Debate attracts liberal, conservative protest groups to the University of Utah

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rulon, who would only give his first name, joins other supporters of President Donald Trump to rally outside of Kingsbury Hall on the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, before the vice presidential debate.

The debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris attracted protesters from across the political spectrum. They gathered, chanted and clashed near the University of Utah.

One rally, organized by Students for a Democratic Society, first gathered at Sunnyside Park then marched to the university demanding reforms on housing, health care, policing and climate change.

Valerie Maciel showed up in a “future is female” T-shirt to support Harris and express her disapproval of President Donald Trump.

“He’s a predator. His morality was in question since the very beginning,” Maciel said of the president. “It’s embarrassing. We used to be a very strong country, and because of him, we’re not looked upon as a strong force anymore.”

Maciel said would support Joe Biden because of his vice presidential pick.

“She just looks like she’s really fun and she’s very well-spoken,” Maciel said. “She seems like a real person.”

A second gathering of mostly Trump supporters met just south of Presidents Circle waving Trump-Pence flags and chanting “four more years.” Among them was a group gathered near the Catholic Newman Center to voice their opposition to abortion.

“Vice President Pence is big supporter of life, so we’re here to show up to support him,” said Trump supporter Kris Kimball.

Toting a pro-life sign, a man named Aaron, who declined to provide his last name but said he is affiliated with Pro-Life Utah, expressed his approval of Amy Coney Barrett, the conservative judge Trump has nominated to the Supreme Court.

“More than that, the Trump-Pence administration has appointed hundreds of federal court judges and those judges help uphold state-level laws that are against abortion, laws I have lobbied for in Utah,” he said.

Shelby Mark, who carried a flag and wore a red MAGA hat, said the Trump administration’s tax cuts helped her afford insurance for employees when she formerly ran a dental whitening business.

“I appreciate that Trump stands up for the little guy,” she said. “He protected my business when I needed him to protect it. I think he speaks for a lot of people who don’t like to speak out.”

Despite the criticism the Trump administration has received on its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, particularly with a wave of infections currently moving through the White House, the president’s supporters praised his response. Many noted his swift closure of travel from China, although fact-checkers have pointed out that thousands of travelers from China entered the U.S. in the months following travel restrictions.

Back at Sunnyside Park, many protesters were motivated by frustrations with the Trump administration rather than enthusiasm for the Biden-Harris ticket.

Addressing the crowd of marchers, Ermiya Fanaeian of Pink Pistols said the country needed leaders who will address the needs of the working class, of people of color and of transgender people. While Harris is a rare woman candidate at the top of a major party ticket, Fanaeian said that didn’t let her “off the hook” when it comes to championing equality.

“Feminism is not just about you becoming vice president,” Fanaeian said. “In order to break the glass ceiling, some of us need to be allowed into the building first and foremost.”

As other Black Lives Matter groups and Biden-Harris supporters began to trickle near Presidents Circle, the opposing groups began to vocally clash with Trump-Pence supporters. Police stepped in to separate the crowd. Officers wearing riot gear also blocked off the 1300 East and 200 South intersection to prevent the protesters marching from Sunnyside Park from confronting the Pro-Trump crowd.

Anti-Trump groups managed to enter the area anyway, and things became tense as the opposing factions yelled at each other, exchanging curse words and insults.

“Black lives matter!” shouted one group. “All lives matter!” shouted the other.

As the vice presidential debate came to a close, the bickering factions came face-to-face again just in front of The Pie Pizzeria, half a block west from campus. Employees Addie Hildebrand and Declan Levin gathered outside to watch the fray.

Levin, a U. student, says he plans to vote for Biden.

“The media has been very harsh on Trump, I’ll give that to him,” Levin said. “[But] his supporters are a bit harsh, cult-like.”

Meanwhile, Hildebrand remains undecided.

“I don’t even know if I want to vote,” she said. “If I don’t vote, I can’t say anything bad about any of them, I can just stay neutral.”

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