Hundreds of pro-Trump activists protested at the Utah Capitol as the president fought to stay in office

New Gov. Spencer Cox and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson sent employees home but senators continue meeting to prepare for upcoming session.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Trump supporters gathered at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021.

About 400 pro-Trump demonstrators turned up on Utah’s Capitol Hill on Wednesday to show their continued loyalty to the White House occupant who so far has refused to accept his reelection defeat.

The protest in Salt Lake City was one of more than a dozen at state Capitols around the nation, according to news reports. But violence at the state-centered rallies was only sporadic — a sharp contrast to the mob scene in Washington, D.C., where backers of President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol, forcing evacuation of Congress members and staff to disrupt the Electoral College vote count, breaking windows and destroying property and resulting in the shooting death of at least one person.

The Utah protest was mostly peaceful, although it was marred by several skirmishes or threatened confrontations with a small group of Black Lives Matter counterprotesters, the escort of one man off the premises by members of the Proud Boys and Utah Citizens Alarm (UCA) armed with bats and guns, and the unprovoked pepper-spraying of a Tribune photographer.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, sworn in just two days earlier, told his staffers to work from home, as did some other elected leaders and state offices, based on precautionary advice from Capitol security.

In a video message from the governor’s mansion, Cox condemned the “cowardly acts of violence” in D.C. but said he was grateful the demonstration at the Utah Capitol was “mostly peaceful.”

“To any of you out there who are considering joining those protests, I ask you to please do so, but again to do so in the right way. To do so loud, to do so proud, but to do so in a respectful manner. And by no means resort to violence or property destruction.”

Cox denounced the D.C. protesters who stormed the Capitol and occupied it for several hours before their ouster by law enforcement as “terrorists” and their actions as “evil.”

“We are better than this in Utah,” he said. “We are better than this in America.”

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall wasn’t quite so willing to overlook the pepper-spraying of a Tribune photographer by one of the Trump rallygoers.

“An assault on a journalist is an attack on freedom of press and democracy. This is unacceptable, and should not be allowed to go unchecked,” Mendenhall wrote on Twitter.

While the attack on the photographer appeared to be isolated, several journalists were threatened by protesters.

One approached reporters on the Capitol lawn to tell them exactly what he and his friends think of journalists: “operatives of the Communist Party [who should be] hung on the spot.”

Some of the Proud Boy and UCA members at the protest also menaced a man in a motorcycle helmet, escorted him off the Capitol grounds, carrying bats and guns. They shouted that he was a “f---ing commie,” and yelled at reporters and bystanders watching the scene to “stand back,” at one point even screaming at passing vehicles to “drive on!” And, “Go — in case this gets dirty.”

The protesters finally backed off when a Highway Patrol vehicle pulled up.

Proud Boys chased Arlin Cooper, who came to the Capitol with a Biden sign and a megaphone to yell that President-elect Joe Biden won the election. Police intervened and stood between Cooper and the Proud Boys as they yelled back and forth at each other. Cooper told The Tribune he was practicing his civic duty as an American by counterprotesting.

Pro-Trump demonstrators also approached a small group of Black Lives Matter activists, shouting “All lives matter!” The Trump backers, some armed with guns, were kept back by Capitol security officers.

The crowd spent most of its energy, though, cheering pro-Trump speeches as they waved American and Trump flags. At times they broke into chants of “USA, USA, USA!” on the steps of the Capitol. An alternative chant was “Recall Romney,” referring to the Utah senator who has been one of the most vocal critics of Trump’s attempt to throw out the result of the election, won by Biden. (Utah, by the way, has no recall law.) The crowd also shouted “Fraud is illegal.”

Gail and Larry Tomlinson from Park City attended the rally in red Trump caps.

“We wanted to show our support for Trump,” said Gail Tomlinson. “We voted for him and we feel as though the election was fraudulent.”

Utah State Treasurer David Damschen said he “didn’t feel too motivated” to evacuate the Capitol, although, “It was suggested by the Department of Public Safety that the reason they wanted us to leave is some of the protesters could attempt to breach the building.” he said.

The treasurer, who has had only a skeleton staff working in the Capitol since the COVID-19 outbreak, left in the afternoon.

“I did see some firearms in the crowd,” he said. “But, nothing that was too alarming.”

State Auditor John Dougall said he did send his staff home at about 1 p.m.

Dana Jones, deputy director of the Capitol Preservation Board, said she asked building staff to work from home Wednesday afternoon at the advice of the Utah Highway Patrol and Public Safety Commissioner Jess Anderson.

She described it “more as a precaution,” she said, adding that it was not an evacuation.

The Highway Patrol, which is responsible for security at the Capitol, beefed up its presence just to be on the safe side, according to agency spokesman Lt. Nicholas Street.

He called protesters “very peaceful,” but said the agency had gathered intelligence that individuals who have been “bad actors” in the past might show up.

More than a few legislators and staffers stayed in place at the Capitol complex preparing for the upcoming legislative session. The Senate Republican caucus remained in meetings most of the day, as did many of the support staffers.

Senators in those meetings did not want to comment on the demonstrations outside, saying they were confident the Department of Public Safety would warn them should an imminent danger arise.

“We are still hard at work,” tweeted Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City.

House Republicans were also in an all-day caucus, but they met several miles away at the University of Utah.

One rally speaker boasted of not wearing a face mask, drawing cheers from the crowd, many of them barefaced. The speaker referred to masks — urged in social gatherings as a check on the spread of COVID-19 — as a symbol of communism.

A man standing near the street fronting the Capitol used a megaphone to shout to passing vehicles: “Four more years for Donald J. Trump,” while signs posted on the Capitol said, “Stop the steal!” and “Trump won!”

The rally ended about sundown, about three hours after the first protesters started gathering.

Demonstrations at some other state Capitols resulted in clashes with police or counterprotesters.

In Salem, Ore., demonstrators burned Democratic Gov. Kate Brown in effigy, and skirmishes broke out before police arrived to declare an unlawful assembly and cleared the grounds, according to the Oregonian.

In Sacramento, police acknowledged “some physical altercations” between rival groups of protesters as 200 officers were assigned to keep the peace and made several arrests for attempted unlawful possession of pepper spray, reported the Sacramento Bee.