Utah political leaders call for unity in the wake of violent protest but haven’t mended their own rift over the inland port

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Governor Gary Herbert arrives at a news conference to condemn the actions of protesters who occupied the Chamber of Commerce Building Tuesday. Herbert spoke in Salt Lake City on Wednesday July 10, 2019.

Gov. Gary Herbert and Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski both issued pleas for civility and elevated discourse Wednesday, the day after a protest against the inland port turned violent inside and around the downtown offices of the Salt Lake Chamber.

But the two elected leaders couldn’t suspend their own squabbling long enough to do it from the same room, as they’d previously planned, and instead delivered their messages at afternoon news conferences that were separated by mere minutes and one floor of the Utah Capitol.

“Originally, [Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown] and I were invited up here to specifically talk about [the protests] yesterday, and there was a bit of a bait and switch,” Biskupski said, declining to elaborate much beyond that. Herbert told reporters to ask Biskupski why she had pulled out of their planned joint news conference.

Relations between Herbert and Biskupski have been strained around the inland port since the state took over control of a massive swath of the city’s land to bring the trading hub vision to life and amid the mayor’s lawsuit challenging that move. But both agreed violence was no way of responding to the contentious issue.

“I understand people are passionate about the inland port, for example. I know they’re passionate about climate change. I know they’re passionate about immigration and all the other issues that were brought up yesterday,” Herbert said. “But passion does not excuse you becoming violent and breaking the law.”

Demonstrators, in turn, blamed the police for escalating the situation. Darin Mann, a community advocate who ran for the state Legislature last year, posted a pair of videos to Facebook that showed an officer dragging a demonstrator along the ground and another punching a protester in the face. Mann said an officer choked him to the point he nearly vomited.

Biskupski said in a statement Wednesday she had been briefed by the city’s police chief and complimented the department for keeping everyone as safe as possible.

And Herbert doubled down on his Tuesday comments that the protests were “borderline terrorism,” saying he didn’t think the description was hyperbolic in light of the fact that some protesters identify as anarchists.

Some of the eight candidates in the Salt Lake City mayor’s race, in which the inland port has become a major campaign issue, also denounced the violence. But former state Sen. Jim Dabakis added that he thought it was disingenuous for the governor to call for civility around the port project.

“I’m irked at the governor and at others, because they are opining now so much about respect and civility but they were nowhere to be found with those traits when the inland port backdoor deal was done," he told The Salt Lake Tribune, referencing the bill that created the inland port, which passed in the final hours of last year’s legislative session with little debate.

Herbert recognized the dissenting opinions around the inland port but encouraged people to air their views using the proper channels — by lobbying lawmakers or attending public hearings. The conflict should also play out in court during judicial proceedings over Biskupski's lawsuit, he said.

Eight people were ultimately arrested Tuesday in connection with the protest, which began as a peaceful demonstration outside Salt Lake City Hall before moving across 400 South to the Salt Lake Chamber, where protesters filled the lobby and some made their way to the chamber’s sixth-floor offices.

After police arrived on the scene and ordered the crowd to disperse, some protesters resisted removal while others spilled into the surrounding streets in an escalating scene of pushing, shoving, thrown punches and one confrontation with a passerby shouting racial taunts.

Salt Lake City Police Detective Greg Wilking said Wednesday that he expects additional charges will be filed against individuals involved in Tuesday’s protest. Those charges could include assault and criminal mischief, stemming from clashes between protesters and law enforcement, members of the media and chamber employees.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Police remove protesters occupying the Chamber of Commerce Building Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 9, 2019. Dozens of people showed up to protest the planned Inland Port. The protest began at City Hall and moved to the Chamber of Commerce.

The department is still investigating the extent of protest-related crimes and is working to interview witnesses and compile the photos and video captured during the clash. Chief Brown said his department would be reaching out to newsrooms for footage of the confrontation as investigators explore additional charges against protesters.

But individuals who participated in the protest say it was primarily the police, not demonstrators, who escalated tensions through the use of excessive force.

“It really looks like they were out for blood, and they got it,” Mann said. “It’s really, really unfortunate that our police force has so much animosity for people who are just advocating for an issue that is so important and will affect the lives of our children and grandchildren.”

Mann said he expects better of law enforcement and would like to see some of the officers held accountable for their actions.

“In my eyes,” Mann said, “they were just looking for a confrontation.”

Brown said his department will look into reports of excessive force but stressed that officers were dealing with an unruly group of people, many of whom were resisting them.

“It will not be tolerated that you assault police officers,” Brown said.

Salt Lake Chamber President and Utah Inland Port Chairman Derek Miller — the subject of several protesters’ signs and chants — criticized the demonstration as “an act of intimidation by people attempting to terrorize members of the Salt Lake Chamber family.”

Appearing at Herbert’s news briefing, Miller described the demonstrators as a “violent mob” and said chamber employees felt under attack as the protesters, “many of them wearing masks,” entered their workspace. He alleged that the intruders destroyed property, broke surveillance cameras in the lobby and urinated in some of the offices.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Derek Miller speaks after Governor Gary Herbert condemned the actions of protesters who occupied the Chamber of Commerce Building Tuesday. Herbert spoke at a news conference in Salt Lake City on Wednesday July 10, 2019. At right is Commissioner Jess Anderson.

Jack Noftsger — a spokesman for Unico Properties, which owns and manages the building where the chamber offices are located — said property damage related to the protest was “very minor” and did not impact the building’s security.

Herbert urged political candidates, elected leaders and businesspeople to unite against violent protests and said egging on the unrest is “not American, certainly not Utahn.”

While many of Salt Lake City’s mayoral candidates have staked out stronger claims against the inland port project, nearly all of them Wednesday denounced violence as a means of protesting what they said were legitimate qualms with the development.

Former Pioneer Park Executive Director David Garbett had tweeted in support of the protest before it became violent, noting that the demonstration “captures a cause I care deeply about” and that a strong mayor who aimed to improve air quality would “stop at nothing to work against the inland port.”

He later deleted that post and noted Wednesday — after facing some veiled criticism from Herbert — that he was “disappointed” with the way protesters had conducted themselves.

“There’s some serious grievances with [the port project] and I want to see us go a different direction, and we need the public engaged; we even need the public protesting,” Garbett said. “But if it turns violent, then we won’t succeed.”

Former Salt Lake City Councilman Stan Penfold, who has said he would be supportive of a zero-emissions port, added that the ongoing protests demonstrate a need for the Inland Port Authority board to step back and examine the project.

“It’s unfortunate the way it played out, but I think it’s important we pay attention to the signals and it suggests people aren’t feeling like they’re being heard,” he said. “I think it really is an opportunity for certainly those who are in authority to take a pause and say, ‘Are we missing something?’ ‘Is there something we’re not hearing?’”