Gehrke: Inland port rioters hurt their own cause, but their anger is understandable

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Police struggle with protesters for control of a door at the Chamber of Commerce Building Salt Lake City on Tuesday July 9, 2019.

Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown said in 28 years in law enforcement, he had never seen a scene as violent as the clash between protesters and police that spilled onto downtown streets Tuesday afternoon.

It started as a strange hodgepodge of protesters upset about all sorts of issues, primarily the inland port — the sprawling section of Salt Lake City snatched by the state for a massive shipping center — but also a sprinkling of pro-immigration, environmentalist and anti-racism voices.

It was essentially an anger stew that boiled over.

In the aftermath, we should consider what both sides say with some skepticism.

Gov. Gary Herbert said the whole clash was fomented by “anarchists” bent on violence and disruption and reiterated his view that it was “borderline terrorism.”

Robert Gehrke

Salt Lake Chamber President Derek Miller, who also is chairman of the Inland Port Authority Board, said the radical, fringe group stormed into the chamber’s offices and immediately began breaking items, smashing security cameras and urinating in some of the offices (although the property manager said any damage was minimal).

When police showed up, the protesters refused to leave and bedlam ensued. Eight people were arrested.

Several protesters say it was the police who antagonized the group and escalated the situation to violence. Police came into the offices hot, some protesters resisted and in almost no time, violence erupted. The protesters say the officers used excessive force, punching and choking them.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Police take a woman into custody while removing protesters occupying the Chamber of Commerce Building Salt Lake City on Tuesday July 9, 2019.

Outside, more than two dozen police cars arrived, closing down roads as skirmishes spilled out into the streets and a television camera crew and a Tribune photographer were confronted and harassed.

The reaction from our elected leaders was one of shock. This type of thing never happens in Utah, according to Herbert.

But it really shouldn’t have come as a surprise. The frustration over the way the inland port has been forced on Salt Lake City has been growing for more than a year and much of it is entirely justified.

Think about it: The state annexed roughly a third of the city and handed over decision-making to a board with absolutely no accountability to the people who are most directly affected.

There was no process, just a product, with terms dictated by the Legislature. And there are no answers for members of the public demanding to know what the air and other environmental impacts will be or what might be done to mitigate them. There doesn’t appear to be any champion of their cause with a seat on the board, either.

And no matter how many times members of the public have spoken out against the port — civilly and calmly, as the governor has asked — it has been as effective as politely asking a freight train to change its course.

We’ve seen it throughout history. When people feel they aren’t being heard, they shout. When they feel the system is rigged and they have exhausted their options, they turn to protest.

And when these angry protesters — who may well have been egged on by agitators looking for a fight — come face-to-face with on-edge cops, it creates the perfect conditions for the violence we saw Tuesday.

But if the anger makes sense, the violence does not.

Tuesday’s actions were enormously counterproductive for the protesters. Instead of voicing legitimate issues, they sacrificed their own legitimacy in the eyes of a public that only saw videos of a melee, they undermined the credibility of those who have been doggedly working on this issue for months, and — I would be willing to wager — only made the members of the inland port board even more entrenched in their positions.

In the midst of the riot, all we heard from Mayor Jackie Biskupski, the most prominent port critic, was a tweet about how excited she was for the upcoming “Damn These Heels” LGBTQ film festival. The next morning, she issued a statement condemning violence and praising the police for “their handling of the situation and working to keep everyone involved as safe as possible.”

But if you look at the scores of officers on the scene and watch the video of the rousted protesters, you can’t help but wonder if the response was entirely appropriate. If you haven’t seen it, watch the video of one bald officer punching one man in the head two or three times until he appears to be restrained by another officer.

In another video, an officer — perhaps even the same one — appears to hit a woman in the back of the head as she moves toward the door. Other protesters said they were choked and dragged on the ground.

Obviously, we don’t see what happened before or after those incidents and maybe force was necessary. But Biskupski should order a thorough review of how the incident was handled, including reviewing all of the body camera footage, both to ensure the use of force was justified and perhaps to learn lessons about how to respond the next time something like this happens.

Where else do we go from here? On Wednesday, Herbert, Miller and Biskupski all called for civility and an end to violence. (Although the civility message was undercut since the mayor won’t be in the same room as the governor).

It’s the right message, of course, but civil opposition doesn’t mean much if it appears that the forces driving the inland port aren’t actually willing to listen or consider opposing viewpoints, let alone try to accommodate them.

Hopefully they will, because real, meaningful engagement is the only way to defuse the kind of frustration and anger that led to the violence we saw this week.