Salt Lake City police arrest 17 at camp protesting treatment of the homeless

(Paighten Harkins | The Salt Lake Tribune) An ACLU legal observer documents as Salt Lake City police move in to disperse a group of protesters occupying Washington Square Park on Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020. More than a dozen people were arrested.

Police early Sunday arrested 17 demonstrators who had been camping in the park that surrounds Salt Lake City Hall to protest the treatment of people experiencing homelessness.

The group, a collection of activist groups called the Take Shelter Coalition, set up tents in Washington Square Park on Thursday. Group members said demonstrators would stay there until public officials listened to their demands, which include opening a downtown shelter to replace the now-shuttered Road Home and to stop ticketing people for camping.

It took police in riot gear more than three hours to clear them all out.

Tensions between police and protesters had been escalating since the group arrived at the park. Activist Marvin Oliveros told The Salt Lake Tribune on Friday that police had been intimidating demonstrators. Officers went through the park Friday night and Saturday evening, leaving printouts of city ordinances outlining the park’s curfew and the camping prohibition, which upset many of the protesters.

Video of the Saturday evening encounter, which demonstrators characterized as an ambush, shows protesters shouting at the officers circulating the notices, with the person behind the camera telling other demonstrators they aren’t obligated to talk to police and not to accept any paper they’re offered.

Joe Peterson, who said he is homeless, was camping at Washington Square but followed police instructions to leave there by 11 p.m. Saturday. Peterson said Sunday that he felt he had made his point about how Salt Lake City policies and Operation Rio Grande are keeping homeless people on the move and making it harder for them to find food and jobs.

“I think the folks that stayed [Saturday] night got more involved with their personal agendas than ours,” Peterson said.

At a Sunday afternoon news conference, Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown commended his officers and accused the group cleared from Washington Square of being not just protesters but agitators. He said the group had refused to meet with him, Mayor Jackie Biskupski and Mayor-elect Erin Mendenhall.

Brown also accused some of those cleared from Washington Square of being the same people who clashed with police at Inland Port meetings last year. He said the group is making allegations about the police that are inflaming tensions and putting officers in danger.

Homeless shelters had 74 available beds Saturday night, Brown said. “That is a narrative that these individuals do not want you to hear."

(Paighten Harkins | The Salt Lake Tribune) People stand near tents at a protest at Washington Square Park on Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020. Police later moved in to disperse the demonstrators who were occupying the park. Sixteen people were arrested.

Salt Lake City police also played two videos for reporters. One was an interview with a witness who asserted someone associated with Civil Riot was encouraging homeless staying in Library Square to move to Washington Square. The second video was of officers trying to respond to a drug overdose in Washington Square and being slowed by the protesters.

A post on the Civil Riot Facebook page says that medics arrived at the park but wouldn’t go inside the campsite until police arrived to escort them. It said, ”This person was made unsafe by having to wait for cops in order to get to a [hospital]. … [W]e were all made unsafe by the presence of cops in camp. Cops anywhere make us all less safe.”

The overdose victim is recovering, Salt Lake City police spokesman Michael Ruff said Sunday.

On Saturday evening, about an hour after officers arrived to give their second and final warning to demonstrators, coalition organizer KC Fralick said she knew officers were going to come back later. Numerous people had already packed up and left because of it.

And while the group members initially said they planned to stay, perhaps, indefinitely, Fralick explained the coalition wouldn’t pressure any protesters to stay if they didn’t want to. “Everybody’s going to have to make some hard decisions,” she said.

Adding, “The work we are doing here is crucial. I think that unsheltered people in our community are so frequently cast aside, and we have a real opportunity to show that we will not quietly allow this continued systemic persecution of our friends and neighbors.”

(Paighten Harkins | The Salt Lake Tribune) Protesters and onlookers watch as Salt Lake City police move in on a group of protesters occupying Washington Square Park on Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020.

Police returned about 10:30 p.m. Saturday. They shut down stretches of road around Salt Lake City Hall, set up floodlights and projected their voices on megaphones: After 11 p.m., police said, everyone in the park is violating curfew. Leave or face the consequences. Beds are available to those who need them.

Meanwhile, demonstrators linked arms and formed a chain around the campsite, shouting back protest chants and their demands that drowned out the commands.

“No police harassment!” a protester called. “No police harassment,” the group yelled back.

A majority of demonstrators left the park in a procession just after 11 p.m., chanting “Si se puede," in English: Yes, you can.

