PHOENIX (AP) — Protests outside the Arizona Capitol over the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade that ended with a volley of tear gas were variously described Saturday as either peaceful or driven by anarchists intent on destruction.
Republican Senate President Karen Fann issued a news release describing it as a thwarted insurrection, while protesters called it a violent overreaction by police who they said acted without warning or justification.
Arizona Department of Public Safety statements said state troopers launched the gas as some in a group of 7,000 to 8,000 people that rallied at the Capitol on Friday night were trying to break into the state Senate. Lawmakers were working to finish their yearly session.
The vast majority of people were peaceful and state police said there were no arrests or injuries. While both abortion opponents and abortion rights backers were there, most of the crowd opposed the high court's decision.
Police fired tear gas at about 8:30 p.m. as dozens of people pressed up against the glass wall at the front of the Senate building, chanting and waving signs backing the right to abortion. While most were peaceful, a handful of people were banging on the windows, and one person forcefully tried to kick in a sliding glass door.
That's when SWAT team members with the Department of Public Safety stationed on the second floor of the old Capitol building fired the tear gas.
Video taken from inside the Senate lobby by Republican Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita showed the scene. Another she took moments later showed state police in riot gear forming a line inside the building, facing protesters on the other side of the glass.
She said in an interview with The Associated Press on Saturday morning that the protesters were clearly trying to enter the locked building.
"They were aggressively banging on the windows in a way that at any moment it could break," Ugenti-Rita said. “This wasn’t a knock on a window. I mean, they were trying to break the windows.”
Hundreds of protesters could been seen in her videos milling about the plaza between the House and Senate buildings, while about a hundred were closer, near the glass wall at the front of the Senate building.
“There was no other conclusion than they were interested in being violent,” she added. "I have no other takeaway than that. I’ve seen many protests over my years, in many different sizes and forms. I’ve never seen that ever.”
Some Republican lawmakers and influential figures on the right compared the incident to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, in which a violent mob battled police and entered the building in a failed attempt to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power.
In Arizona, only a tiny fraction of the thousands assembled tried to break a door, the building was never breached and no one was injured.
Democratic state Rep. Athena Salman of Tempe, however, said those gassed were peaceful.
“A bunch of House and Senate Democrats voted to give these cops a huge pay raise,” said said on Twitter in a post showing police firing tear gas. “Some even called it historic. Remember that every time the cops gas peaceful protesters.”
State police said in a statement that what “began as a peaceful protest evolved into anarchical and criminal actions by masses of splinter group.” And they said they had issued multiple warnings for people to leave.
Police said gas was deployed “after protesters attempted to break the glass" and was later deployed again in a plaza across the street. Police said some memorials at the plaza were defaced.
No broken glass was visible at the Senate building after the crowd dispersed.
Salman said in an interview Saturday that police in Arizona have a long history of using unneeded force against people exercising the First Amendment rights to protest and then blaming them for causing the trouble. She pointed to Black Lives Matter and immigrant justice protests, and said she's not surprised to see it at an abortion rights protest.
“Anything related to human rights they're ultimately going to gas the crowd and then come up with cover stories justifying this excessive use of force,” Salman said.
State Senate Democrats issued a statement Saturday saying the vast majority of protesters were peaceful while noting that a small number tried to enter the building.
“We unequivocally condemn violence in all forms, and anxiously await the investigation results to explain the response of law enforcement,” the statement said.
They also criticized “right-wing media and lawmakers” who called it an “insurrection attempt,” and said they were “weaponizing this moment to deflect from the actions of January 6th.”
Republicans lawmakers had enacted a 15-week abortion ban in March over the objection of minority Democrats. It mirrors a Mississippi law that the Supreme Court upheld on Friday while also striking down Roe. A law dating from before Arizona became a state in 1912 that bans all abortions remains on the books, and providers across the state stopped providing abortions earlier Friday out of fear of prosecution.
The protester incident forced Senate lawmakers to flee to the basement for about 20 minutes, said Democratic Sen. Martin Quezada. Stinging tear gas wafted through the building afterward, and the proceedings were moved to a hearing room instead of the Senate chamber.
Fann was presiding over a vote for a contentious school vouchers expansion bill when she abruptly halted proceedings. Speeches backing or supporting the bill expanding the state's school voucher program to all 1.1 million public school students were cut off, and the bill passed.
“We're going into recess right now, OK?” Fann announced. “We have a security problem outside.”
The building was never breached, said Kim Quintero, a spokesperson for the Senate GOP leadership.
After the tear gas sent protesters fleeing, the Senate reconvened to vote on its final bills before adjourning for the year shortly after midnight. A faint smell of tear gas hung in the air.