Protesters exchange tense words with counterprotesters in Cottonwood Heights, but officers don’t get involved

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Counter protesters show up at the Cottonwood Heights police station on Monday, Aug. 3, 2020.

Cottonwood Heights • A day after nine protesters were arrested during a rally in memory of their son, Zane James’ family angrily denounced the police action and argued that officers incited the violence.

James was killed two years ago by Cottonwood Heights officers. The rally Sunday was supposed to be a way to remember their 19-year-old son, his parents said Monday, and to continue a string of protests against police violence.

Those who attended brought pinwheels and squirt guns and a DJ to dance in the street in memory of James. But it ended with a clash that led to the arrest of James’ father and brother, calls for an investigation, a closed-door City Council meeting — and opposing protests Monday.

Police Chief Robby Russo said Sunday evening that the police response was needed because protesters had been blocking the street.

The James family said protesters tried to stay on the sidewalks after police instructed them to — but at a certain point, they were blocked in with nowhere to go.

”It’s pretty intimidating,” said Aaron James, whose son, Zane, was shot and killed by Cottonwood Heights officers on May 29, 2018, after police said Zane James robbed a store in Sandy with an airsoft gun.

Monday evening began with a gathering to support the Cottonwood Heights police. The rally outside the police department drew Utah Citizens’ Alarm members — many outfitted with rifles and bulletproof vests — and demonstrators waving flags emblazoned with the “thin blue line” symbol or President Donald Trump’s name.

Black Lives Matter activist Jacarri Kelley, who walked with a few companions through the heavily armed group, called it a display of white supremacy. She was speaking with reporters when one man wearing a Confederate flag face covering passed by.

“Do you know how many of my ancestors died in the name of the Confederate flag?” said Kelley, the president of Northern Utah Black Lives Matter.

Utah Citizens’ Alarm founder Casey Robertson said his group brought weapons as a “deterrent to violence.”

“I think this show that we have here tonight, if you drove by, you’d probably be like, ‘Oh, I don’t really want to come there and cause trouble,‘” he said. “And that’s kind of the point.”

The pro-police group also included several members of the far-right Proud Boys, which is designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Militia members at one point surrounded a handful of demonstrators against police violence and mocked them as they chanted for reform.

“Hands up, don’t shoot!” chanted the group against police violence.

“White people rule,” one of the militiamen shot back.

A larger group of protesters against police violence gathered later in the evening near Butler Middle School, a few blocks away from the militia. Friends of Zane James spoke to the group, and Josianne Petit, leader of Mama and Papa Panthers, encouraged them to file complaints against police chief Russo.

“You make sure you sign your name so they know that these are individuals, hundreds of individuals, saying enough with chief Russo,” she said to applause.

The demonstrations continued later in the evening as Lex Scott, leader of Black Lives Matter Utah, led chants across the street from the pro-police and militia groups gathered in front of the Cottonwood Heights police station.

“Black lives matter,” one side shouted, while the other responded, “All lives matter.”

Trucks bearing Trump flags and the Nyberg flag, used by far-right militia movements, sped past blaring their horns to drown out the Black Lives Matter group.

However, unlike Sunday, police largely remained on the fringes of the demonstrations.

Protesters on Sunday were hit with wooden clubs, young women were pepper sprayed and James’ brother and father were both tased and arrested by the officers.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cottonwood Heights city councilwoman Tali Bruce talks about what happened during a protest Sunday during a news conference on Monday, Aug. 3, 2020.

“They attacked us,” said Tiffany James, Zane’s mother. “This was a peaceful protest, no matter how it was characterized. This is exactly why we marched. This is exactly why we came together with this group of people. Exactly why our son was shot. It’s a culture of police power that is not community friendly and needs to be addressed.”

Russo said nine people were arrested Sunday evening. Among those were Aaron James, Zane’s father, and Gabriel Pecoraro, his brother.

Police wrote in a probable cause statement that the father and son threw punches at officers as they tried to arrest them.

Video footage shared with The Salt Lake Tribune shows an officer pepper-spray Pecoraro as he tried to dart around them in the street. Then police tackled him. An officer eventually brought Pecoraro down to the ground in a chokehold, and Aaron James tried to intervene as an officer hit him with a club.

The footage further shows Russo, the police chief, pull Aaron James’ by his neck in an attempt to get him away from the officers arresting Pecoraro. Aaron James is then pushed to the ground, and both men are tased.

Pecoraro was stunned in the side by one officer, as another lay on top of him, trying to arrest him.

