On February 8 and 9, the City of Flagstaff hosted Dew Downtown, it’s third annual “adrenaline rich, high octane” urban ski and snowboard festival. Juxtaposed among the thousands of spectators, and beer drinkers—mingled with prominent use of words like “shred,” “stoked” and “tweeked out”—were a group of protestors who echoed much different messages: free speech and responsible water use.
A lot goes into planning an event like this. Beyond the sponsors, permits, and advertising, the City used at least 300,000 gallons of Flagstaff’s drinking water to make artificial snow using the Arizona Snowbowl ski resort’s snowmaking guns. The snow was made at the resort, and trucked into the city where it was spread along San Francisco Street for the event. But this wasn’t all the City did to prepare for the event. They also sent armed plain-clothed police officers to various community member’s houses, as well as the Táala Hooghan Infoshop, a community center on Flagstaff’s eastside, as “preventative maintenance” of the event since Snowbowl was involved in making snow.
Making snow from any source of water has been a contentious issue in Flagstaff for the last decade or more. Since the Arizona Snowbowl ski resort started expanding their operations to make artificial snow from Flagstaff’s reclaimed wastewater on the San Francisco Peaks, protests, which have included road blockades, tree sits, lockdowns, and other nonviolent demonstrations have resulted in more than 50 arrests.
Officers Kevin Rued and Eric Greenwald stated that their supervisors gathered information from Facebook and Twitter that protesters were “going to chain themselves and cause this huge disruption,” a claim that those targeted denied. The officers were relaying a message to certain individuals that the City was setting up a “free speech zone” in front of the courthouse. “The entire front grassy area of the courthouse [is] roped off specifically for protesters” just outside of where the event is taking place,” they said.
James Kennedy, a community member who was arrested last year for participating in a tree sit aimed at disrupting construction of a wastewater pipeline from Thorpe park to Snowbowl was alarmed by the visit, “It’s chilling and terrifying. Armed men showed up at my house, I didn’t know if I was going to jail [that] morning.”
The irony here is that nobody was planning anything. “We were just planning a simple boycott of the event,” said community member Dawn Dyer who held up a sign at the event that said, “water is life.”
Diné activist and Flagstaff citizen Klee Benally, who was also targeted as part of the City’s “preventative maintenance” prior to the event, confirmed that no demonstrations were planned. “We were planning on not going there because last year it was so intense and violating. The boycott we planned was just a boycott online where we said, ‘hey we don’t want to go; we don’t want to support this event,’ and we wanted to let people understand why.”
The intensity of last year’s protest, which Benally and others wanted to avoid this year, resulted in charges reluctantly handed down to a snowbowl supporter for assaulting two Diné minors.
On February 9, 2013, more than 50 people had gathered in downtown Flagstaff for a peaceful Idle No More round dance in protest of the Arizona Snowbowl ski area’s expansion and the use of reclaimed wastewater to make artificial snow on the San Francisco Peaks, a mountain held sacred to at least 13 tribes of the southwest. The protest coincided with that year’s Dew Downtown event, sponsored in part by the Arizona Snowbowl.
According to a press release, the group formed a circle and were closing the protest with the American Indian Movement song when Snowbowl supporter Lindsay Lucas, who was intoxicated at the time, “rushed into the circle of protesters swinging her arms and tore through a large banner, pulling it from the people holding it and smashed it on the ground. She then pushed further into the circle and assaulted two young Diné who were singing and drumming. After punching at them, she grabbed at the drums and tried to break them.”
Police initially refused to charge the assaulter. At the time Leslyn Begay, Diné mother of the two boys who were 11 and 13 when assaulted stated, “I feel if the roles were reversed it would have been a different outcome. If I attacked a caucasian child I would have gone straight to jail. This white female attacked us and knocked their drums out of their hands and may get away with it. It’s racism. The cops refused my request to arrest her for assault. They gave her a disorderly conduct ticket but refused to charge her with assault or jail her for her actions against my kids.” stated Ms. Begay.
