“I’m going to drown! I’m going to drown!” Sean Bickings shouted from the water of Tempe Town Lake, struggling to stay afloat. “No, you’re not,” an officer from the Tempe Police Department condescendingly replied. “Okay, I’m not jumping in after you,” another officer said.
Moments later, Bickings was dead.
Sean “Madrocks” Bickings was a beloved figure in his community. An unhoused person, he was well-known by his neighbors throughout Tempe, Arizona for his warmth and kindness, as well as for his unwavering advocacy for the betterment of unhoused people in the city. But on May 28, his life was tragically cut short due to the provocation and carelessness of the Tempe Police Department.
The incident came in the midst of a tense period for Tempe. Striving to serve the economic interests that seek to turn the city into a desert oasis for real estate developers and others with money, Tempe’s government often finds itself at odds with its own residents.
This tension came to a head just two weeks after Bickings’ death, when the Tempe City Council voted on whether or not to expand the police budget by $2.5 million in order to hire 19 new officers. Over 100 residents attended the meeting to hold a vigil for Bickings and to demand that the city reject the proposal — instead, the council did the exact opposite and unanimously voted in favor of the budget expansion.
The negligence that led to Bickings’ death and the blatant disregard for the overwhelming will of the people is indicative of the injustice and inhumanity infecting every aspect of capitalist society.
A tragic, senseless death
On the evening of May 28, Bickings and his wife Susan Smith were sitting outside the Tempe Center for the Arts just a few blocks north of Arizona State University when they were confronted by officers who claimed to be responding to reports of a disturbance between the couple. Both Bickings and Smith cooperated fully and denied that any such disturbance had taken place, yet the officers held the couple in order to run their names for any outstanding warrants. Cornered, Bickings stepped into the Tempe Town Lake and attempted to swim away from the situation.
He made it about 30 yards before he couldn’t go any further. Struggling to keep his head above water, Bickings began pleading for help, shouting “Please help me! I can’t touch, oh God!” Officers watched from the shore and did nothing.
When Susan Smith saw the severity of the situation, she tried to intervene. She attempted to physically reach her husband but was stopped by the officers. “Get off of me,” she cried. In response, one of the officers had the gall to say, “You need to chill out.” Growing more concerned, she shouted “He’s drowning, he’s drowning!” The other officer stepped in: “If you don’t calm down, I’m going to put you in my car.”
Smith was persistent and continued to ask for help, which the officers refused to provide. When put in a situation where they needed to actually do their jobs — put their lives on the line to “protect and serve” their community — they did nothing but stand around, watch, patronize the victims and call in another officer to bring a boat to the lake.
“No, no, no — fucking swim!” Smith begged her husband. “You’re not helping,” one of the officers quipped back.
Bickings’ head dipped beneath the water and he never resurfaced. His last words were: “Can you hear me?”
An organizer and beloved community member
Bickings’ death hit the Tempe community particularly hard because of the role that he played as a local organizer. A resident of the River Bottom — an encampment for unhoused folks just west of Tempe Town Lake — he was a frequent source of inspiration and light in the life of his friends and peers.
But even beyond his immediate companions, Bickings was a force of positive change in Tempe at large. Just days before his death, he met with the mayor of Tempe, Corey Woods, to discuss the conditions faced by unhoused folks in the city. He was seeking information on how he and others could get out of their situations and build better lives. He even volunteered to be a liaison between city officials, nonprofits, and members of the unhoused community, all for the purpose of improving their conditions.
Bickings also asked Woods if there was anything the mayor could do to help him with an outstanding arrest warrant. Days later, the officers checking for that very warrant become the impetus for his death.
After Bickings’ death, Woods claimed to be “very sorry” for the loss of Bickings, that he had “mourned” for him. Whether this is true or not is irrelevant to what happened next: the Tempe City Council vote that expanded the police budget by $2.5 million.
“How are we going to create a homeless outreach team when cops are killing our homeless outreach team?”
“We all matter,” said Kandace Colemen outside of the Tempe City Hall. “I never met Madrocks, but I’ve seen how they treat us homeless people. That’s why I’m here.”
