Salt Lake City residents frustrated with mayor’s weeklong curfew because of protests

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Protesters march to the Salt Lake City Public Safety Building, during a demonstration organized by the Party for Socialism and Liberation, Monday, June 1, 2020.

The mayor says it’s to protect public safety, but Salt Lake City residents say the current curfew feels more like punishment.

Mayor Erin Mendenhall decided Monday to require people to stay home from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. each day until June 8. The move came after protests over racial injustice became violent and destructive Saturday in downtown Salt Lake City.

But numerous residents call the curfew a heavy-handed and hypocritical response compared to lax enforcement of coronavirus restrictions. Others said it violated their First Amendment right to peacefully assemble and gave police a tool to target protesters. Some were left feeling confused or less safe.

“The only thing the curfews are doing is giving the police a reason to arrest dissenters, and [it’s] doing nothing for the safety of our community,” said Katy Willis, a downtown business owner. “Absolutely no reason to make this more serious than the city’s reaction to COVID-19.”

The current curfew order came just one hour before hundreds of people assembled for a second protest Monday afternoon. That gathering mostly remained peaceful, although many stayed out past 8 p.m. in violation of the mayor’s order.

“It’s really ironic that the mayor would post public support for the protest, but at the same time the protest started, she imposed a weeklong lockdown,” said Moira Turner with the Party for Socialism and Liberation, an organizer of Monday’s protest.

She expressed frustration that there was no police presence or any similar heavy-handed actions when a thousand people gathered downtown in April to protest pandemic closures.

“They were open-carrying semiautomatic rifles,” Turner said. “We didn’t see the National Guard called out for them. We didn’t see a lockdown.”

Former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson also pointed out the city’s differing responses to the gatherings, tweeting that the curfew was “another empty edict.”

Monday’s order was the second curfew imposed by Mendenhall in response to the protests.

The first lasted until 6 a.m. Monday and started Saturday evening during a rally organized by Utah Against Police Brutality that turned violent. Protesters flipped two vehicles, smashed windows and spray-painted buildings and other structures downtown and at the state Capitol. A man threatened the protesters with a hunting bow, videos show, and an officer pushed an elderly man to the ground.

Connor Boyack, president of the Libertas Institute libertarian think tank, said elected officials are rightly concerned about public safety. Their response, however, should be “narrow and targeted,” he said. “We are concerned that this curfew goes too far, trying to justify its restrictions on the many based on the bad actions of a few."

John Mejia with the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah said that the calm in the city since Saturday shows police have other tools to protect people and property.

“The past several days have been relatively quiet,” Mejia said. “When it comes to First Amendment activities, our strong preference is that we give people the benefit of the doubt that they’re going to be peaceful.”

When asked about litigation over the curfew, ACLU is “keeping options on the table,” Mejia said, but he noted that his organization has been in touch with city authorities and that he appreciates their willingness to listen to concerns.

Curfew orders have been imposed in at least 34 other cities and for the entire state of Arizona in an effort to clamp down on protest riots, according to reporting by The Hill. Only a few places appear to have curfews that last as long as Salt Lake City’s, although orders in San Francisco and Chicago remain in place until further notice.

“It seems like a very extreme reaction to some graffiti and property damage, which was insured or has already been cleaned up," said Salt Lake City resident Shelese Stoddard. "There are many groups who want to protest peacefully and following social distancing guidelines as best they can and are now restricted from doing so.”

Sugar House resident Kent Bonacki said the curfews further silence the voices of groups that feel disenfranchised by the police and institutional racism.

“The mere fact that frequenting businesses is an explicit exemption to the curfew demonstrates how much of a farce it is," Bonacki said. “We can all go spend our money at our favorite stores, but we can’t organize and practice our First Amendment rights.”

The curfew allows people to leave their homes to shop, work, worship, and take care of family members, friends and pets. It also doesn’t apply to public safety officers, members of the media or people experiencing homelessness.

Still, city resident Estelle Hafen worries about “holes” she sees in the order and whether police will be able to tell the difference between a protester and someone who’s out at night for other reasons.

“Are minorities going to be disproportionately affected because there’s a lack of clarity?” Hafen said.

Katie Beacom works in the city and said she and her co-workers worry about getting pulled over when they leave work after 8 p.m. It adds to her concerns about working during a pandemic.

“The most frustrating part of an enforced curfew is that the stay-home order in Utah was never enforced,” Beacom said. “There was nowhere near this level of scrutiny when it came to protecting public health.”

Mayor and police respond

In an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, Mendenhall explained the curfew’s rationale.

“Our city police department and state Department of Public Safety have been working in concert since Saturday. They’ve evaluated the national climate and local intelligence,” the mayor said. “We’ve determined and been encouraged by the state to put this in place and keep our city from taking a path that some other cities around the country are tragically on.”

She acknowledged that Salt Lake City remains the epicenter of coronavirus cases in the state and said the city is working to protect public safety on both fronts — the pandemic and the protests. She also acknowledged that Monday’s gathering was largely peaceful.

“We’re grateful for the peaceful protest last night. We hear you; we have been willing to work together from the beginning,” Mendenhall said. “I recognize peoples’ voices always need to be heard. We’re grateful Salt Lake City is a place where we can host that.”

Even though many protesters stayed out past 8 p.m., Mendenhall said the curfew is still effective because it gives officers the legal authority to require people to go home.

“Whether that happens at 8 p.m. or 9:30 p.m. is relative,” she said. “As we’ve seen across the country, there’s nothing good that happens in the middle of the night with protests that turn to riots.”

At a Salt Lake County Council meeting Tuesday afternoon, Sheriff Rosie Rivera called George Floyd’s death as a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck a “horrific tragedy” and said police should be held to account.

“Unfortunately, 850,000 officers are paying the price, with several officers killed over the weekend nationwide. It’s tough. We’re in a bad situation right now,” Rivera said, her voice quaking. “Excuse me for being emotional. I see both sides of it. I’m a person of color and I’m a police officer.”

Salt Lake City Police Detective Greg Wilking, a department spokesman, said Tuesday that no residents had been arrested Monday for violating curfew who weren’t part of a protest.

And while he urged people to follow the city’s new guidelines, he said they likely won’t be picked up by police for something like taking a walk in the park after 8 p.m.

“We don’t have the time, the energy or the bandwidth to go out and do that, nor would that be a responsible thing to do,” he said, noting that arrests are “our last resort. Even with the protesters, we don’t want to do it.”

Instead, Wilking said, officers have been working to educate people who are out after curfew and may not be aware of the guidelines.

— Tribune reporter Taylor Stevens contributed to this story.

Note: This story was updated at 5:54 p.m. to include comment from ACLU.