On January 22, a Flagstaff judge ruled that Lindsay Lucas must pay restitution for assaulting the two Native youth. “I’m pleased to report that the Judge was in our favor. It’s been a very long year of constant continuances. We’ve all suffered emotionally as a family from this ordeal,” said Ms. Begay. “It’s nerve wrecking walking into the judicial system not knowing what to expect. As a Diné and person of color you worry it may not go in your favor,” said Ms. Begay.
Another irony is that Benally, Kennedy, and others were targeted for “preventative maintenance” for this year’s event despite the fact that it was actually a Snowbowl supporter who has ever acted out violently. To the police officers who visited him at his house, Mr. Kennedy stated, “It looks bad when police come to check in on us when at the last Dew Downtown the only thing that happened was the pro-Snowbowl lady came and attacked my friends.” Benally was similarly outraged at the double standard. “The only person that‘s ever been violent at any of these protests, that I suspect would warrant a serious police response, would be snowbowl supporters,” he said. “I mean, they attacked children, minors 11 and 13 at the time, yet the response is to target those who have been peaceful.”
The “free speech zone” was configured on the courthouse lawn, a dozen or so metal barricades formed a small square outside and away from the event. This is where the city intended any and all protests to take place. So-called “free speech zones,” or “free speech cages,” are based on the notion that government may regulate the time, place, and manner—but not the content—of expression, but the American Civil Liberties Union, among other groups and individuals have widely criticized such designations of free speech as unconstitutional. Many colleges and universities instituted free speech zones during Vietnam-era protests in the 1960s and 1970s, and George W. Bush’s administration made prominent use of them throughout his presidency. Critics have claimed that if speech is regulated by time and space, it cannot be free by definition. Alas, when Voltaire said, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it,” it goes without saying that he was not further stipulating, ‘as long as you say it when and at the proper location the state deems it appropriate.’
It was, therefore, the institution of a free speech zone and the intimidating visits by police officers that prompted a protest presence at the event. “I personally wasn’t planning anything until this outright repression occurred,” Benally said, referring to the police harassment, and what he considered efforts to limit free speech. “And to me, in and of itself, this was a matter to protest.” Symbolically the group met opposite the corner where the two Native youth were attacked last year.
Law enforcement agents repeatedly stated that the special event permit extended to the sidewalks and gave them the right to restrict access to the sidewalk. “There were multiple police officers, including Arizona Rangers stationed at different points who were blocking access,” said Benally. They stated that folks couldn’t go up there if you were part of the group,” referring to the event area on San Francisco between Birch and Dale, “and then they said you couldn’t go up if you had a sign. So it wasn’t entirely consistent, but primarily they said if you were a protester you couldn’t go up there,” said Benally.
Benally knew from organizing past events, specifically a Human Rights March in 2012, that when the City issued special event permits, such permits did not extend to the sidewalks. “At every step of the permitting process it was very explicit that the permit did not extend to the sidewalk, that the sidewalk was to remain public,” said Benally. “So on Saturday, when I went up San Francisco Street on the sidewalk, I had that information already.”
When a friend pointed out that Flagstaff Mayor Jerry Nabours was in the area, Benally took this as an opportunity to voice his concerns. “I went up to him and said, ‘hey, I have some concerns about the restricted access to the sidewalk. I feel like my free speech is being denied.’” Benally continued, “Nabours said he wasn’t the person to talk to about that. I asked him who was responsible for creating the free speech zone, and again he said he wasn’t the person to talk to about that.”
“That wasn’t really sufficient to me because I felt like he’s the mayor and he should have more responsibility to address some serious concerns of potential free speech violations,” said Benally. At this point Nabours began to walk away and Benally followed, seeking answers to his questions, and one of the Rangers told him he needed to leave immediately. “I said, well this is a public area, and he responded, ‘you’re trespassing; you’re unwelcome here.’ And he was very aggressive,” claimed Benally. When Benally stepped up onto the sidewalk, he was informed that he was still trespassing and he needed to go down to Birch.