About an hour later, officers wearing riot gear began moving closer, incrementally, until they surrounded the demonstration campground on three sides.

(Paighten Harkins | The Salt Lake Tribune) An ACLU legal observer documents as Salt Lake City police move in to disperse a group of protesters occupying Washington Square Park on Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020. Sixteen people were arrested.

The more than a dozen who remained gathered in the heart of the campsite, singing as police closed in. The two sides met. Police pushed in, demonstrators pushed back and onlookers, many with cameras trained on the clash, shouted in protest of what they saw.

“Leave now,” an officer called.

“You leave now,” a protester shouted back.

Shouting continued until about 2 a.m., when police were done. The campers were dispersed, and tents, pieces of clothing, bedding and bags left in their wake. Wilking said officers would collect personal belongings and store them until the owners could pick them up.

On its Twitter account, Salt Lake City Police Department posted that officers showed “great restraint." “We have planned and carried out a strategic removal of the protesters tonight. We have provided resources for those that are experiencing homelessness. We invite a civil dialogue to address concerns.”

Early Sunday, the police reported 16 arrests. That was updated to 17 by Sunday afternoon. Four were booked into Salt Lake County jail, according to a police news release; 13 others were cited.

Fralick was among those arrested. Jail records show she was booked and later released on suspicion of infraction-level curfew violation, disorderly conduct and a misdemeanor count of interfering with an arresting officer.

Marvin Oliveros also was arrested. Jail records show he was booked and later released on suspicion of disorderly conduct, interfering with arresting officer and failure to disperse — all misdemeanors.

On Friday, Oliveros said he and other activists had tried the “proper channels” (sending out a demand letter, asking for meetings, attending and protesting at a City Council meeting) to express their concerns, but the group members didn’t get the response they wanted.

This demonstration, he said, while set up just yards from City Hall, was not for the people who work inside the building. It was for the everyday folks who’d pass by the pop-up tent city and wonder why it was there.

“Whether it be people driving by just being curious, or people that might have noticed things here and there and now they see this [demonstration], and maybe that gives them enough interest to really dig in themselves,” he said.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Take Shelter Coalition, consisting of several community action groups erects shelters on Friday, Jan. 3, 2020, at Salt Lake City Hall to show support of the homeless and to demand shelter and dignity for those who have been living on the streets.

The coalition has advocated to make a comparable number of emergency shelter beds available as were in The Road Home downtown emergency shelter, for police to stop writing camping tickets until those additional beds are created, to change the law to increase the occupancy caps at the three new shelter centers and provide free public transportation fare for everyone staying at a shelter.

The three new resource centers have a comparable number of beds as in the old shelter but space for about 400 fewer people on mats.

Biskupski and Mendenhall released a joint statement that in part read: “As the mayor and mayor-elect of Salt Lake City, we acknowledge, understand, and share the public’s concern about people sleeping outdoors in winter conditions and their ability to access safe shelter. Salt Lake City has been working on and investing in solutions that treat those experiencing homelessness with dignity. It is our goal and responsibility to ensure that everyone is safe from harm.”

Their statement ended with, “We hope that future conversations will occur with all partners. These are challenges that require meaningful dialogue, support and effort from all of us.”

Amid concerns about capacity during the cold weather months, leaders in the transition to the new homeless services system have promised no one would be turned away and have made space available in a 24-hour warming room at the Weigand Center, which offers people a place to get out of the cold but is not meant for sleeping.

Saturday, after many of the coalition members dispersed, Oliveros said he and organizer Ethan Petersen were planning to meet police as they entered the campground.

Jail records say Petersen also was arrested on suspicion of misdemeanor counts of interfering with an officer and criminal trespass.

(Nate Carlisle | Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown speaks to reporters on Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020. Late Saturday and early Sunday, Brown’s officers removed people protesting treatment of the homeless from Washington Square.

Brown also rebutted accusations from some of the protesters that police have been stealing sleeping bags, tents and other winter gear. Brown said officers have taken such items as evidence when arresting someone for a crime or for outstanding warrants but is not taking them just because someone is homeless.

Brown made repeated references to the Washington Square camp being a public danger. He referenced the Occupy Salt Lake protests in Pioneer Park in 2011 and an episode in which a man in a tent, Michael Manhard, 42, died from carbon monoxide poisoning. His death spurred then-Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank to clear the park.

“I will not have another person needlessly die in an Occupy camp like the man that died at the Occupy camp in 2011," said Brown, who was then a captain with Salt Lake City police.