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A Showdown in Phoenix

Rene Gutel

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Pruitt's Protestors
(Marin Davies)
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On one corner of the busy intersection at 35th Street and Thomas Road, on the east side of Phoenix, migrant rights activists are holding signs in English and Spanish, and chanting for racists to "go home." The main organizer is Salvador Reza, who's wearing a bandana around his head Karate-Kid style.

"Right here, it's an area of racial profile like you've never seen before," the 56-year-old Reza says. "In fact, we're telling people not to come through this area if you are brown."

On the other corner are the counter-demonstrators - the Minutemen waving American flags, the retirees and a whole lot of bikers dressed in leather. Many of their signs say "No Open Borders."

All this started when the massive furniture store across the street, Pruitt's, hired off-duty law enforcement officers to patrol the parking lot, to keep day laborers from loitering and looking for work. The store's owners say the migrants were harassing customers. As a result of those and other patrols, sheriff's deputies have arrested dozens of suspected illegal immigrants in this area the last two months.

"Frankly, I'm tired of the illegal immigration," says counter-protestor Katie DeClusin. "It's too much. They come over here, they push us around and, you know, Pruitt's is doing what they need to do to stand their ground. And we're out here supporting them."

Across the street, in the parking lot of Pruitt's, there is a small fleet of black vans and patrol cars belonging to the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office. Sheriff Joe Arpaio is known for putting prisoners in chain gangs. He started an illegal immigration hotline for people to tip him off to undocumented migrants.

On the pro-migrant rights side, a lot of the anger is directed right at Arpaio. A man yells through a bullhorn for Arpaio to "go down." He would not give his name, saying only that he's a "concerned citizen."

The only calm spot in all this is inside the furniture store. Pruitt's is a Phoenix institution, the kind of place you go to buy oversized leather couches or cherry-wood dining sets. But it's almost empty this Saturday. The store's owner admits the protests have hurt business.

"We don't want to be the epicenter of illegal immigration," says co-owner Mike Sensing. "We just want to sell furniture, and let the government decide what's to be done on the other issues. All we want was to not have our business affected by the day labor situation. That's something the city should be able to do something with."

But Sensing has joined the fray himself with his furniture vans. He has lined them on the edge of his parking lot and hung banners on them, condemning Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon for not doing enough to calm the situation. Last week, Mayor Gordon invited Sensing and Reza to sit down and talk, but the meeting has yet to happen.

Back outside, counter-demonstrators sing a bastardized version of a John Denver classic. "Leaving on a Greyhounda€¦" they croon to the migrant rights activists on the other side of the street.

Each Saturday, there's a feeling that anything could happen. There was the weekend back in early November when the legal director of Arizona's ACLU was arrested for parking in front of Pruitt's. And then two weekends ago, while the protests were underway, sheriff's deputies rounded up eight suspected illegal immigrants in the area. But protesters say they'll keep coming every week.

"We need more average Arizonans to see how these people are," migrant rights demonstrator Linda Brown says. Brown holds a sign that says, "No KKK in Arizona."

"They need to see that regular Arizonans are not going to tolerate their presence and hatred," Brown adds.

The anti-immigration protesters think their side is gaining ground too.

"Well, we're going to come as long as they continue to protest the way they have," explains 70-year-old Alan Becker, who has decorated his walker with American flags. "We know we have them on the defense now. When you see them using things like KKK, they're at the last straw."

These weekly demonstrations have taken on a life of their own. Last weekend, as I stand there with my microphone, I notice a woman is yelling at me.

"The media has been lame!" she screams. "You are an agent of the enemy!"

When I ask her name, she retorts, "No comment!" She takes my photo and says she's going to post it online somewhere. Then she storms off.

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