Tensions escalate after police officers arrive on scene of ‘Justice for Bernardo’ protest in Salt Lake City

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Emanuel Hill faces off with the Salt Lake City Police during a Justice for Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal protest in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 23, 2020.

A group of several dozen protesters stood shoulder-to-shoulder in Washington Square Park on Tuesday evening, the tips of their shoes toeing the line between the sidewalk and the street. About a foot away, Salt Lake City police officers were in formation, dressed in helmets and face shields and armed with batons, bean bag guns and service firearms.

Officers told protesters if they got into the road or blocked streets, they’d arrest them.

The two factions faced off for a few tense minutes, with protester Sofia Alcala yelling at officers and leading chants over a megaphone, asking what exactly protesters had done wrong that evening. But eventually she relented, telling the group to back up and avoid a confrontation with officers. As the protesters retreated slowly into the safety of Washington Square Park, a public space, open to all until 11 p.m., police stayed on the road.

Alcala had a message for them.

“What you guys are doing is why we say, ‘F--- the police,’” she said, wagging her finger at them. “What you’re doing in this moment.” Protesters agreed, chanting the anti-police mantra back at them.

The moments before protesters withdrew were uneasy, and afterward, demonstrators felt shell-shocked. They were confounded that the city officers who’d blocked streets for them during demonstrations over the the past seven nights were, Tuesday evening, threatening them with arrest for their marches.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Protesters lock arms as they are approached by the Salt Lake City Police on the corner of Washington Square during a Justice for Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal protest on Tuesday, June 23, 2020.

For the past week demonstrators have been meeting near the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office, asking for “Justice for Bernardo,” a 22-year-old killed on May 23 after police responded to a call of a gun threat. Body camera footage shows him running from police as officers fire more than 20 shots at him.

Protesters have since keyed in on a disturbing fact of the case — when family saw Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal’s body after the shooting, some of his fingers were missing, according to an attorney who represented the family. They want to know why.

Between 70 and 80 marchers arrived at the district attorney’s office at 500 South in downtown Salt Lake City around 6 p.m., as normal. As they prepared to walk a few blocks around downtown, they were met with a van load of armed police officers in helmets. Eventually, there were nearly 40 officers at the protest.

“It was clear they were trying to stop us [from marching], and then it became clear they were trying to arrest us,” demonstrator Michelle Mower said.

From their first interaction with police near State Street, protesters walked a route — mostly along sidewalks and through a parking lot — that brought them in front of the Broadway Cinema on 300 South, and then back south on 200 East.

One officer told the group that police were only there to make sure marchers didn’t break any laws.

“Do you see us breaking the law?” responded protester Marvin Oliveros, an activist whose brother, Cody Belgard, was killed by Salt Lake City police in 2018.

The group then walked to Washington Square Park, where at one point they linked arms and stood in the cross walk, blocking 200 East.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Protesters lock arms as they are approached by the Salt Lake City Police on the corner of Washington Square during a Justice for Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal protest on Tuesday, June 23, 2020.

Minutes later, vans full of officers approached, flanking the marchers from the north and east. As police closed in, an officer yelled commands over the megaphone, again telling demonstrators to leave or be arrested for breaking the law.

As officers moved forward, protesters chanted, “Don’t start no s---, there’ll be no s---.”

And then the demonstrators retreated to the sidewalk. That’s where Alcala led chants, and, later, told police how the protesters felt about their response that night.

Multiple demonstrators said that Tuesday night’s protest was not different from the other seven nights, except perhaps the group was a bit smaller than normal. They didn’t know what had prompted that sort of police response.

Mower, who has been to multiple protests, said, “This was definitely a new feeling. I feel more scared than I have in the past.”

Afterward, as the marchers regrouped outside the DA’s office, a speaker offered a theory for the night’s events: “They don’t want us to be saying [Palacios-Carbajal’s] name. They don’t want us to be marching for him,” Alcala said.

Whatever it was, Alcala said it wouldn’t stop there. They plan to return Wednesday at 6 p.m., and protesters have vowed to march every night until law enforcement releases its investigation into the shooting.

Salt Lake City police didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. A reporter on the scene did not witness any arrests.

Peggy Fletcher Stack contributed to this report.