Protesters demand charges to be dropped — and want Sim Gill to resign

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Protesters at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Aug. 22, 2020.

Crowds of shoppers stopped, lowering their bags and raising their phones to record as a group of several hundred marched by Saturday evening. Their chants reverberated off the storefronts along Main Street.

“Drop the charges!” the protesters screamed, some of them holding signs that said “People before paint” and “No good cops. No bad protesters.”

It’s been more than a month since the Justice for Bernardo group has held a large demonstration like this, and when they returned to the streets, they were prepared. Many attendees had gone to greater lengths to hide their identity, covering tattoos with what looked like black paint and wearing face masks that hid everything but their eyes.

A few blocks away a pro-police group, many on motorcycles held their own rally, a sign that the contention following the near-daily police violence rallies of May has not dissipated.

At the Capitol, there were old, familiar chants — “Who’s streets? Our streets!” — but the chant about dropping the charges was new and reflective of how the group has changed since they first started demonstrating months ago after 22-year-old Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal was shot and killed by Salt Lake City police.

Their last rally was July 9, the protest where some spilled red paint in front of the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s office, a symbol of the blood they believed to be on District Attorney Sim Gill’s hands for not charging the police officers who killed Palacios-Carbajal. Others broke windows. A police officer and at least two demonstrators had to be treated at hospitals after a mid-street confrontation. Eight people ended up with felony charges — the very ones protesters rallied Saturday to dismiss.

In the intersection of Main Street and 100 South on Saturday, Sofia Alcalá, one of those facing charges, took a megaphone, telling attendees their work was hard but necessary. It was among the first speeches the vocal leader of the group has given since she and the others were charged.

“We’re f------ getting maced by riot cops. We’re getting beat up. We’re getting charges, and we are still out here. The revolution is not easy, and it does not come without charges,” she said. “There are sacrifices that must be made.”

Authority figures want them to stop, but they won’t, Alcalá said, not until they get their demands. The group wants the July 9 protester charges to be dismissed, as well as the charges filed against protesters in all demonstrations from the 2019 Inland Port protesters to today.

The group also asked for gang enhancements, which allow prosecutors to seek harsher punishments on people for crimes committed by two or more people, to be stripped from the law. They want to dismiss retired Judge Dane Nolan as the prosecutor on the eight protesters’ cases, saying there’s still a conflict of interest since Gill appointed him.

They also want Gill to resign.

GIll’s office originally charged eight people in connection with that July 9 protest. Seven faced life in prison if convicted because the charges were so severe, beefed up using the gang enhancement. However, the outside prosecutor, Nolan, filed new charges Friday, cutting decades off the possible sentences and removing the possibility of life in prison.

But that’s not enough, protesters said: They charges need to be removed, not lessened.

Madalena McNeil, another of the accused protesters, said filing charges against protesters is government oppression.

“It’s the state telling you that they don’t like what you’ve got to say, so they’re going to shut up you no matter what,” she said.

She continued, saying that some people have an idea that living with the current policing system is just part of the deal they get by living in the U.S. McNeil said that isn’t true.

“And that’s the main thing that I want to say to all of you today, is that the most powerful thing that we can do is not just believe in something better,” she said, “but build it.”

The crowd erupted in cheers.

Soon after, they marched down State Street, veering over to the City Creek mall-area, on their way to the DA’s Office, where some spoke before the group returned to the Capitol. Attendees dropped rose petals on the streets as they walked.

At one point, they were met by Salt Lake City police, who lined up on North Temple and tried to direct the group west. Instead, protesters marched around the line, continuing on State Street.

A few blocks away, the other rally took place to show support for law enforcement. Many carried American flags, while some carried the black, white and blue “Thin Blue Line” flags.

Members from Utah Citizens’ Alarm were in attendance, a few days after Facebook removed its group page as part of crackdown on what it calls dangerous groups.

The pro- and anti-police groups never met on the road, despite holding rallies at the same time blocks away from each other and marching down the same streets.

When the Blue Lives Matter groups led its procession of motorcycles, side-by-sides and marchers up to the Capitol, its members thanked police officers directing traffic. Patriotic bagpipe music filled the air amid the roar of motorcycle engines as the group moved on.

“Whose streets?” one of those attendees yelled soon after. “Our streets!”