Salt Lake City police open investigation of at least six alleged assaults by inland port protesters; release body cam footage

(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.

Protesters involved in a demonstration that turned violent in downtown Salt Lake City earlier this week sought to offer their side of the story at a news conference on Thursday: one that blames overly aggressive police.

Amid calls from state and city leaders for civility and elevated discourse — and after Utah Gov. Gary Herbert decried the protests as “borderline terrorism,” noting that some protesters self-identify as anarchists — the people who were involved pointed to police actions as the source of escalated tensions.

“We were not prepared for the massive amounts of police brutality placed on our protesters,” a local community organizer who identified himself only as Anco told reporters during a 45-minute news conference at the Sierra Club’s offices downtown.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) "We're not going to be martyrs for this," said Anco, a local community activist. "This wasn't just a one-sided thing." The group said they told their group of organized activists that "there will be no violence, no masking up and no touching a cop" before the Inland Port protest. Organizers of what began as a peaceful protest against the proposed Inland Port outside Salt Lake City Hall that turned chaotic and violent inside the Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday refuted being called "anarchists" by Gov. Gary Herbert.

The Salt Lake City Police Department, in turn, released footage Thursday afternoon of officers’ interactions with protesters on the sixth floor of the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce. The video shows a crowd of 40 to 60 people singing and chanting as police informed them and media they needed either to leave or be arrested.

“There’s no reason to be jailed for this,” an officer tells them. "We’re trying to be cool.” Several protesters started up chants of “Abort the port!” and refused to move.

Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown told reporters at a news conference that the department has 119 body camera downloads and has documented six assaults against officers. Seventy-five officers responded to the scene over the course of five hours and ultimately arrested eight people.

"Our officers were spit on, scratched, kicked, punched” and had items thrown at them, Brown said.

The department has opened a criminal investigation to look at the assaults and reports of destruction of property. It has also opened an internal affairs audit to look at the actions of officers, is conducting an after-action review of the incidents and is seeking input from the city’s civilian police review board.

Additional body camera footage was released to The Tribune on Thursday evening after an open records request. That footage begins several minutes before the footage shown at the news conference. It opens with two police officers stationed on the sixth floor who realize they aren’t enough to control the crowd.

“We might want more [police],” one officer says, as protesters chant outside.

More arrive, and an officer asks the reinforcements, “How many sets of cuffs you got?", worried they wouldn’t have enough.

Minutes pass before police start handcuffing protesters on the sixth floor. Before the arrests, two protest liaisons confer with police and relay a message to the crowd: Leave or you’ll be arrested. Police soon echo that sentiment.

Officers arrest some people and then begin trying to arrest the handful who remain hooked together in a circle with their arms inside lock box tubes constructed from carabiners, chains, PVC pipe and duct tape. Protesters can be heard shouting and singing in the background. Some yell at police who are attempting to break the tubes, saying officers are fracturing their wrists or hurting them.

Officers tell the protesters to let go of the handles inside the lock boxes. “We don’t want to hurt you,” one officer says. The footage ends once police arrest all the protesters in the lock boxes.

Opponents of the Utah inland port development gathered for what began as a peaceful demonstration outside Salt Lake City Hall Tuesday denouncing the inland port, a massive distribution hub development planned for the city’s northwest side, as well as capitalism, colonialism, climate change and immigration laws.

The group of more than 150 people then crossed 400 South to the Salt Lake Chamber offices, where they filled the lobby and made their way to the 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 and thrown punches.

Organizers said during their news conference Thursday that they had specifically instructed their demonstrators not to engage in any force or destruction of property, and that those who had taken such actions were not affiliated with their groups.

“I don’t condone the destruction of that wall but that wall can be replaced,” Anco said, noting that climate change, in contrast, will do irreversible damage to the planet — and that that should be the focus.

The activists denied Chamber CEO Derek Miller’s claims that some of them had urinated in offices.

Jack Noftsger, a spokesman for Unico Properties, which owns and manages the City Centre 1 building where the chamber offices are located, told The Salt Lake Tribune on Wednesday that property damage in the lobby related to the protest was “very minor” and did not affect the building’s security.

He wouldn’t comment on damage inside the chamber’s offices on Thursday, saying, “We don’t speak on behalf of our tenants.”

An activist who gave his name as Brooks said the event’s significance had “been lost in the media” as the Salt Lake City Police Department and other government officials “have misconstrued the activists as agents of violence rather than agents of change.”

“I saw people getting punched in the head, corralled and pinned,” Anco noted later. “This is the story and this is where the violence is.”

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. He said an officer had choked him to the point he nearly vomited.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Carlos Martinez with the Brown Berets said he told members of his group "there will be no violence, no masking up and no touching a cop" before the Inland Port protest. Organizers of what began as a peaceful protest against the proposed Inland Port outside Salt Lake City Hall that turned chaotic and violent inside the Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday refuted being called "anarchists" by Gov. Gary Herbert.

Carlos Martinez, an activist with the Rose Park Brown Berets, noted that while police asked individuals to leave, there was no unified request for dispersal. If there was, he said demonstrators would have complied. He also criticized the media for trying to manipulate the public by showing what he argued were selective moments of violence on behalf of unaffiliated group members rather than moments as when he says an officer choked him.

“I was unarmed; I had my hand back,” he said. “That’s not being shown to you. What you are seeing is a sensationalized microscopic view of what actually transpired.”

The Tribune’s coverage included claims of police brutality from protesters and the newspaper republished a video clip supplied by Mann.

Despite what they believe was a show of extreme force, protesters pledged to continue direct action and other more community-based organizing around issues facing primarily communities of color and those of lower socioeconomic status. Activists also said they plan to do more training on what organizers should do if violence breaks out.

And while they admit they made some mistakes, calling Tuesday’s event a “learning experience” for all involved, they say they felt it was their only option.

“Many individuals organizing this have had public meetings with state officials and we have gone through the civil process of raising our hand, waiting our turn, being in a place where we can discuss ideas and that’s gotten us nowhere; absolutely nowhere,” Martinez said. “This is not just an isolated incident, this is something that has been a collaboration of struggle for many people here today.”

Jack Hedge, the newly hired executive director of the inland port, said Tuesday that stakeholders were meeting even as the demonstration was getting out of hand. 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.

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 port board is developing a business plan and an environmental impact statement, and it’s unclear how the project will develop. But as activists delivered a strong message on the urgency of climate change, Utah Against Police Brutality activist Dave Newlin — a former Tribune employee — said he thinks it’s “naive” to think it’s possible the project won’t have a “massive environmental impact."

While many politicians have issued calls decrying violence in the days following the protest, the House Democratic Caucus, in a statement released Wednesday, was one of the few to also point to any actions on behalf of police.

“It is never acceptable for protesters to attack anyone, destroy property, or create mayhem, nor for law enforcement to use inappropriate force,” they wrote. "It is incumbent on police and protesters not to escalate tensions into what we saw yesterday. We applaud Utah’s highly engaged citizenry who care about good public process and policy. We all want a safe place to exercise free speech.”

House Speaker Brad Wilson countered with his own statement on Thursday, calling the House Democrats “irresponsible" for insinuating “that law enforcement did anything other than work to restore peace and order during this violent protest.”

“They weren’t the ones attacking journalists, urinating in offices, or destroying public property,” he wrote.

- Tribune reporter Paighten Harkins contributed to this report.