Salt Lake City protesters join national day of action in calling for community control of police

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) People gather at the site where Bernardo Palacio-Carbajal was killed by pollice, in Salt Lake City on Saturday, June 13, 2020.

As close to 400 protesters passed throngs of people out Saturday evening in Salt Lake City — those dining on restaurant patios or zooming aimlessly on electric scooters — the marchers chanted “Black lives matter” and “Whose streets? Our streets," raising fists and signs to drive the point home.

They were a literal movement against police brutality and for community control of law enforcement, the 14th in 15 days in Salt Lake City after the death of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

On their way to a memorial for Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal near 300 W. 900 South from Pioneer Park in downtown, the protesters stopped in front of the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office, a building decorated with a biophotonic glass proclaiming tenets District Attorney Sim Gill says his office holds dear: Due process, justice, equality, trust, and public service as duty.

Demonstrators gathered around the front door and chanted that Gill wasn’t doing his job. They wanted him gone. Two women held up a sign listing the names of people killed by police in Gill’s jurisdiction, and how he’d found each officer in those cases to be legally justified in shooting. The names included Cody Belgard, Zane James, Dillon Taylor and Patrick Harmon.

“Sim Gill,” the sign read, “Their blood is on your hands.”

But among the anger and resentment, some demonstrators found hope.

Marvin Oliveros, Belgard’s brother, told the crowd that the sheer number of people, especially young people, he’s seen protesting over the past two weeks heartens him. He was noticeably emotional while speaking.

He said he’s seen some change — what he called “scraps” — from local officials. Salt Lake City police, for instance, and then Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, ordered officers to stop using chokeholds. Government officials and police have kneeled with marchers.

But he’s also seen more and more people “waking up,” educating themselves on issues and the history of the movement for police reform in Salt Lake City.

“Consider the time we’re in right now,” he said. “...These times come far and very few between, but when they’re seized is when change happens.”

The crowd erupted in cheers.

Reached Saturday night, Gill said, “I could not be more proud” of the protesters.

“If we are going to change the law, change the paradigm, then every institution that contributes to injustice must be questioned. This means the police, prosecutors, judges and especially the policymakers now waking up to cries that have been ignored for decades.”

The protest started about two hours earlier, with approximately 100 people gathered in Pioneer Park in downtown Salt Lake City. There, organizer John Sullivan with Insurgence News urged those who know racism is wrong and that inequities exist in society to put their words into actions.

Sullivan told the crowd that he was adopted by white parents and saw firsthand how people treated him differently than they treated his parents.

“I would walk into a store and people would follow me, thinking I was stealing stuff,” Sullivan said. He wasn’t, and it wasn’t fair for him to be profiled, then stalked and stopped for it, he said.

Another speaker from the group said it will be calling for boycotts of certain businesses.

Victoria Sethunya’s voice shook as she spoke about the importance of immigrants’ rights. She explained why she wants to defund the police, after sharing a story about her son, who had an opioid addiction, and his interaction with officers.

Community control of law enforcement, according to the Facebook event page, isn’t creating or renaming “ineffective review boards." Instead, it means "direct, democratic control of police departments, policies, budgets, and officers with full subpoena power through a civilian council elected by the people of the community served by the police,” according to the post.

Demonstrators came out Saturday in Salt Lake City as part of The National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression national day of action. The Salt Lake City demonstration was organized by local groups, Utah Against Police Brutality, Justice for Cody, Salt Lake City Freedom Road Socialist Organization, Hands up and Stand United, Social Freedom and Equality Group and Insurgence News.

Just before protesters started their march from Pioneer Park, Damon Harris, with Utah Harm Reduction Coalition, took the microphone.

He told the crowd, sitting and standing in the green space, that the park was the perfect location for such a rally. It was ground zero for Operation Rio Grande, a law-and-order and homelessness initiative that connected some people with resources but pushed many from camps and the shelter on the west side of downtown to elsewhere.

Harris added that he couldn’t remember a time when he’d so many people come out to protest in Salt Lake City for such a sustained amount of time. The last time, he thought, was maybe when 17-year-old Abdullahi “Abdi” Mohamed was shot by police in 2016.

He thanked those who gathered and told them to keep it up. “We need to be consistent,” Harris said. “We can’t stop.”

Correction, June 14, 4:27 p.m. • This story misstated the outcome of the police shooting of Abdullah “Abdi” Mohamed. Mohamed was seriously injured, not killed.