By Tony Gutiérrez
PHOENIX — Walking along Central Avenue in South Phoenix June 13, Sannia Johnson noticed people carrying signs stating that “Black Lives Matter,” and knew that’s where she needed to be.
Johnson, a 14-year-old African American girl, had just buried her father, Dion Johnson, the day before. The elder Johnson is among African Americans that have been killed recently in encounters with police, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks, which has led to civil unrest and protests throughout the country.
Dion Johnson was shot and killed by an Arizona Department of Public Safety officer May 25, the same day Floyd was killed. When officers found Johnson, he had fallen asleep in his car parked at the gore point where State Highway 51 merges from Loop 101 near the Tatum Boulevard exit. Body camera footage is not available, and details are still emerging from the killing.
The protesters were part of the Peaceful, Prayerful Protest organized by the South Phoenix-based Mary’s Ministries apostolate. Sannia was invited to say a few words by event organizers before a public recitation of the Rosary over a loudspeaker system.
In a tearful interview afterward, Johnson shared that although she had been “in and out of the system” since she was young, her father never left her side, even if he wasn’t able to provide for her.
“He always worried where I was at,” she said. “He was a good person. He protected his family. He protected my mom. He protected my little brother and sister. Even though they weren’t his, he protected them, and now I know he’s protecting us now that he’s gone.”
“I just want people to understand that even though we come in and out of jail, doesn’t mean it’s a reason to shoot us. This is people’s lives you’re taking,” she added.
Armando Ruiz, a former state lawmaker and a member of the Ruiz family that established the apostolate, estimated 10,000 drivers passed them and honked support during the two-hour protest.
When Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted issued a pastoral message on racism in early June and celebrated a Mass for the Forgiveness of the Sin of Racism earlier in the week, Ruiz said it spoke to his heart as a Catholic.
“We Have to confront it,” Ruiz said. “It became time to talk about it.”
Ruiz said he and other members of his family were concerned the with the violence and destruction that resulted from some of the protests.
“As Catholics and people of God, that’s not the way we confront sin,” he said. “Our job is to build. We are all Children of God, and because of that, that’s what gives us our human dignity, and nobody can tear that down.”
Ruiz is no stranger to police violence. In a 2014 incident, Ruiz and his now wife Monica Rivera were on their way to morning Mass when an unmarked van driving slowly pulled in front of them. After Ruiz honked and drove around the van, the driver — a Phoenix police officer transporting inmates — cut them off and pointed a gun at them.
“We just both put our hands up. In that time, I was thinking, ‘What do I do? Should I just gun it? Try to get out of here? Do I put it reverse?’ And as I was racing through my head all those thoughts, I heard Monica start to pray, and that’s what calmed me down,” Ruiz recalled. “Later on, I thought that had we made any move, he would have killed us because he was just looking for a reason to kill us.”
The officer eventually told the couple to be careful who they honked at in the future, and immediately after he drove away, they filed a police report. The officer was arrested and eventually sentenced to a nine-month probation and prohibited from working in law enforcement in the future. Ruiz recalled the officer’s partner apologizing to the couple during the trial.
“That restored a lot of my faith for police officers. I was really proud of that,” he said. “There are bad cops, but not all cops are like that. You can’t paint everybody with that same brush stroke.”
Ruiz’s son, Armando Ruiz, Jr., joined the peaceful protest with his girlfriend, Alexis Montoya, and 4-month-old son, Armando, III.
“He’s the future. He’s going to be the one who is affected most by what’s going on in today’s world,” said Armando Jr. about why he brought his son. “Now is the perfect time for the modern world, for young Latinos, young blacks, young whites and everybody to come together so that the world they live in is accepting, so they don’t have to deal with stuff like this.”
The third-generation Armando wasn’t the only child to attend. A group of elementary and middle school-aged children from nearby St. Catherine Parish also participated. Eighth-grader Jovanni Castillo, 12, wanted to “show that violence isn’t the answer and to show that you can do a peaceful protest, too.”
Non-Christians also participated to show their support for the cause. Singh Manjeet, a ninth grade science teacher and a Sikh who attends Nishkam Sewa Gurdwara Sahib Temple in Glendale, said she participated because everybody should be treated equal.
“We come from the country where everyone knows about Mahatma Gandhi, and he was a peaceful protester,” said Manjeet, referring to the Hindu activist known as the “Father of India” for his successful effort at achieving independence for his country through non-violent means. “We believe in that and we always follow a peaceful manner for everything.”
For John Alvarez, another local teacher and a parishioner at Holy Family, the prayerful aspect of the protest was the most significant and efficacious part.
“I believe that this was needed, in remembrance of all the people who have been victims of injustice and to honor them with prayer and peace,” he said. “In prayer, we find answers. When we speak to the Lord, it’s through prayer. He will answer.”