“Get the fuck away from me,” the young Latina woman seethed through her mask, her blue eyes narrowing while — just inches away from her face — the Trump supporter’s eyes bulged.
“Touch me again, I fucking dare you,” he spat back, inching closer toward the young woman and other teens and college students she was with and hoisting up his Blue Lives Matter flag above their heads.
Quickly, another man, a Latino Biden supporter, jumped over and inserted his own body between them as a shield. Around them, variations of the scene repeated itself on the street corner in front of Maricopa County’s elections office Saturday afternoon, as voters, some sporting red hats and some carrying guns, clashed with a group of young Latinos out to celebrate Biden’s victory. The cacophony sounded like a condensed version of America’s contentious past four years, as if someone had bottled them up, shook it, and then popped the top:
“You don’t belong here! Go back to your country!”
“You’re a racist! Get educated!”
“You’re saying America was never great — seems like a pretty fucking great place the way it is.”
“You lost! Get over it! Stop being so ignorant!”
“You smell like fucking tamales, like used toilet paper, you piece of shit. Walk out with your fucking Mexican ass. You ain’t American here.”
“My parents are from Texas, and I was born here in Phoenix. My culture is Mexicano.”
“Black people had the lowest unemployment rate ever under Trump. What are Black people suffering from?”
“Take off your mask! I can’t hear you. That’s what they want to happen: They want to control us!”
“You stole this election!”
“Why are you disrespecting a young woman? You’re a full-grown, 50-year-old man!”
For more than two hours, the tense, and at times vitriolic, confrontations took over the barren, cactus-spotted corner of Lincoln Street and Third Street, shortly after the media declared Joe Biden the winner of the 2020 presidential election. They capture the messy, exhausting, and often hostile reality of a country that has spent the past four years mired in mistrust and bigotry. And while many are breathing a sigh of relief over what they see as America lurching itself out of a dark era, the discord that defined the Trump presidency is not so easily left behind.
That same day, versions of this fight played out at voter fraud Stop the Steal rallies in Michigan, Wisconsin, California, Utah, Idaho, and Oregon. A woman in a headscarf was punched in the jaw in Sacramento; a Mercedes carrying a Trump flag knocked down a counterprotester in Beverly Hills. Police made several arrests, and photographers captured searing images of Americans confronting each other, their faces nearly touching.
Jackie Valencia, a sophomore at Mesa Community College, never imagined she’d be throwing herself into such a volatile situation. The 19-year-old has spent the last four years living carefully, fearfully, and keeping her mouth shut. Although she and her four sisters were born in Mesa, Arizona, their father is a landscaper from Mexico, and their mother, an El Salvadorian nursing home worker, was set to lose her immigration status in January. But when Valencia woke up Saturday morning and found out Biden had won, it was like her world had exhaled.
After watching people joyfully spill onto the streets of Los Angeles, New York, and Philadelphia, she decided she wanted that, too. She grabbed her Biden–Harris flag, her sisters, Daisy, 17, Isabel, 18, and Emily, 21, and their scruffy terrier, Canela, whom they bring everywhere with them, and headed out.
They drove to downtown Phoenix, past Maricopa County’s elections office, where a massive crowd of hundreds of Trump supporters — some from states across the country — had converged in the parking lot, their MAGA and American flags rippling over a sea of pickup trucks. Since the day after the election, the drab building had been a last stand for the president’s base as election officials inside counted ballots that slowly shrunk Biden’s lead in Arizona. Right-wing activist Charlie Kirk, conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, a man in body paint and a cape acting as a QAnon viking, and Boris Epshteyn, a Republican strategist who had been advising Trump’s 2020 campaign, screamed into megaphones. They railed about a corrupt coup to snatch the election away from Trump by several potential means: from election officials maliciously forcing voters to use Sharpies to Fox News traitorously declaring Arizona in the Biden column.
Across the street from that rally, the sisters noticed another lone car with a Biden banner fluttering out the window. Jackie waved down the driver and asked if they wanted to join forces, and soon the group of six young Latinas was dancing and chanting on the sidewalk. But their celebration annoyed a group of Trump rallygoers, who crossed the street to confront them.
For the first time in four years, the young women said, they didn’t care what anybody thought.
So they got louder. And things got ugly.
A thin man carrying a Blue Lives Matter flag was the first to cross the street. The man, who did not provide his name, pointed his finger in the face of the young celebrants.
“This is for Americans,” he yelled.
“We are Americans,” they yelled back. One of them, it’s not clear who, added: “Te vas a la verga,” which is Spanish for “go fuck yourself.”
Their loud exchange drew more people from the other side, and within about 20 minutes, the small group of teens and college students were face-to-face with maskless conservatives. They were all yelling, back and forth — about COVID-19 dangers and conspiracy theories, the ability to be Mexican and still be an American, and the reality that they were no longer living in Trump’s world.
