Dozens of protesters tried to use their bodies as shields to prevent the detention of three suspected illegal immigrants stopped in front of Southside Presbyterian Church Tuesday night.
At the end of a sometimes raucous confrontation, the crowd was dispersed after Tucson Police Department officers used pepper spray to force them back onto the sidewalk.
About 7 p.m., two day laborers with the Corazon de Tucson were stopped by Tucson police officers for not having a functioning light on their license plate.
Neither of them had a driver’s license or identification and had never been issued one by the state, said Sgt. Maria Hawke, a Tucson police spokeswoman. The misdemeanor triggers a mandatory vehicle impoundment.
State law also required the officers to seek immigration check, prompting the officers to ask the Border Patrol to respond to the scene, she said.
Before long, dozens of activists and community members had gathered outside the church to protest the detention of the two men.
Up to 100 people were there at the peak of the protest, Tucson police estimate.
About 20 or 30 of the protesters formed a double circle around the Border Patrol vehicle in an effort to stop them from leaving. Another person tried to crawl under the vehicle, said Raúl Al-qaraz Ochoa, a local activist who has used that tactic before, resulting in his arrest.
Border Patrol agents were pulling on people trying to get them away from the vehicle and had their Tasers out, Al-qaraz Ochoa said.
When the activists tried again to keep the agents from leaving, a Tucson police force commander there authorized the use of pepper spray to disperse the crowd.
Tucson firefighters were called to treat the most affected by the spray.
No arrests were made, Hawke said.
“We want to make the injustice of separating families visible,” said Al-qaraz Ochoa.
“The community intervened this time so they wouldn’t take a member of our community away,” he said. “We are tired of only taking note of what’s happening.”
Hawke said it was the first time the department faced a spontaneous protest like this.