The 26-year-old man on Monday had burn marks on his side from the stun gun, and cuts and scrapes on his body.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gabriel Pecoraro, the brother of Zane James who was killed by Cottonwood Heights police in 2018, shows his wounds from a taser her got as he was arrested at the protest last night, during a news conference on Monday, Aug. 3, 2020.

“I was ecstatic to be able to go to my little brother’s 22nd birthday and celebrate him,” he said. “He was taken from us. All I wanted to do was celebrate his life, you know? Dance a little bit. That kid was a dancer. He loved to dance. What I saw was cops box us in both front and back and then attack us. Flat-out attack us.”

Other protesters were arrested for “swarming” officers as they tried to arrest others, jail records show, and for failing to leave the roadway. Some allegedly knocked officer’s equipment, like extra ammo and their bodycams, off their bodies, according to arrest records.

Utah’s racial and ethnic minority legislators — Sen. Luz Escamilla and Jani Iwamoto and Reps. Angela Romero, Karen Kwan, Mark Wheatley and Sandra Hollins — called for an investigation Monday. They said in a statement that the police reaction “affirms our calls for comprehensive, immediate, and statewide policies for police reform and de-escalation training.”

“What happened yesterday in Cottonwood Heights was a shocking display of police overreaction to an otherwise peaceful protest,” the Democratic lawmakers said. “The group of protesters, which included some city and state officials, were there to express concerns about law enforcement reacting too quickly with violence — and that is exactly what we all saw. There is no excuse for the CHPD using such a heavy-handed approach, with some officers dressed in full military combat gear, for what would have otherwise been a nonviolent Sunday protest.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah said a statement they were “alarmed and dismayed” by the incident.

“Rather than de-escalate or seek solutions, police appear to have needlessly provoked a small, peaceful gathering to prove the point that the police were in control,” the statement reads.

A closed-door “emergency meeting” of the Cottonwood Heights City Council took place Monday to address “Deployment of Security Personnel, Devices, or Systems.”

Cottonwood Heights Mayor Mike Peterson called the situation “regrettable.”

“We never want to see things escalate as the one did Sunday evening,” Peterson said in a statement. “We will investigate this situation, both the protest event which elicited neighbors’ concerns and the response of our police force.”

City officials said in a Monday statement that while they support peaceful protests, police responded to "concerned citizens" and found protesters blocking the roadways.

“As the police response occurred, the situation unfortunately grew tense and violent,” a statement from the city reads. “Force and restraint were used to quell violent protesters. Multiple officers and civilians suffered minor to moderate injuries, and one officer was hospitalized.”

A nearly 40-minute video broadcast live on Facebook by Tali Bruce, a Cottonwood Heights city councilwoman, shows the situation turn violent. One officer in the video picks up a young woman and slams her onto the lawn in front of a home. The woman says, “I can’t see,” three times as officers are detaining her.

In a subsequent Facebook video, Bruce alleges that an officer punched her “hard” and also shoved her to the ground so forcefully that “an accessory to my hair came out.”

“I saw countless people spray gassed, beaten, bloodied — including Zane [James'] father,” Bruce said in the video as she begins to cry while driving in a vehicle. “I can’t even believe this is Cottonwood Heights.”

Russo said Bruce had exchanges with more than one officer, including himself. He said that Bruce’s allegation that an officer hit her in the throat and threw her to the ground “is not representative of what had occurred.” Russo declined to elaborate because, he said, “there is more coming.”

Russo filed a lawsuit against the city and Bruce last month, claiming there is a conspiracy to get him fired.

The police chief said the officers on Sunday were responding to the actions of protesters, who he described as “rioters.”

“When you take to the streets, stop the flow of traffic, intimidate people, scare people in their homes,” Russo said, “you’re no longer a protester to me.”

The James family said Monday that they were not there to riot, only dancing and marching in a family-friendly event organized with the group Our Streets Salt Lake City that had similarly been held in more than a half-dozen other cities in Salt Lake County. Organizer Parker Yates said Monday that police usually block streets for their protests — but this time, in Cottonwood Heights, it was different.

"This was dreadful," he said. "It was egregious. It was awful."

Justin Nelson, a 21-year-old from Wisconsin, said he came to Utah to honor his friend, Zane James. A memorial on Saturday was beautiful, he said, and he couldn’t imagine that another celebration a day later would end in violence and arrests.

“It’s not the community stuff I was expecting,” he said. “It kind of put a damper on everything.”

The James family also had a pending lawsuit against the city over Zane’s death. Their attorney, Bob Sykes, said they might sue the city again for violating their rights during Sunday’s protests.

“What we had yesterday was an organized attempt to intimidate free speech,” Sykes said. “An organized attempt to devalue free speech. An organized attempt to silence free speech.”