Two groups of demonstrators — one protesting police violence and the other supporting law enforcement — gathered in downtown Salt Lake City Saturday, flanking opposite sides of City Hall.
The groups occasionally mingled, with a few tense moments and disputes breaking out in the crowd. Women carrying a “We Love Our Officers” banner faced off with mourners waving signs for Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal, who died last month in Salt Lake City after police fired more than 20 shots at him as he fled. Arguments about “Black-on-Black crime” peppered the background of speeches given by politicians and former officers. A disagreement over anti-Indigenous racism was drowned out as Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” piped out of the speakers.
But for the most part the two groups remained separate. About 500 protesters waved Thin Blue Line flags and pro-police posters during the so-called Blue Rally hosted by the group Utah Business Revival on the west side of Washington Square.
Meanwhile, about 500 activists for police reform and racial justice gathered on the east side.
“Technically, they’re the ones counterprotesting us,” said Sofia Alcalá, a police-violence protester, referring to the near-daily rallies over the past three weeks.
As has become common practice at the demonstrations, protesters laid on the ground for eight minutes of silence to mark the amount of time a Minneapolis police officer pinned down George Floyd until he died. Floyd’s death has sparked protests in cities across the U.S. and around the globe.
The quiet on the east side of City Hall stood in stark contrast to the festive music and amplified speeches on the west. Pro-police demonstrators in flag-themed clothing posed for pictures with a life-sized cardboard cutout of President Donald Trump, and few wore masks or kept their distance from one another.
In a prayer, Pastor Rich Sanford of South Jordan advocated a colorblind view of race, countering arguments that ignoring race allows people to ignore patterns of racial injustice.
“There is only one race, the human race ... contrary to the rhetoric of so many godless academic elites,” Sanford said.
Utah Business Revival organizer and former Salt Lake City police officer Eric Moutsos said claims of police racism are “one of the most disturbing lies that’s being told since the COVID lie,” eliciting cheers from the crowd. Utah Business Revival recently led a demonstration against coronavirus-related restrictions, calling them a violation of human rights, and last week hosted a large protest concert in Iron County.
Moutsos, who left the police department after being disciplined for refusing to join a motorcycle squad in the Utah Pride Festival, recalled a department event called “Diversity Day.”
“I called it the Discrimination Day,” he said, saying an officer was promoted because the department needed “a Polynesian sergeant.”
“Is there anything more racist than that?” he asked, again prompting cheers.
Several speakers criticized Salt Lake City police for what they described as “hands-off” policies, particularly in response to homelessness in the Rio Grande area and in response to the recent protests. Demonstrators last month overturned cars and set two police cruisers on fire; police fired rubber bullets and the city instituted a curfew.
“This city would not burn for four straight hours if I were governor,” Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Hughes told the crowd.
The group called on Police Chief Mike Brown and Mayor Erin Mendenhall to join the rally “in a show of solidarity,” and one of the speakers called them “cowards” for not showing up.
Victor Iverson, who is running for lieutenant governor alongside Hughes, implored the pro-police demonstrators to remain unswayed by the unrest that has swept the nation following Floyd’s death.
“We must be a light on the hill. Utah must stand its ground,” Iverson said, mirroring the phrase invoked by George Zimmerman after he fatally shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012. “... Let the leftists know that we still run this country, we the people.”
As a group of opposing protesters watched the pro-police rally, Moutsos told the crowd to applaud Black Lives Matter for not being violent. It was generally peaceful, though Moutsos said a protester elbowed him him in the mouth before the event.
Tension grew as some of the police reform activists mingled with the Blue Rally crowd. A man played hip hop on a stereo and several protesters began singing along with the lyrics “F--- Donald Trump,” prompting one woman in the crowd to shout: “These people are led by Satan!”
But Tyeise Bellamy, who helped organize the racial justice protest with the group Utah Loves Black Lives, said she wasn’t worried about the two protests getting “rowdy.”
“If they’re not bigger than God, they’re not a threat to us,” she said of the pro-police demonstrators.
At one point, Black Lives Matter protesters moved toward State Street, where Bellamy led a chant of “hands up, don’t shoot” toward the Blue Rally. One said in response to the “blue lives matter” slogan: “It’s not a blue life, it’s a blue uniform.”
The racial justice contingent proceeded down 500 South, stretching for a city block before stopping in front of the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s office to hear some remarks from the family of Palacios-Carbajal, who Salt Lake City officers fatally shot on May 23. Body cam video of the shooting has prompted demonstrations outside of Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill’s office for days.
From that point on, however, the movement became part protest, part block party. The group of about 300 wound through the city streets for more than two hours, stopping at various points for impromptu dance parties.
“Every day we’re out here we’re screaming, we’re yelling, we’re raising our voices,” the Pied Piper of the protest, who declined to give his name, told the crowd at one point. “This is a day to rest your voice. You don’t have to yell your loudest today.”
At one point, organizers asked protesters to chant “This is what democracy looks like” and a few of the other slogans that demonstrators have made their mantras over the past 21 days. Immediately afterward, however, nearly the entire crowd started jumping to the beats of Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.”
Ofa Sitake, 26, and Tisha Wolfgramm, 24, both of Salt Lake City, have been to three of the near-daily protests. This one was by far the most fun, they said. They called it a show of unity that was made as an intentional contrast to the May 30 protest in which riots broke out and a police car was burned.
“The riot taught us a lesson to not do that,” Wolfgramm said. “Utah is not like that. This is what Utah is like: a peaceful protest.”
Prior to the march, protesters for racial justice and an end to police brutality had papered the east side of City Hall with posters and banners. After they had left to march, video taken by Enrique Limon showed some people, many in the blue shirts the Blue Rally participants were asked to wear, tearing down several of those signs. Protesters taped up more upon their return late Saturday night.