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Activists decry, TPD chief defends use of pepper spray during protest

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Activists decry, TPD chief defends use of pepper spray during protest

  • Rául Alcaraz Ochoa speaks in front of a standing-room only crowd in the chapel of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson on Wednesday.
    Paul M. Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comRául Alcaraz Ochoa speaks in front of a standing-room only crowd in the chapel of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson on Wednesday.

The day after an immigration protest led to the use of pepper spray and pepper balls, immigration activists met in the chapel of the Southside Presbyterian Church to voice their frustration with the Tucson Police Department and Chief Roberto Villaseñor.

"Nowhere in SB 1070 does it say that TPD must call the Border Patrol," said Raúl Alcaraz Ochoa in front of a packed house Wednesday. "In fact it states they don't have to investigate people's immigration status if it's not practicable to do and doing so hinders or obstructs their initial investigation."

Tucson Police Chief Roberto Villaseñor defended his officers' actions at a press conference Wednesday, telling reporters that officers were following "the precepts of SB 1070" during a legitimate traffic stop.

The Arizona law requires local police to contact federal authorities to determine the immigration status of those they arrest.

Before that portion of the law survived a Supreme Court challenge that saw much of the statute tossed out, Villaseñor signed a brief against SB 1070 and argued that the measure "undermined local law enforcement."

Tuesday's protest began around 7 p.m. when two day laborers with the group Corazon de Tucson were in a car pulled over by Tucson police near 22nd Street and South 10th Avenue because of a broken license plate light.

Neither of the two men, driver Agustin Reyes and passenger Arturo Robles, had Arizona driver's licenses or state-issued IDs, said Sgt. Maria Hawke, a TPD spokeswoman. The officers conducted an immigration check and Customs and Border Protection agents were requested. Before Border Patrol officers arrived, nearly 100 people had gathered at the scene in front of Southside Presbyterian, 317 W. 23rd St., she said.

Alcaraz, who has been arrested twice this year for lying under Border Patrol trucks when undocumented immigrants hve been detained after traffic stops, said activists showed up quickly to the incident because Robles contacted them while they were in an organzing meeting Tuesday night.

Hawke said that seven TPD officers responded to the scene during the confrontation, which unfolded over about 90 minutes.

Activists said there were 20 police officers and more than a dozen Border Patrol officers present when about a dozen demonstrators formed a human chain and refused to allow the border agents through. Another unidentified person tried to crawl beneath the Border Patrol vehicle to prevent it from moving, they said.

According to Leilani Clark, who was standing with her arms linked to others as they stood in the street, Border Patrol agents first tried to push past them to clear a path.

When that failed a Tucson police officer sprayed Clark in the face with pepper spray. Other activists were shot by pepper balls during the commotion. The Fire Department was called, but no one was reported injured; several people were treated at the scene for exposure to the pepper spray, including Clark.

A University of Arizona graduate student Mari Galup was arrested by Border Patrol agents, as was community leader Rosa Leal. Alcaraz Ochoa said Leal showed her driver's license to Border Patrol agents, but was arrested while on the sidewalk.

After officers moved the crowd out of the street, Reyes and Robles were driven away in a Border Patrol vehicle.

Wednesday afternoon, Villaseñor defended the use of pepper spray and balls to disperse the crowd.

"The officers did exactly as they are supposed to," said Villaseñor. "Physical force or pepper spray was in response to the aggressive nature of the crowd. It was because the crowd was very emotional and had started to become physical and this was a quick way to stop it from getting worse."

Clark and Alcaraz claimed police used rubber bullets as they moved the crowd out of the street, but the police chief only addressed the use of pepper during his meeting with reporters.

Alcaraz said that such protests will continue and remain necessary.

"We have to make the separating of families visible in the community," he said. "We can't just let people disappear, we have to bring this issue to the limelight."

According to Alcaraz, a City Council study session will address the issue on Nov. 13.

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