Three fellow protestors claim to have also heard Mayor Nabours say to Benally, “you’re not welcome here,” though Benally himself didn’t hear it. One man, who wished to remain anonymous for this article swears he heard him. “Under oath, I couldn’t say because I didn’t see his lips moving, but I swear Nabours said to Klee as he was walking away, ‘you’re not welcome here.’”
A woman who identified herself as Meline brought it up at a City Council meeting the following Tuesday, and claimed to have documentation. Nabours adamantly refused that he said it. “That’s not true. Bring me the documentation; I think we do have the right to contest a statement,” he said. At the time of publication, no documentation has been produced to support this claim.
“Regardless of whether he said it or not, he turned his back on people who were asking serious and legitimate questions,” said Benally. “He was right there when the officer told me I was unwelcome; he turned his back and walked away.”
On Monday, Benally called the City’s Senior Recreation Coordinator, Glorice Pavey, who is in charge of filing the paperwork for special events. “I asked her if their permit [for the Dew Downtown event] extended to the sidewalk and if they had the ability to restrict movement or speech on the sidewalk, and she said no.” he said. “She said there was nothing in the permit that would restrict any movement on the sidewalk.”
When the Noise called Pavey several days later to confirm this information, the paper was told that she couldn’t talk to the press. When pushed to confirm that she told Benally that the sidewalks were to remain public space for special events permits, Pavey said such inquires needed to go through their lawyers.
“To me, it’s one thing for the mayor to say I’m unwelcome or a cop to say I’m unwelcome. It’s another thing to celebrate this unsustainable event. Through its special events permit, one of the criteria it has to meet is that it upholds the quality of life in Flagstaff. A free speech zone to me doesn’t reflect the quality of life in any community,” said Benally.
Beyond issues of free speech restriction, those protesting—evidenced through sign and speech—were primarily concerned with the use of over 300,000 gallons of Flagstaff’s drinking water used for recreation.
For Benally, it was a young Diné woman who said something that really stuck with him. “She comes from Cameron, AZ where the water is contaminated by uranium, by abandoned uranium mines that corporations left in her community—and little to nothing is being done to clean those up—so her community has to haul water. What she said, which was chilling to me and a chilling contrast to what was happening downtown as we watched the 60-degree sun melting away this drinking water, is that if her family misses a weekend to haul water, they have to go that week without water,” he said. “I just can’t reconcile that reality alongside this event.”
In a short NPR segment on the protests, Utilities Director Brad Hill noted that 300,000 gallons “isn’t very much.” That this is roughly the same amount of water Flagstaff delivers to residents in one hour. To put it another way, of the 276,000 gallons used for last year’s event, the Arizona Daily Sun noted that this is the same amount of water that six average-sized households use in a year.
For Benally and others, however, this event cannot be taken out of the context of ongoing water crisis in the southwest. Indeed, this winter has been one of Flagstaff’s driest on record. “Anyone who thinks it’s harmless to waste such a precious resource in the face of such a crisis is simply out of touch with the realities of life in the desert,” said Benally.
He also sees the use of over 300,000 gallons for recreation as hypocritical. While in the driest months, Flagstaff maintains strict water conservation rules that stipulate specific days of the week, and hours of the day that residents should water their lawns; there are other rules that place limits on the number of gallons for swimming pools. On the other hand, Benally sees the Dew Downtown event as one that “flies in the face of any type of sane and sustainable water conservation effort. It just sends a hypocritical message.”
Benally continues, “To be able to dismiss or delegitimize concerns over water when we’re facing such serious water crisis, its really a double standard. I mean what is the outcome of this event? It’s celebrating recreation. So essentially we’re wasting water for fun, and to me that sends the wrong message. If we’re trying to build a sustainable and healthy community, we need to think better than that, and act better than that,” he said.
Benally noted that last years Dew Downtown didn’t even break even, financially. “What the city is trying to do with this event is bring in tourism when businesses have a lull. So it’s purely economics and I think there are other ways of addressing the economic situation Flagstaff faces than just sending drinking water down the drain.”
View short impromptu documentary, covering some of the protests