When James Sullivan saw a recent Salt Lake Tribune editorial cartoon meant to illustrate how white supremacy has infiltrated law enforcement, he said he thought it wasn’t just improper and controversial. He said, specifically, that it was racist because it used Ku Klux Klan imagery.
“When Black people see that hood, they think of our oppression,” said Sullivan, who is Black. “They think of hate. They think of slavery. And when they start doing that, it leads us into a self-oppression. It leads us into a point of victimhood.”
He told the crowd listening to him that that fear is used for manipulation, to make minority communities fear police, to “control the Black vote.”
“It’s not only ignorant and in poor taste, but it is the most racist act, and the most blatantly racist act, that I’ve ever experienced from a media group in the 21st century,” he said, asking the crowd of about 60, “Can everybody agree me on that?”
The crowd, law enforcement supporters who’d shown up at the Tribune’s shared West Valley City printing press, yelled back in agreement. Some whistled. They’d all rallied on a wedge of grass outside the presses to speak out against the recently published Pat Bagley editorial cartoon they said disrespects and endangers police.
The rally — called “Back the Blue: Boycott Salt Lake Tribune!!” — came together Wednesday after the Utah Sheriffs’ Association and the leader of Utah Business Revival, a group that has held a series of protests against coronavirus restrictions, condemned the drawing.
They called for an apology and a retraction. Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, and the Utah Republican Party has since issued a similar statement.
Protesters started arriving at the presses, which print The Tribune and the Deseret News and other publications, around 6 p.m. Many carried American flags, or the blue, black and white Thin Blue Line flags. One man wore a shirt that said “Defund the media,” but few outwardly displayed anti-Tribune sentiment.
Those with signs promoted nationalism — “American Lives Matter” and “Merica[:] Running this world since 1776!” — or advocated for law enforcement.
One sign said bluntly, “I support police. I am not racist.”
The cartoon that drew the protesters’ ire shows a police officer at a doctor’s office. The officer and physician are looking at an X-ray image, which shows a Ku Klux Klan member where the man’s spine and pelvis should be. The doctor tells the officer, whose mouth is agape, “Well, there’s your problem...”
The Tribune does not plan to apologize, George Pyle, the editorial page editor, said, and the cartoon remains online.
Cartoonist Pat Bagley responded on Twitter that the officer in the piece went to the doctor for a checkup because he felt ill.
He said later, “I know what I meant to say when I did the cartoon and the cartoon reflects that. Does it say all law enforcement is racist? No. Does it say policing in America has been infiltrated by white supremacists? Yes — that’s just a fact.”
In 2006, the FBI released a report on white supremacy in policing, saying that “[w]hite supremacist leaders and groups have historically shown an interest in infiltrating law enforcement.”
The report specifically mentions the KKK, saying the group is “notable” for garnering community support, “which often translated into ties to local law enforcement.” It lists examples of officers who’ve participated in “activities in support of white supremacist beliefs,” although the specifics are redacted.
As recently as 2019, the Price Police Department was criticized for racist Facebook posts purportedly from a sworn officer, FOX 13 reported. That year, the nonprofit news organization Reveal posted its three-part investigation on racism and white supremacy in policing, where reporters uncovered hundreds of officers, both active-duty and retired, are members of Confederate, anti-Islam, misogynistic or anti-government militia groups on Facebook.
The Utah Sheriffs’ Association said they interpreted the drawing as saying all “law enforcement officers are also Ku Klux Klan members.”
Pyle said they misinterpreted it.
“The cartoon does not say that law enforcement officers are all white supremacists. It does say that it’s a problem that culture needs to deal with,” he said, adding that the officer in the drawing is “clearly concerned.”
“One would hope now that he’s been diagnosed he can address the problem,” Pyle said.
The sheriffs’ association rebuked The Tribune’s decision to publish the cartoon, saying it inflamed already high tensions between community members and law enforcement.
In Utah and across the country, groups have been protesting all summer to reform policing after the death of George Floyd by an officer in Minneapolis.
Protesters here have rallied consistently, many demanding accountability from Salt Lake City police after officers shot and killed 22-year-old Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal in May. Salt Lake County prosecutors ruled the officers were justified in killing Palacios-Carbajal, prompting a protest where officers clashed with protesters, some of whom spilled paint and broke windows outside of the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office.
“This is not the time for such a prejudicial piece of journalism as law enforcement officers across Utah and across the United States go to work every day to protect communities and do their best to help victims of crime and keep the peace,” the sheriffs’ association said in a statement.
The Utah Fraternal Order of Police also issued a letter criticizing Bagley and The Tribune. It also alluded to the deadly extremist attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo after it published a cartoon depicting the Islamic Prophet Muhammad.
The statement said that Bagley chose to malign a group of people he knew wouldn’t lash out at him.
“Make no mistake, Mr. Bagley, we are not in Paris, and you do not work for Charlie Hebdo. You understand that no mob is coming for you, you will sacrifice nothing. In fact, Mr. Bagley, in this case......you are the mob!”
Stewart called the cartoon “extremely dangerous.” State Sen. Dan Thatcher, R-West Valley City, also spoke out against it, saying it was a “disgrace” that makes reform harder.
Bagley responded to Stewart saying, “Know what’s dangerous? Police w no accountability and a rep who misinterprets cartoon to rile people up.”
Pyle said he can’t recall a time when one of Bagley’s cartoons caused this level of uproar but didn’t say it hasn’t happened before. Bagley has been at The Tribune for more than 40 years.
Criticism, Pyle said, comes with the job of working in the editorial section, which is independent of the news gathering operation at The Tribune.
Some don’t understand, Pyle said, that just because a drawing is called a cartoon, that doesn’t mean it’s supposed to be funny. That isn’t the case in editorial cartoons.
“They’re not always intended to elicit laughs,” Pyle said. “Sometimes gasps are appropriate.”
At Thursday’s protest, attendees vowed to hold The Tribune accountable, saying they’d flood the newsroom’s phone lines and inboxes with their demands.
Protest organizer Skye Christensen, with the group Blue Line Unites Everyone, said, “We have a goal here, and that is to show The Salt Lake Tribune that we’re here and we’re not going to back down. We’re not scared. We’re not going to stop fighting.”