Two weeks after protesters and Salt Lake City police clashed in the offices of the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, some of those same protesters went to police headquarters to peacefully express their anger and solidarity.
A group of more than 60 protesters gathered in the plaza outside the Public Safety Building on Tuesday evening. They called for action against officers who used, in the words of protester Deb Blake, “state-sanctioned violence” to remove 150 people engaging in civil disobedience in the Salt Lake City Chamber offices July 9.
“When peaceful protesters are under attack, what do we do?” Blake yelled to the crowd. The crowd responded with the shout, “stand up, fight back.”
Blake described how, when police entered the lobby of the building at 400 South and 200 East to end the protesters’ action in opposition to an inland port, one protester told an officer that Blake had a surgical port in her shoulder. Another officer, she said, pushed her in the shoulder, right at the site of her surgical port.
“He pushed me so hard, the pin I was wearing that day is broken,” Blake said, holding up the busted pin for the crowd to see.
Psarah Johnson, chairwoman of the Disability Rights Action Committee, said she was taking video of Blake when she was pushed. That’s when another officer “grabbed me by the shoulders and threw me to the ground.” When a fellow protester helped Johnson back to her feet, she said, the same officer threw her to the ground again.
Protesters with disabilities sat on the front lines of the July 9 protest, Johnson said, adding, “the officers at that rally targeted disabled people to incite violence in the crowd.”
David Newlin, an organizer for Utah Against Police Brutality and Tuesday night’s emcee, praised the activists with disabilities in the crowd. “The cops think these are weak people. They’re not. They’re the strongest among us,” Newlin, a former Salt Lake Tribune employee, said.
The protesters on July 9 chose the Chamber offices because the Salt Lake Chamber’s president and CEO, Derek Miller, is also the chairman of the Inland Port Authority Board. After the incident, each side has blamed the other for the escalation of hostility.
Miller issued a statement the same day, accusing protesters of “attempting to terrorize members of the Salt Lake Chamber family” with a “senseless and outrageous” action. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a strong champion of the inland port, called the protests “borderline terrorism.”
On July 11, some of the protesters held a news conference in which they blamed aggressive police tactics — “massive amounts of police brutality,” one organizer said — for raising the heat.
Newlin led the crowd Tuesday in chants of “abort the port” and “drop the charges” — a reference to a demand that Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill’s office not pursue criminal charges against any of the July 9 protesters.
Eight protesters were arrested and cited on July 9. A spokesman for Gill’s office said no charges have been filed yet, and that protest is still being reviewed.
Brown, on July 11, said his department had documented six assaults against officers, including being “spit on, scratched, kicked, punched” and having things thrown at them.
The activists at Tuesday’s event tell a different story. “I did not see any person raise a hand against an officer,” Johnson said.
“Protesting against this polluting port was an act of peace,” Newlin said.
A spokesman for Salt Lake City police declined to comment Tuesday, referring to Brown’s statements on July 11.
Utah Against Police Brutality also is demanding that Salt Lake City police Chief Mike Brown “be held responsible for his utter failure to lead the SLCPD and rein in his violent officers.”
Other demands are that the officers involved in the July 9 incident be fired, and that Gill’s office bring charges against those officers.
The fight over the inland port, which protesters say will do damage to the environment and harm poor and minority residents of Salt Lake City’s west side, is tied to the complaints about police behavior, Newlin said.
“[Protesters] challenge the rule of the powerful in Salt Lake City, they challenge the rule of the rich in Salt Lake City. And who came out swinging? The cops,” Newlin said. “What we know is which side they’re really on. … They’re on the side of the rich, they’re on the side of the powerful, they’re on the side of the capital.”