On June 9, over 100 members of the community gathered outside of the Tempe City Hall to hold a vigil for Bickings, led by the People’s Budget Tempe, a coalition of organizations working to provide the city council with data, insights and strategy to reimagine public safety without the police.
The People’s Budget presented the city with a plan to use the $2.5 million allocated to hiring 19 new police officers instead for programs with the people of Tempe in mind. They showed that these funds could be used to hire six permanent mental health professionals for middle schools, create and staff a climate justice and Indigenous stewardship specialist program and create a backyard garden and food forest program.
But instead, the council voted unanimously to give the $2.5 million to the very department that caused Bickings’ death.
This betrayal was foreshadowed throughout the night. After the vigil honoring Bickings, members of the community waited nearly an hour to get through security and into the chambers. Mayor Woods began the meeting with a moment of silence for Bickings, reminding the audience that they had met a few days before his passing. The crowd was frustrated by this empty gesture and the hijacking of the moment for political gain. When the silence ended, a member of the crowd shouted: “If you really cared about him, you wouldn’t fund more police!”
The next three hours were a despicable display of capitalism’s stunted democracy. Members of the community stood in front of the council, attesting to their own brutal treatment by Tempe Police, the City of Tempe and Arizona State University, all of which collaborate to make Tempe unlivable for the homeless.
Casey Deaton, a member of the community who was homeless until recently, spoke of these compounding oppressions.
“How are we going to create a homeless outreach team when cops are killing our homeless outreach team?” Deaton asked, recognizing the fact that homeless individuals look out for each other, creating their own “outreach teams,” in contrast to Tempe’s underfunded and understaffed HOPE outreach team. The solidarity that comes from living on the street is something the city council cannot understand. That solidarity is built on simple, common respect for one another as human beings, in the face of dehumanization by society at large.
Deaton continued, outlining the criminalization of homelessness across the city of Tempe: “I’m ‘trespassing’ at 6th Street park, I’m “trespassing’ at Brickyard. I’m also ‘trespassing’ in Tempe Beach Park, the NE corner of Rural and University. I’m ‘trespassing’ in so many places here in Tempe. Really, I’m just harassed by the police.”
Deaton concluded: “The cops, the courts—they’re in cahoots.”
In the meeting, the city council showed solidarity with their donors and benefactors. Every member of the Tempe City Council takes money from the Tempe Police union, the Tempe Officers Association. Every member is beholden to ASU — the economic heart of Tempe — and to the real estate developers that pay no property taxes on Tempe Town Lake.
Poison in the roots
Utter incompetence on the part of the police has become an all too common phenomenon in the United States. The inaction of the officers watching Bickings drown to death horrifically mirrors the inaction of officers who stood outside of Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas last month while an active shooter killed 19 children and two teachers. In Uvalde, officers restrained parents who tried to save their children, just as the officers in Tempe restrained Susan Smith as she tried to reach her husband.
We can see that these incidents are not isolated, but are inseparably tied up with historical processes playing out in the United States. Perhaps the most poignant illustration of that is the fact that everyone involved in the story of Bickings’ death did exactly what they were supposed to do on paper.
The officers were just responding to a call. They ran Bickings’ and Smith’s names through the warrant database as a routine measure. They didn’t jump into the lake because their training mandated that they retrieve a boat instead.
Then, the city council did their jobs — they defended the economic interests that will determine the course of development in Tempe. They turned their backs on their constituents to fund the police department that serves as the front lines of defense for private property, going out of their way to not alienate themselves from their strategic business partners.
And yet, when everything on paper went according to plan, the end result was the death of an innocent man and the $2.5 million expansion of the budget for the department that caused his death. How can this be seen as anything except a systemic insult to the notion of humanity in society?
The $2.5 million given by the city of Tempe to its police budget could’ve done a tremendous amount of good for the unhoused community there. Instead, it will only serve to reinforce the very department that caused Bickings’ death.
But we can all take a lesson from Bickings’ life — against many odds, he found a voice, realized his political faculty, and began making a difference in his community through advocacy, organizing, and love for his neighbors. Sean “Madrocks” Bickings, and the organizing in response to his death, show that only the people — united, organized, and oriented around a revolutionary movement for socialism — can liberate humanity.