Law enforcement, spectators far outnumbered armed protesters at Utah Capitol

Officials stand by the large police presence, saying it ensured the small demonstration was peaceful.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) One of a dozen protesters carries an upside down flag at the Utah Capitol around noon on Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021.

The Utah Capitol remained secure Sunday.

Although federal law enforcement had warned of armed demonstrations at Capitols across the country in the wake of the Jan. 6 pro-Trump attack on the U.S. Capitol, only about 15 protesters showed up on the lawn of Utah’s Statehouse. Even that number is generous.

For most of Sunday’s demonstration, spectators outnumbered the extremist, anti-government Boogaloo Bois who organized the rally. The only pro-Trump presence was a handful of men quietly waving flags for hours in support of defeated President Donald Trump. Onlookers posed for selfies, walked their dogs and sat with their children, sipping lattes, watching the scene unfold.

That’s not to mention the scores of law enforcement and National Guard troops who lined the building, approximately 50 of which were stationed at the Capitol’s south entrance at all times, ready for an assault that never came.

If not for the police and caution tape wrapped around the building, and the small group of armed protesters, it could have been any other unusually warm Sunday afternoon in January.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) George Zinn responds to a woman who said derogatory things about President Donald Trump at the Utah Capitol, where a dozen protesters gathered on Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021.

As Howard Medrano, a tourist who happened upon the demonstration, said, “It’s a beautiful day to have a protest, but I guess we’re going to just have a beautiful day without much of a protest — and that’s a good thing.”

The eight Boogaloos, who organized the event and declined to give their names, called the massive law enforcement presence a “joke,” as they stood with rifles just south of the Capitol entrance. They wore brightly colored Hawaiian shirts, a wardrobe staple for their movement, and held up two flags and two signs. When a news helicopter circled overhead, they lifted their signs to the sky.

“Are you guys prepared enough for this situation?” one shouted through a megaphone at the Utah Highway Patrol troopers.

Utah officials locked down the Capitol and other government buildings after federal law enforcement warned of the potential for violence in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Salt Lake City’s FBI field office had said that it had received no “specific” or “substantiated” threats of violence here, but was in a “heightened posture” and had set up a command post on the Utah Capitol grounds.

The Utah National Guard, Utah Highway Patrol and other local law enforcement were also summoned. Gov. Spencer Cox declared a state of emergency Thursday because of the possible violence from this protest or others they anticipate between now and President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration Wednesday.

“Today’s protests were peaceful and law abiding, certainly the preferred outcome, and we hope it remains that way through the weeks ahead,” governor’s office spokesperson Jennifer Napier-Pearce said Sunday. “The presence of the Utah Highway Patrol and the Utah National Guard ensured the safety of our Capitol, and we’re grateful for their service.”

Cox tweeted that Sunday’s outcome “was our best-case scenario as many agitating groups cancelled their plans and those that came were peaceful.”

Utah Highway Patrol Lt. Nick Street said that even though the protest turned into a “nonevent,” the large police and military presence was important.

He said police were learning about the planned protests from social media posts on “fringe” sites in the days after the Jan. 6 attack, but most were shut down by the time Sunday’s protest took place.

“We couldn’t not take this seriously,” he said. “We just couldn’t. We would have been ‘darned if we do, darned if we don’t.’ Every state was going through what Utah did.”

Street said officials likely will reduce law enforcement officers patrolling the Capitol, which remains closed, in the days to come. There will be some heightened security, however, because the Utah Legislature begins its annual session Tuesday.

Street said the extra heavy measures undertaken recently were due to “the specific day circled in our calendars,” which was Sunday.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) National Guard troops at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021.

That rally remained peaceful the entire three hours the Boogaloos stood on the Capitol grounds, intermittently telling the onlooking police and troops versions of, “This whole thing is a joke.”

They meant the police and media presence, but to the Boogaloos who protested Sunday, even their organization is a bit of a joke, born of an internet meme that, they said, became real as people treated it that way.

The group told the story of Duncan Lemp, a 21-year-old who became a martyr for many anti-government extremists groups after he was killed by police during an early-morning, no-knock-warrant gun raid, The Washington Post reported. They also spoke about the importance of coming together as citizens — no matter the political affiliation — against an oppressive government.

One carried a sign that advocated against qualified immunity and police unions. The other sought pardons for National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and Ross William Ulbricht, creator of the now-defunct darknet marketplace Silk Road.

Many passersby, though, didn’t take the protesters too seriously. Some passing motorists incorrectly assumed it was a pro-Trump rally, yelling, “F--- Trump” as they went by. The Boogaloos called Trump a “dictator,” and decried the deaths of both George Floyd and Ashli Babbitt, who was killed by Capitol police during the Jan. 6 riot.

Toward the end of the protest, a woman held a boombox above her head and played the song “FDT” (meaning F--- Donald Trump) by YG and Nipsey Hussle on repeat. The Boogaloos responded by announcing, again, that they weren’t supportive of the president.

“Can you please change it to ‘F--- tha Police’ by N.W.A.?” a Boogaloo asked over a megaphone.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Members of the Bois of Liberty at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021.

One spectator, who identified himself only as Colin, lounged on the grass with his family and dogs, and said it looked to him like those who were protesting were just trying to get noticed by the dozens of journalists who roamed the Capitol grounds.

“They’re attention-seekers,” he said.

When Shylah Poirier and her husband approached the grounds with their two girls and dog on a family scavenger hunt, they hesitated to get closer to the south steps.

“I actually didn’t want to step onto the property,” she said, “especially with the kids.”

But, ultimately, she thought it would be a good lesson for her kids to see that groups of people have different beliefs and can have space to share them peacefully.

The girls walked up to the south steps, a few feet from the yellow police line, snapped a photo near a Beehive sculpture for the scavenger hunt and left.

About an hour later, the Boogaloos left, too.