A protest denouncing racism and deadly force by law enforcement turned violent Saturday afternoon as protesters set two cars on fire and threw rocks at the windows of businesses and cars while police responded with rubber bullets and arrests.
Salt Lake City set a curfew at 8 p.m. that will extend through 6 a.m. Monday, but a couple of hundred continued to circulate in the metro area well after 9:30 p.m. At 5:11 p.m., Gov. Gary Herbert activated the National Guard.
Earlier in the day, hundreds peacefully marched from the Salt Lake City Police Department to the state Capitol to protest the death of George Floyd, a black man who died earlier this week after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
Utah Against Police Brutality had organized the day’s protest as a car caravan, however, that protest later spilled out onto the streets as more people arrived than could be contained in cars. The protest continued for the next 11 hours.
At a 6:30 p.m. news conference, Utah officials condemned Floyd’s death and supported the right of peaceful protest. However, Herbert and others on a Zoom meeting called for protesters to disperse. Police officers from 13 cities, Unified Police and up to 200 National Guardsmen were called up to enforce the law in the capital city.
“Most of us agree what happened in Minneapolis was despicable,” Herbert said, but he added that “what I have seen in the past few hours is that has gone from a peaceful protest to criminal behavior.”
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said that her city’s police officers have deliberately shown restraint, but she denounced the looting and vandalism seen throughout the day and vowed to restore order.
“What is happening on our streets right now is not justice,” she said. “Salt Lake City police made a calculated decision today to allow protest, vandalism and even the loss of a police vehicle. The safe space we offered for today’s protest is no longer safe for anyone.”
Police Chief Mike Brown said that multiple arrests have been made so far.
“Today has been a very hard day. It breaks my heart to watch what is happening In Salt Lake City,” Brown said. “I’m pleading with you to clear this city.”
The curfew, which is citywide, requires people to stay off city streets and public places unless they meet one of the exceptions.
Those exceptions are for police and fire personnel, the news media, people traveling to work or to care for a family member or friend. People can also go out to get food or medical care, to get to the airport, to flee dangerous circumstances or if they are homeless. Private businesses may remain open.
Violence has also erupted in major cities across the country after a video emerged of Floyd’s detainment and death, with protesters smashing the windows of businesses, burning police precincts and blocking freeways. Police have responded with tear gas and blockades.
President Donald Trump, responding to rioting elsewhere, has tweeted, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Brown said that won’t happen in Salt Lake City.
“Looting is theft,” he said. “You don’t use lethal force to stop a theft. That will not occur.” Mendenhall called the president’s tweet “racist and intended to strike fear.” Herbert said, “I don’t answer for what the president tweets.”
‘Words are not enough anymore’
What started at the Salt Lake City Public Safety Building eventually migrated to the state Capitol. Protesters were seen scaling the west side of the Public Safety Building around noon; a crowd of about a thousand had gathered at the Capitol by 1 p.m.
Someone had spray-painted “Black Lives Matter” and “ACAB” on the front steps, which reportedly stands for “All Cops Are Bastards.” Some of the protesters chanted “cops and Klan go hand and hand;” others took a knee.
John Villanueva, holding a sign that said, “Change is inevitable,” said he was happy about the turnout there. He hoped it continued past Saturday.
"It starts with action. Words are not enough anymore,” Villanueva said. “We can post as much as we want, but until they see people taking action and going out and bringing other people together and making a movement, then things are slow to change.”
By around 3 p.m., violence escalated as protesters flipped a Salt Lake City police car and set it ablaze near 200 East and 400 South. Protesters gathered around the car, intermittently chanting. At one point, a woman climbed on to the car, dropped her bikini bottoms and relieved herself. Others held their fists in the air.
Over the course of the next two hours, protesters made their way east on 400 South, smashing the glass windows around the TRAX stations and eventually the glass front doors of a 7-Eleven. Many tagged whatever surface was available — a ballot box, police headquarters’ windows, benches, sidewalks — with “ACAB” and “BLM” and other phrases.
Before demonstrators began looting the convenience store, Turasi Williams climbed on top of a newspaper stand at the intersection of 400 South and 200 East. He told anyone who would listen to him to stay together and love one another.
“We don’t want to do this,” Williams said later, gesturing to the smoking police car several yards away. “I wake up every day, and I know if I have an interaction with a cop, it could go south and I could be shot and I have to carry that around. I don’t want to believe every cop is bad.”
He said the protesters’ message is a positive one — to stop police brutality and save lives. Yet, it’s injected with negativity because the nonviolent methods of protest haven’t worked.
Williams alluded to Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous quote, “A riot is the language of the unheard.”
“And the people are unheard all around the country,” Williams said, referring to unrest across the country. “So what is that telling you? It’s telling you that there is something wrong with this system and we need to change it.”
About 5 p.m., police from across the valley descended on the protest site, lining 400 South with squad cars and officers dressed in riot gear. Officers were caught on video pushing down an older man as they arrived.
SLCPD later said, “We are aware of this situation and will deal with it.” Soon after, some protesters dressed in black surrounded one of the police cars and bashed out its windows with skateboards. Then police unleashed some kind of gas canister and some of the crowd scattered.
Some far-right extremist groups also showed up at the protest: the Proud Boys in yellow and black polos and at least one Boogaloo Boy wearing a Hawaiian shirt. Both groups carried firearms, and at one point protesters circled around the Proud Boys and argued with them. They seemed to disperse once police arrived.
Police kept coming for a few hours, eventually setting up a line around the epicenter of the protest. They moved forward systematically, pushing back protesters from the east side of 200 East to the west.
