What began as a peaceful act of civil disobedience outside Salt Lake City Hall on Tuesday — with protesters holding giant sunflowers and poles depicting ducks, carrying signs decrying a massive development planned for the city’s northwest side — quickly devolved into violence.
Opponents of the Utah inland port development denounced not only the project but also capitalism, colonialism, climate change and immigration laws in organized speeches before they crossed 400 South, temporarily blocking traffic, and swarmed into the Salt Lake Chamber offices.
“Abort the port!” they shouted, beating their hands against makeshift drums and the walls in the lobby.
“Derek Miller, Salt Lake City killer!” they yelled, referring to the chairman of the Inland Port Authority Board, who is also the president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce.
Protesters filled elevators and went to the sixth floor of the building, where they demanded to speak with Miller. He was not made available and told The Salt Lake Tribune later that day that he was in a meeting out of the office when the protest broke out.
Police warned everyone, including media, that they would be arrested for trespassing if they did not vacate the premises.
Ethan Petersen, who was arrested at an Inland Port Authority board meeting last month at the state Capitol, was again taken into custody by police Tuesday. Officers turned out in force — two dozen or more — and ordered the 150 or so demonstrators, as well as the news reporters and photographers who had followed them into the building, to leave.
Police made eight arrests (three were cited and five were taken to jail) for offenses ranging from riot to assault and criminal trespassing. It was not clear how many people were injured in the scuffle, but police said officers and protesters had “bumps and bruises."
“We understand people have the right to assemble and protest and have their voices heard, and we certainly respect that right, and sometimes we’re the guardians of that right,” said Greg Wilking, a spokesman with the Salt Lake City Police Department, on the way officers handled the protest. "But there are times when these protests become physical and property is being destroyed and people’s safety is at risk, we are going to have to escalate the force to a degree.”
As police attempted to clear the lobby, reporters for The Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News got trapped in the middle of protesters and police and were shoved around. A Tribune reporter was pushed to the ground and briefly trampled but was uninjured.
Later, across the street from the Chamber building, some protesters began hitting and pushing a man shouting racist taunts at them. A Tribune photographer had his view blocked and was chased and a photographer from KUTV had his lens covered with a protester’s hand and, it appeared, was roughed up.
The protest, organized by ICE Free SLC, Civil Riot, Utah Against Police Brutality and other community groups, lasted nearly two hours. Police shut down 400 South between 200 East and State Street for more than an hour as demonstrators chanted, sang and at times even danced inside and outside the Chamber of Commerce building.
Activists have raised concerns about the possible impacts the inland port — a sprawling distribution hub planned in Salt Lake City’s northwest side — could have on air quality and wildlife in an already fragile ecosystem. The planned development is expected to bring increased rail, truck and air traffic along with tailpipe emissions.
The board, which will oversee development in the inland port area, has argued that the land will develop with or without its direction and that it could actually be more sustainable under state control.
“This is an issue that affects all our communities," said Mariella Mendoza, one of the organizers behind the protest, on what she hoped people would take away from the demonstration. "No one is free until everyone is free.”
Protesters noted that the neighborhoods that will primarily be affected by the port project include Rose Park, West Valley City, and Poplar Grove — communities made up largely of people who are “poor and low-income Latinx, white” and other people of color “who already experience disproportionate pollution, policing, and other forms of disenfranchisement," civil resistance group Civil Riot wrote in a news release sent after the protests.
“Nonviolent direct action can shine a light on the grave injustice being done by the powerful elite with this destructive development, through the harm it will cause to the surrounding communities, wildlife habitats, and the planet,” Adair Kovac, one of the protesters and a member of Civil Riot, said in a written statement. “The violent response from the police yet again proves that law enforcement serves and protects the wealthy and their property and interests, not the majority of people.”
Miller denounced the protests Tuesday evening and noted that the port board has had a “robust” public engagement process to seek input on the project from residents.
“There’s absolutely no reason for the protesters to do what they did today other than a gross attempt at notoriety,” he said in an interview. “I would encourage anyone of good will who has questions or even concerns about the inland port project to engage in the public process. Those people who seek to intimidate and shut down voices, they’ll have to speak for themselves. But I’d certainly speak to those who want to be engaged in a responsible and in a civil way, that there’s a way for them to do that.”
In a prepared statement, Miller accused protesters of “attempting to terrorize members of the Salt Lake Chamber family” in what he denounced as a senseless and outrageous" action.
Miller insisted that “that there is no connection between the Salt Lake Chamber and the inland port project,” although he leads both organizations and was entangled in an earlier controversy in which the chamber was attempting to raise money by charging businesses $10,000 apiece to sit on an advisory committee to participate in planning of the Inland Port.
Jack Hedge, the newly hired executive director of the inland port, said stakeholders were meeting even as the demonstration was getting out of hand.
“At the same time that a small but vocal group was unsafely protesting downtown, the Utah Inland Port environment and habitat working group was productively soliciting ideas on ways to create a modern, safe, and environmentally sustainable logistics hub. Our hope is that this one small group does not overshadow the good work being done by so many others,” he said.
The board has not scheduled its monthly July meeting and it’s unclear when it will next convene. Spokeswoman Aimee Edwards has said the open schedule is unrelated to earlier protests that shut down one meeting and disrupted another and is an effort to get Hedge on board and up to speed.
The port project faces not only mounting public opposition but also a lawsuit, which was filed by Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski earlier this year. The city had always planned for this location to become an inland port, but Biskupski is challenging the state’s takeover of the land and its taxing and zoning authority.
She is also seeking an emergency injunction to stop the project from moving forward as the court considers her suit.
Several Salt Lake City mayoral candidates weighed in on the protest Tuesday, with Sen. Luz Escamilla denouncing destruction of property at the Chamber of Commerce but offering her support for the rights of protesters.
“I understand the frustration surrounding this issue," she wrote. “These are legitimate concerns being raised and I support people peacefully protesting for what they believe in. However, protesters crossed the line when they ransacked those offices. I’m thankful no one was hurt, but let me be clear: the destruction of property and physical intimidation is neither warranted nor is it constructive.”
Miller said police were conducting an assessment of the offices to see what, if any, damage there was.
“I am glad to be able to say the staff is safe and no one was physically injured,” he added.
David Garbett, who worked for 10 years as a staff attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, has said that he would be an ally for protesters, if elected — a promise he reiterated Tuesday during the early, peaceful portion of the protest.
“The demonstration against the Inland Port taking place captures a cause I care deeply about,” he wrote in a tweet. “If any mayor truly wants to improve our air quality and work to stop climate change, they will stop at nothing to work against the Inland Port. If elected, I will be that bold mayor.”
Gov. Gary Herbert issued a statement calling for mayoral candidates and officials to denounce the protests.
“This was not just a protest; this was borderline terrorism. This was bullying, intimidation, and violence, and will not be tolerated," Herbert tweeted.