“Dude, we’re in the middle of a pandemic and you’re not even wearing a mask! Step back away from me,” yelled Itzel, 20, the most outspoken of the group.
“The whole reaction to COVID was made so we could have mass mail-in ballots to steal the election,” the man retorted, adding that his own 88-year-old mother had died after contracting COVID. The man did not provide his name.
“How did we steal the election!? You’re a sore loser!” the young women shot back, in unison. “Stop being so ignorant!”
It was heated, but they did not feel threatened. The man continued to push at them, asking how they would solve racism with Biden in charge.
“All the craziness you caused over the last four years is now yours,” he said.
“Obviously racism isn’t just going to disappear. We will work gradually to get there but—” Jackie replied.
“Give me an example of something that is racist,” he interrupted.
“George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, they all got killed for no reason…” Itzel and Jackie yelled back.
“Breonna Taylor’s boyfriend was shooting at the cops,” he said, eliciting screams of outrage from the girls. “And what about the fact that George Floyd swallowed a whole pack of fentanyl? It was an overdose!”
“He couldn’t breathe!” they yelled. “You’re so ignorant.”
Then the situation became much more serious. The Valencia sisters looked around. About 10 more people had crossed the street. Armed men in Hawaiian shirts, the uniform of the so-called boogaloo boys, stood by and watched while other younger white men in red hats walked around the periphery. Several women in glittery MAGA beanies had arrived, along with Philip “CatboyKami” Hedley, an Australian neo-Nazi streamer, and Tim Gionet, another white supremacist troll known as “Baked Alaska.”
Somehow, the Valencia sisters were facing off against an array of the extremist parts of Trump’s complicated movement. Daisy clutched Canela, who was shaking, while Jackie held onto her Biden flag. The police stood by and watched but did not intervene, as the tensions ratcheted up.
“This is scary,” said Daisy Valencia, her eyes wide, as Itzel yelled at Hedley for gleefully shouting racial slurs while Gionet filmed, inflaming her reaction.
Recalling the confrontation later, Daisy has trouble putting into words the mixture of fear and fearlessness she felt in that moment, but her older sister Isabel jumped in.
Yes, it was “unnerving,” she said. “But I know we are doing this for a greater cause because our parents are immigrants. Our mom is super hardworking. She came here with nothing but the clothes on her back, and I just know I am doing this for the greater good. I don’t care now.”
As the chaotic, loud circle swelled and closed in around them, the tension was so palpable it was “like a powder keg about to explode,” as one of the armed, tactical gear–covered Trump supporters put it. Watching what was happening, the large man, who identified as an Oath Keeper, declined to give his name, came to stand by Daisy, Emily, and Itzel, and informed them that he and his companion would act as security. Oath Keepers are a large, loosely organized extremist anti-government group made up of veterans who often show up at protests to stand by law enforcement.
“Just so you know, that’s not all of our perspective,” the Oath Keeper told them after Itzel sparred with Hedley.
“There are bad apples in every group. We are here to make sure it doesn’t get violent,” he added. “A lot of us are supporters of Trump, but the Biden supporters that are here have just as much right to free speech as anybody else.”
And so it went — hostility and moments of connection. Two women who said they were from the Middle East but still supported Trump came over to apologize for what the girls endured, explaining that they, too, had seen friends and family members deported because of the president’s immigration policies.
Other armed men tried to pull the confrontational instigators back across the street. A burly, bearded “Chicano Biker for Trump” grabbed a bullhorn and asked if anyone would have a conversation with him. There was a prayer circle. Several Trump supporters escorted a younger Biden supporter to her car after she asked, in fear for her safety.
“He just spreads so much hate,” Jackie explained at one point to several Trump supporters. “I’m sorry, but what he says about Mexicans, that’s really personal to me. I have family over there, that they just bring drugs and all that stuff. ... I don’t feel good about supporting someone who would say that about my people.”
“That’s understandable,” one man in a Reagan–Bush shirt said. “I agree.”
It was nearly dusk before most of the Trump supporters had moved back to their own waning rally. The small Biden contingent had thickened slightly over the past few hours. The air was growing colder as the sun set, and though they were drained, the young women stayed, chanting “No more years!” into the darkness, taking photos, dancing, and trying to hold onto a new, large American flag that someone had brought and was now flapping in the strong wind.
“We were scared to come, but Daisy was like, ‘They won’t shoot us. Let’s go,’” Jackie said. “And she’s right. I’m not scared anymore.”
Twenty-four hours later, the streets outside Maricopa County’s election center were deserted, its once-teeming parking lot quiet and completely empty.
But then another 24 hours later, with votes still being counted in Arizona and the race in that state not yet called, 50 or so Trump supporters met back up at the election center.
To pass the time, they did the “Cha Cha Slide.” ●