The day after a violent protest erupted in downtown Salt Lake City — leading to smashed windows, scarred buildings and two torched cars, while triggering a curfew that will last until at least 6 a.m. Monday — Mayor Erin Mendenhall said the “streets are quiet and calm.”
“And we are fortunate for that,” she said, especially when compared to a Saturday of unrest across the nation in response to police use of deadly force in Minneapolis and elsewhere.
Police from a range of agencies were out in numbers Sunday in Salt Lake City patrolling the sparsely populated streets while National Guard forces, who were activated Saturday by Gov. Gary Herbert, remained at the ready.
During a Zoom news conference Sunday morning, Mendenhall and Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown lamented the damage done Saturday but assured residents the city will clean up, heal, rebound and keep working for reforms to wipe out “systemic racism.”
“Exercise grace,” Mendenhall urged residents. “Yesterday was heartbreaking for our city and across the country.”
Brown said law enforcement — from a number of agencies across the Wasatch Front — made 46 arrests during Saturday’s confrontations. Most of the busts were for failure to disperse; some were for assaults on officers and curfew violations. His department said 21 officers were treated for injuries, with heat exhaustion being a common ailment as temperatures soared into the upper 80s.
The chief said one officer was struck in the back of the head with a baseball bat. The officer was wearing a helmet, he added, which helped prevent a more serious injury or even death.
Brown turned emotional when asked about how his troops were feeling Sunday after the tense clashes that lasted well into Saturday night.
“They’re exhausted,” he said, choking back tears. “... But they will never give up.”
Utah Against Police Brutality, the law enforcement watchdog group that had organized a peaceful car caravan as a protest, which eventually mushroomed into unrest, issued a statement Sunday that made no mention of the widespread property damage or objects thrown at officers.
The statement focused on what Salt Lake City leaders have not done to enhance civilian oversight of the police and mentioned by name some of those who have been shot and killed by officers in Utah.
“Mayor Mendenhall said that the events around the May 30th protest aren’t what justice looks like,” the group’s statement said. “We agree. This is what a demand looks like, a demand that can’t be ignored any longer. Justice would have been enacting real police reform, firing killer cops, addressing the systemic and constant racism. Justice would have been addressing the economic inequality, wage theft, exploitation and poverty that plague every worker.”
Black Lives Matter Utah organizers, who said they have been blamed for the protest, decried the property damage and violence, stressing that the application to the chapter requires that people agree not to engage in such activities.
Lex Scott, one of the founding members, said Sunday night that any members of the Utah group who had been involved in violent forms of protest would be removed from the chapter. And she promised she would “testify against them myself” in court.
“Destroying properties and setting fires cannot be your only activism,” Scott said. "If your activism only consists of destruction and not building, that is not activism. That is also not what this movement is about. This movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, has never been about inciting violence and destroying property. This movement has always been about fighting against police violence and fighting for black lives.”
Scott encouraged the hundreds of people at the protest to attend a meeting with Black Lives Matter, engage in community building, sign petitions for police reform, and get involved in seeking lasting change.
Tackling ‘systemic racism’
On Sunday afternoon, Mendenhall reaffirmed her commitment to pursue such lasting change. She talked about the need to create “transformative" reforms to erase racial and gender inequalities in the city and pointed to an order she gave earlier this year to create an equity plan.
The City Council has since approved funding to create such a plan. Mendenhall encouraged residents to go to www.slc.gov/transparentpolicing/ to learn more about it and participate.
“This is also about confronting racism," she said, “and no longer, as a community, remaining silent.”
Brown said he supports Americans using their constitutional right to protest, but when violence breaks out, law enforcement must step in. He praised the officers’ overall response, saying he thought they did “an exceptional job.”
Mendenhall insisted that the city is committed to operating an ethical and transparent police department.
The mayor, Brown and the City Council released a statement Saturday 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.”
Scott said she has been working with the Salt Lake City Police Department over the past few years on reforms. The city has implemented deescalation training and bias training, while replacing lethal weapons in cars with nonlethal ones.