About this time, a man identified as Brandon McCormick, allegedly came at protesters with a bow and arrow. Some fought back against him — the protesters flipped his car. It caught on fire and burned in the middle of 400 South as demonstrators gathered around it to take selfies and chant. Police later said, “While we do not have the individual who was brandishing a bow and arrow in custody, we do know who he is. We intend to screen charges against him.”
Later, a South Jordan police armored medical vehicle tried to breach into the protest crowd. Those inside repeatedly broadcast they were a medical unit. Protesters stood in front of it, flipping it off. Another group descended on an unmarked police car following it, smashing out the car’s windows with electric scooters.
Also around 5 p.m., the protest continued at the state Capitol, with about 30 Utah Highway Patrol troopers standing on the south steps along with a few hundred protesters. Red graffiti had been painted on the south pillars in red paint. One says “Blue Lives Murder.” Another pillar was painted with “Black Lives Matter.”
Abdi Abdi, 29, of West Valley City, said he was at the Capitol for more than George Floyd’s death. He was parked in a parking lot in September. He said a police officer approached, accused him of having drugs and searched his car. There were no drugs.
“This has been continuous,” Abdi, who is black, said. “It has been for a long time. You have discrimination issues. You have problems with the police. Something has to change.”
Back in downtown, just before 10 p.m., police had pushed the protesters through Washington Square Park. Along the way, they’d made several arrests and fired numerous rubber bullets. At one point, an officer pulled a woman sitting atop an SUV to the ground, right in front of the police line.
Their tactic seemed to work, though. A crowd of around 1,000 from before sunset dwindled to about 200.
As police moved on 200 East around 10 p.m., they detained or arrested anyone who remained in the protest area, often pointing guns at them. Dozens were taken into custody.
Before police marched forward, officers drove around announcing the curfew and Brown, the police chief, and Mendenhall, the mayor, held another news conference urging the protesters to head home.
Brown said that one officer was struck in the head with a baseball bat from behind and was transported to the hospital. The officer was wearing a helmet at the time.
Brown criticized the Minnesota officers involved in the death of Floyd.
“Those four officers have put us in this situation. They have undone the great work that so many law enforcement officers and agencies have tried to to instill and build trust and relationships over the past four years.”
Leaders call for change
At a news conference outside Calvary Baptist Church in Salt Lake City earlier in the day, Rep. Sandra Hollins, the only African American lawmaker in the Utah Legislature, called for an end to the violence and for partners to work together to address systemic racism in the state.
Still, she said, she understands the pain and frustration that boiled over Saturday.
“As a black female, as the wife of a black man, as the sister and the aunt, I get it. I understand it,” she said. “I have the fear also when they walk out of the house, that I’m going to get that phone call. But we need to find a way to channel that frustration and that anger.”
The disruption, she said, is counterproductive to the message that protesters are trying to send — it’s being drowned out by the images of burning cars and broken windows.
Speaking outside the church he pastored for more than 45 years, Utah civil rights legend France Davis also urged peaceful protest and encouraged the community to “come together.”
Darlene McDonald, who heads the Utah Black Roundtable, said she participated in Saturday’s protests before they turned violent. The demonstrators were standing in solidarity with allies, she said, and it wasn’t until she got home that she learned the rally had changed and that the news had become about the unrest.
“We don’t want to change the conversation. We want everyone to know we are here because of what happened to Mr. Floyd, to Ms. Taylor, to Ms. Bland and too many other names,” she said. “We understand the anger. We understand the frustration. But the solution is not burning down a city.”
Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, said the news of Floyd’s death had nauseated her and cost her sleep. “It just kept playing over and over again in my mind, and I sat there and I cried,” she said. “I’ve actually been in tears because I cannot believe that this is happening and that it has happened again.”
But change cannot depend only on her and other ethnic and racial minorities who serve with her on Capitol Hill and in local government. Voters must step up and choose representatives who share their values and insist that state leaders change laws and policies, she argued.
“I’m willing to push,” she said. “But I need people behind me pushing also.”
On Saturday afternoon, Mendenhall, Brown and the City Council released a statement asking all residents to “come together to intentionally address and dismantle the systemic oppression, discrimination, racism, and bigotry that exist in our city."
"The fear, anger, hurt, and frustration felt by so many in our community is justified, and we cannot allow its source to continue unaddressed.”
The statement outlined the city’s police procedures about training and use of force policies, and announced a group of city leaders would review with feedback and recommendations.
Ogden rally stays peaceful
Another rally organized by Black Lives Matter drew a crowd of about 1,000 in Ogden by 2 p.m., according to police estimates. Police closed off Washington Boulevard in front of City Hall as speakers vowed to keep the protest peaceful and offered condolences to an Ogden police officer who died this earlier week.
“(We want to do) anything we can do as a people to stop the systematic bias and racism against people of color in our nation that’s gone on for 400 years,” said Ogden resident Keyvin VanDyke.
The tone of the Ogden gathering remained calm and kept the focus on combating racism, with people holding signs, reading poetry and applauding speakers.
“I was angry, I was hurt, I was infuriated. But looking out at this crowd, I see that more than just black people care,” rally speaker Terri Hughes said to cheers and applause. “Y’all are not putting yourselves ahead of us, but putting yourselves beside us.”
The rally ended peacefully, with organizers shaking hands with police officers.
Reporters Leia Larsen, Nate Carlisle, Bethany Rodgers, Sean P. Means and Matt Canham contributed to this story.