rest. A DPS officer pulled up and claims there was a struggle that ultimately ended with Dion Johnson being murdered. As of Saturday May 30th, we have not seen a police report, we don’t have the name of the officer involved, we don’t have body camera or highway camera footage, and Dion’s family is not in possession of his belongings. These are the things we are demanding to have access to, in addition to the firing and conviction of the officer for committing murder.
Friday, May 29th, Black Lives Matter Phoenix Metro organized a candle-lit vigil alongside other local organizations to honor Dion and his family. The event was initially going to be held in front of the Phoenix Department of Public Safety, where the family was slated to present their demands. Upon arrival the area was barricaded, making it apparent they knew we were coming. The event was rerouted to Jefferson Park a few miles outside the city. I arrived at the park around 7 pm while there was still a good amount of light left. When I arrived, there were about 150-200 people already sitting along the amphitheater in the park. Chants for justice could be heard across the park into the parking lot. We were asked to bring water, wear a mask, and reminded that the family was imploring the crowd to remain peaceful, as the night prior we had watched the Minneapolis protests devolve into chaos after repeated violent acts of instigation by the police.
There was palpable tension in the air. I couldn’t pinpoint the feeling at first, but was consumed by a lingering shroud of nervousness and anger. I think we all shared a common sense of unease because we didn’t know how the police were going to react to our being there. We could already hear the whirring helicopters overhead, like they were taunting us, just begging us to light the park on fire, but they wouldn’t be so lucky. Over the course of two hours, we heard heartbreaking testimonials from family and friends of Dion reflecting on the how they remembered their son, brother, cousin, and friend. We heard again and again on how Dion was honest, loyal, attentive, and an overall beautiful man. A woman close to Dion took the microphone and shared a personal story about how she was harassed and assaulted by the Phoenix Police Department in 2009. “It could be any family here,” she said, speaking specifically to the groups of Black families in the crowd, reminding everyone that police brutality disproportionately affects the Black community as a whole.
There was a particular moment towards the end of the night that there was a shift in tone. Dion’s mother took to the microphone to share some additional words to close out the night. She wanted to remind everyone of how grateful she was for the support and concluded her statement saying, “all lives matter.” There was a hushed groan amongst some of the people in the crowd. “We’re not here for that, we’re here because Black lives matter!”, a strong voice exclaimed from the crowd. This was a pivotal moment. Words were exchanged but the event persisted. The event organizer reminded everyone that their event was over but that, “whatever y’all do after this is on you. Just remember we don’t have a bail fund set up yet so if you get arrested, that’s on you.” The night was coming to a close around 9 pm and everyone was headed back to their cars when a march started up the street.
My friends and I instantly shuffled into the crowd marching away from the park. We started north on 15th Avenue towards Washington Street. We hooked left and started toward the city. At this point, we were roughly two miles from the actual downtown area.
The police were ominpresent and lined the streets, surrounding us the whole night. In the rare moment that they could not be seen, they were heard. The feeling of being keenly monitored lingered throughout the night and the resulting uneasiness was coursing through the air. As we marched down Washington Street, they chased us, as we continued to move closer to the skyscraper skyline, full of corporate properties that were built by the hands of honest, hardworking people for the profit of shareholders and the disenfranchisement of everyone else. We had news cameras following us at every step and knew exactly what they were waiting for. They wanted us to march straight into the city and burn it down, to boost their ratings and rake in their dollars calling us all “looters” and “thugs”. I didn’t know what was happening or where our destination was. There was a surreal moment that I will never forget when we crossed the intersection of 2nd Street and Washington, where we passed a popular section of bars and clubs that had people outside and we exchanged cheers but this was just another Friday night for them. Did they know that a police officer had shot and killed an innocent man a few days prior? Did they know a police officer purposely drove his knee into the neck of a man for 8 minutes and 46 seconds killing him? If they did know, did they not care? Why didn’t any of them jump straight up to action and join us? It’s something I will continue to feel uneasy about and reflect on over the next 7 days.
We were passing Central when I finally realized where our destination was: Phoenix Police Headquarters, only a few blocks from where we were. There were about 200-300 of us and we hadn’t stopped chanting since our march began. We wanted the whole world to hear us, for Dion. As the crowd swelled and arrived at our destination, it had already been blockaded by metal fences and plain-clothed officers were there to greet us. They didn’t say anything. We stood face to face with them. I didn’t know what our end goal was other than to express our commitment to justice and demand, in real-time, accountability for the egregious wrongdoing of the department. It was about 10:15 pm when we arrived. We chanted and stood and the tension continued to build over the next 10 minutes until the Phoenix Police Department decided to start marching themselves. They sent out lines of officers suited in full riot-gear to stand in front of their existing barricade. This only agitated us more. What was the need? They began to bark out orders, commanding us to back up, and then rattled the blockade separating us from them. They wanted to provoke us and it worked. We shook back to gain our ground and they shot off loud shotguns in the air that sent us scrambling backward, not knowing what would follow. We started to pushback and advance towards them and they shot off more loud booms. This cycle continued until about 11:45 pm, when they finally deemed our assembly unlawful. A man’s voice boomed through a loudspeaker telling us to disperse, which I thought to be a recording until after the 8th or 9th recitation, when he led with an audible sigh into the microphone. He didn’t give a fuck that one of his colleagues had just murdered a man in cold blood. We were annoying him, keeping him from clocking out.
With no end in sight, I decided to fall back toward the court building and just observe. I wanted to be able to document every move of the riot-dressed police with as much detail as I could. The night consisted of inaudible yelling from all groups on the front line, everyone competing to be seen and heard, to express centuries of frustration at a system functioning exactly as it was designed, one that intentionally and systematically disenfranchises, one that perpetuates, incites, and rewards violence against Black and Brown people. All we were met with was barked commands and loud booming of flashbangs and shotgun blasts.
Tear gas came a little after midnight, and I had started my two-mile walk back to my car only minutes before then. Different events kept replaying through my head on my walk and the days that followed. The frustration and tension in the park, the groups of people congregating at the bar we passed, and the petty sigh of annoyance from the police. What will it take for them to get it? At this very point, I don’t think any singular event can change anything, unless very catastrophic. This tension will only continue to build until it starts to boil over. Maybe the only solution is to burn everything down and restart. We’re long overdue for an unflinchingly honest reckoning.
George Cervantes is the name of the officer who murdered Dion Johnson. Traffic footage has been released but it was edited by DPS. Video shows Cervantes kicking Dion as he rolls around dying on the ground. The EMTs can be seen on video and are shown waiting over 6 minutes before they started to assist Dion. Cervantes is on administrative leave but still being paid. The demands of the family have not been met and murders shouldn’t be getting paid. Dion Johnson was murdered the same day as George Floyd.
Find more resources on how to bring Dion’s murderers to justice here.