George Pyle: Those without power are going to act up

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) A gas mask hangs on the door at Colmena Group's office in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 19, 2019, following a protest of the inland port. Activists say Colmena Group owns property where the proposed port is to be built.

“There is no honor in attacking the weak.”

— Old Klingon Proverb

The Salt Lake City Police Department, under the current chief and the one before, was among the many local constabularies across the country that was very public about its humane and practical (amazing how often those are the same thing) decision to stay out of the immigration wars.

Our cops were not just being kind. Their policy was a cold recognition that if your job is to protect people on the street and in their homes and businesses, it would be highly counterproductive to develop a reputation, deserved or not, as an arm of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Growing communities of immigrants, legal and otherwise, are no different than neighborhoods of Mayflower descendants. The police need the public trust in order to do their jobs.

If there is no trust, people won’t feel right calling the police when they witness a crime, won’t come forward to testify, will be more likely to just look away — or take matters into their own hands — in dealing with theft, assault and other crimes. And that’s no good for anyone.

The very last thing that current Chief Mike Brown — or his predecessor, Chris Burbank — wanted was for their officers to dress up in riot gear and conduct a sweep of a neighborhood, bar, soccer field or workplace in search of people to round up and deport. That’s way too military for our police.

So, when that was exactly what the SLCPD did the other night in clearing an encampment of demonstrators who were demanding more services for the homeless out of Washington Square, the park that surrounds City Hall, one might be reasonably left to wonder what the difference is.

OK. The difference is that immigration is a federal issue. Arresting, detaining and deporting people who ought to be arrested, detained and deported on immigration violations is for federal authorities to do. The local police should be involved as little as possible, for the reasons outlined above.

What is the same, though, is the fact that both federal immigration sweeps and local encampment dispersals are people in power lowering the boom on people without power. Not so much because they are criminals but because they are people without power. People without power who, in this particular case, were expressing the feeling that they are sick and tired of being without power and want things to change.

That was also what was going on when groups of local activists have disrupted meetings of the Inland Port Authority Board and then in July when they marched on, and into, the offices of the Salt Lake Chamber to ratchet up their direct action in opposition to the whole idea of carving out about a quarter of the city to be the home of a place that can only be expected to add significant amounts of air pollution to a valley that already suffers from more than its share.

Chief Brown seemed a bit miffed the other day in observing that some of the folks who were part of the anti-port protests were also part of the pro-homeless demonstration. As if people can’t be ticked off about more than one thing.

Whether it is a community, a corporation or a Boy Scout troop, there is generally a minority of folks who step up — or are left — to do the majority of the work. It is the case with civil disobedience as much as it is with PTA fundraisers.

It remains possible that the new way of delivering services to the homeless — three dispersed service centers rather than a giant downtown warehouse — will work out wonderfully. Just as it remains possible that those overseeing the development of the city’s northwest quadrant will make it come out a great deal greener than it would if it sprang up on a piecemeal basis.

But there is no particular reason today why anyone should trust those in charge to make those things happen. And making the face of authority something covered by a SWAT helmet will only make that worse.

George Pyle, reading The New York Times at The Rose Establishment.

George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, has always supported civil disobedience. By other people. Or, as an old editor of his used to say, “Let’s you and him fight.”