Black Utah man says he was beaten, kneeled on by security guards outside library

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Salt Lake City Public Library as seen on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2018.

A black man says that he was beaten and kneeled on by two security guards at the Salt Lake City Public Library last year after they mistook him as the suspect in an assault — an error he believes was based on the color of his skin. He’s now suing.

Anthony Nelson, in a lawsuit filed Wednesday in state court, accuses the guards and their employer of targeting and attacking him even after he said he had no involvement in the incident they were responding to. In fact, he claims, he tried to point them toward the right person, who was running away. But they ignored him.

“They restrained him and pushed him to the ground, instead,” said Nelson’s attorney, Kathleen McConkie. And it escalated from there, she added, until Nelson was lying bloodied on the cement with a concussion.

He’s asking for a jury trial and $35 million in damages.

His report comes as protesters have rallied across the nation, including in Utah, against racism and deadly force by law enforcement, sparked by the death of George Floyd last month in Minneapolis. Floyd, a black man, was killed after a white police officer knelt on his neck — like what Nelson reports happened to him.

His attorneys say the cases are “eerily similar.”

Nelson, now 58, said the encounter on April 4 of last year started when he was walking across the plaza of the City Library on his way to work. He stopped to talk a friend when two women he didn’t know started arguing in front of them.

One of the women, who was black, picked up a stick and started hitting the other. The second woman, who was white, tried to defend herself before running inside the library to get help. She came back out with the two guards.

The lawsuit states that Nelson pointed the guards toward the woman with the stick who was taking off. But they grabbed him and patted him down to check for weapons. He didn’t have any. They still told him to get on the ground.

“Nelson remained fully compliant and did not attempt to leave,” the filing adds.

One guard, though, started punching him in the face. The other, Nelson says, hit him in the back of the head with a baton. They pushed him into the sidewalk and one jumped on Nelson’s back to zip-tie his hands together.

Then, a guard “pushed a knee onto the back of Nelson’s neck, making it difficult for Nelson to breathe,” the lawsuit says.

Departments across the country (including discussions in Utah) have since banned such holds by officers in response to Floyd’s death. But Nelson’s attorneys say that wasn’t part of the conversation at the time of the incident at the library.

When Nelson tried to speak up, the lawsuit says, the guards kicked him in the eye, creating a deep gash.

Nelson believes the guards profiled him because he is black, like the suspect was. He’s named the two guards, their company — CBI Security Services, the City Library and the executive director of the library in his lawsuit. It also claims Salt Lake City was partially responsible.

The city has asked to be removed from the case because the library is a separate entity, though it also uses the same company for patrols. CBI Security declined to comment.

The City Library responded with a statement, though, raising questions about Nelson’s account.

It says that the white woman was attacked not with a stick, but rather a machete. When the guards were administrating first aid, the library added, the victim pointed to Nelson as a suspect.

“Our staff then followed protocol in detaining Mr. Nelson until the police arrived,” the statement says.

Additionally, the library says it was never told about the allegations of the guards kneeling on Nelson’s neck — even after opening an internal review in August 2019 when alerted by Nelson’s attorneys.

“We cannot comment further due to ongoing/pending litigation, and we believe that the facts will show that our staff behaved legally and followed protocols,” it concludes.

Nelson counters that he was so shaken by the events that he has had issues since with his memory and his vision, particularly in the right eye hit by the guards. He went to a clinic after the attack — when Salt Lake City police arrived — and was diagnosed with a concussion and had to get stitches.

He has also lost his job.

His attorneys say he’s filing the lawsuit now to try to recover. It also just coincidentally lined up with the recent police protests, said Lucas Adams, who’s representing Nelson. They’ve been working on the case for about a year, and wrapped up the filing this week after previously trying to reach a settlement.

But Adams does believe the timing is helpful in that Floyd’s case shows similar bias by law enforcement.

“Oftentimes, we feel like that this discrimination doesn’t happen here in Utah,” he said. “People are oblivious to the fact that it is at our doorstep. It’s happening to the people we know.”

McConkie calls Nelson’s situation “an extreme case of racial profiling.”

The lawsuit makes claims for excessive force, racially based discrimination and constitutional violations. It also says that the security company didn’t adequately train its guards.