But arguing that change would be more effective on the national level, Scott has written a federal reform bill that would require all police departments involved in misconduct to be investigated by democratically elected, independent civilian review boards with the power to investigate officers and bring charges against them. She urged activists to sign her petition online calling for enactment of the bill and for Utah legislators to support meaningful changes locally — even if it’s not through her legislation.
“The only way you stop cities from burning is police reform,” Scott said.
Theresa Martinez, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Utah whose research focuses on race, class, gender and inequality, said the Salt Lake City protest and its violence were “not surprising,” given the factors that converged Saturday.
She listed what she called “generations” of police brutality and the coronavirus pandemic, which has disproportionately impacted people of color and further exposed inequalities.
There’s also a political divide that can set off clashes — even over whether someone is wearing a mask during the COVID-19 outbreak. “And then the fact that everyone is already on edge," Martinez said, “from being stuck in their homes.”
There have been other examples in the past week and historically of people coopting a peaceful protest for violent purposes, Martinez said. The only way organizers can screen out those who would destroy property or assault police is to schedule the demonstration at a time and place that minimize when such people would attend. Even then, it’s hard to keep away those elements once the event has started and been spread by the press and shared on social media.
Martinez said Salt Lake City police “did an admirable job” of minimizing the violence and damage.
Some Utahns are probably shocked such a protest happened here, she said, but the Salt Lake City protest was relatively mild compared to what occurred in other cities.
Still, Martinez advised Mendenhall and the other mayors and police chiefs around Utah to listen to the protesters — at least the nonviolent ones — and hear their concerns.
“When the dust clears," she said, “if [public officials] don’t start talking about those issues, these things will happen again.”
Police response under review
Mendenhall encouraged protesters and others who witnessed any inappropriate responses from police Saturday to contact the city. She said an “after-action review” of the demonstration and police actions would be conducted.
In addition, Mendenhall and Brown asked witnesses to step forward who may have witnessed an incident with a man who allegedly wielded a bow and arrow in targeting protesters between City Hall and the Main Library — the area that became the epicenter of Saturday’s unrest.
Brown said the man showing up with this weapon was “troubling" and a “horrible situation.” Police are screening possible charges.
The Salt Lake City Police Department tweeted that it was working to identify others who may be charged with vandalism, assault and theft. The chief suggested that he suspects at least some of the more confrontational demonstrators were “outsiders," though he offered little evidence to substantiate that assertion.
A review of court documents identified four people booked into the Salt Lake County jail in relation to the protest. Two were arrested on suspicion of felony criminal mischief for throwing rocks though the window of the Matheson Courthouse on State Street, across the road from City Hall. One person was booked into jail on suspicion of misdemeanor counts of assault on a peace officer and failure to disperse. One other person was also arrested on suspicion of a misdemeanor count of failure to disperse. All four were released after being booked, according to jail and court records. It will be up to prosecutors whether to file charges.
Public records show at least three of those arrested are from Utah.
Bail help for protesters
A GoFundMe page has been set up to raise money in support of those arrested.
“These funds will be used for bail/bond costs for those arrested, including retroactive reimbursements,” wrote David Newlin, an organizer with Utah Against Police Brutality and a former Salt Lake Tribune staffer. “Any remaining funds will be used to pay for any continuing support of those arrested based on the needs of particular individuals, as well as the continued support of UAPB’s efforts to fight police brutality in Salt Lake and Utah.”
The campaign already had mustered more than $34,000 by Sunday evening, exceeding the goal of $15,000.
Mendenhall said the review of the police response will include what transpired in a video where officers are seen pushing an elderly man to the ground. The video was being shared on social media Sunday.
“It’s not OK,” the mayor said in an interview. “It seems to be well outside the protocol and it’s being investigated.”
Mendenhall said she did not speak to any of the protesters. Not doing so was part of the strategic decision to keep city officials away from the demonstrators and give them room to protest until the curfew.
During Sunday morning’s news conference, she said police and city officials made a “calculated decision” not to stop protesters at the start, reasoning that windows could be replaced and graffiti cleaned up. She said preserving lives was the main priority.
Mendenhall said that many Utahns have reached out to help tidy up the city after the protest, which brought broken glass and graffiti to the heart of downtown. But she asked residents to hold off — especially with the curfew still in effect, though she noted cleanup efforts are exempted from the clampdown.
“Stay home for now,” she said, “and let us get our arms around the cleanup.”
Salt Lake City has a graffiti-abatement program that sends city workers or contractors to remove spray paint and other markings. Mendenhall said it will be used to help clean public and private buildings sullied in Saturday’s protests.
The state had volunteers and employees out Sunday scrubbing the Utah Capitol, which got pasted in places with graffiti.
Don Gamble, a retired corrections officer who volunteered to help clean up the Capitol under guidance from professional crews, was there Sunday.
“This place was built on my taxes,” he said. “This was an assault on me. It just saddens me people can’t find other ways to make their point.”
Herbert tweeted that he met with the crews Sunday and thanked them for “stepping up right and left — cleaning in the hot sun, offering cool water, and dropping off pizza.”
‘It got out of hand’
The downtown streets were largely quiet and void of crowds Sunday, save for police, cleanup crews and some folks walking their dogs, heading to jobs or buying supplies.
Sitting beside the steps of City Hall in Washington Square, Ronny Gonzales worked on his Dell laptop, using the outdoor power plugs to charge his computer.
Gonzales, a 64-year-old veteran, is part of Salt Lake City’s homeless population. While the entire city is under curfew through Monday morning, the order doesn’t apply to the homeless.
Gonzales said he usually doesn’t linger around the downtown area much but that he was around Saturday, when the peaceful demonstration turned violent.
“It got out of hand — extremely,” he said.
He believes the curfew will calm things down. “It should work,” Gonzales said. “We’ll see. The day is young, but I’m going to bet there’ll be some that try to riot later.”
Mendenhall, who said in the afternoon she had heard of no further protests Sunday, pointed out the curfew remains set to expire Monday at 6 a.m., adding that she is leery of lifting it too soon. Officials also said the curfew could be extended, depending on conditions in the city.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah expressed reservations about the curfew, tweeting that the “unprecedented and extraordinary measure” could lead to “selective enforcement in certain neighborhoods” and urging leaders to shift to a less-restrictive approach.
Herbert activated 200 soldiers and airmen from the Utah National Guard. That included about 30 airmen from the Utah Air National Guard’s 151st Security Forces Squadron. Such units typically provide both ground defense and military police.
Maj. Jamie Thomas wrote in an email that all the personnel were there “to assist law enforcement partners to protect life, preserve property, and uphold the rule of law to include the right to peacefully protest.”
She did not offer more specifics on the military’s role during the curfew or otherwise. A National Guard Black Hawk helicopter flew over the Salt Lake City protests for hours Saturday.
The day’s protest, organized by Utah Against Police Brutality, began peacefully with a car caravan. That display, however, later spilled into the streets as more people arrived than could be contained in cars. The protest persisted for the next 11 hours.
Protesters were angry about 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. Other police use of deadly force, including in Utah, also drew rebukes.
Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, echoing other elected Utah leaders, said she shares the “deep anger felt for the loss of George Floyd’s life."
“I am saddened,” she said in a statement Sunday, “that we continue to see instances where crime is committed by law enforcement at the expense of people of color.”
She voiced support for the restraint shown Saturday by Salt Lake City’s officers, and pleaded with protesters to “find peaceful and civil means to express themselves.”
Mendenhall emphasized that dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, something she’s constantly worried about, still is a top priority.
She pointed out that Salt Lake City remains in the orange, moderate-risk phase for COVID-19, with intense concentration of cases in ZIP code 84116, which includes downtown.
“Particularly after those last couple of days with very high numbers of positive cases reporting," Mendenhall said, “that is an ever-present concern for us.”
Social distancing, of course, went virtually unheeded during Saturday’s protest.
— Tribune reporter Taylor Stevens and photographer Jeremy Harmon contributed to this story.