Browse the comment section of any article covering protests within Salt Lake County in the past six months, and you’ll notice an unsettling trend.
Post after post belittles community organizers as “lazy do-nothings” who get what they deserve when they’re arrested. Because, after all, laws are put in place to protect the people, and if they’re breaking the laws then they must be lacking in moral fiber. It’s such a brittle narrative and yet an easy one to fall for.
Outside of just being narrow-sighted, the idea that rules are infallible is dangerous. History has shown that blind obedience to those in power can have disastrous results. However, for some, it’s easier to silently accept society’s ills, or ignore them entirely, versus challenging authority figures. And for those types of people, anyone who might buck back against traditional systems is frightening.
This concept has been alive and well in America for as long as we’ve been a country, but here it applies specifically to recent events regarding fair and secure housing for the city’s local unsheltered population. Until late on the night of Saturday, Jan. 4, organizers from several different notable activist groups had been camped out in Washington Square Park in an effort to provide solidarity and support for those who were displaced by the closing of the Road Home (among other factors). The camp itself provided medical services, hot meals, conflict de-escalation, sanitary restrooms and, also, a sense of safety.
Those who volunteered their time (many going hours without rest to ensure the security of the camp from the harassment of the Salt Lake City Police Department) didn’t do so because they were forced to. They did it, put simply, because they possess empathy for their fellow human beings.
There are many complex factors involved with housing, but understanding that our unsheltered brothers and sisters deserve respect and care is fairly black and white. Even if that means standing up against unjust policies.
When police stormed the camp on Saturday night, there was not compassion in their actions. There was not a thought of how the camp was providing essential services to people in need when SLCPD swarmed in, lights blazing. There was only what someone (someone who is yet to be determined, which is an entirely different matter altogether) had ordered them to do. There was only the thought that they needed to clear the park with beanbags and rubber bullets and shotguns aimed at unarmed organizers because that was what they had been told to do.
And the most frightening thing is that the officers, who eventually donned riot gear, blindly did what they were expected to, without question.
It was a very successful operation, tactically speaking, and the implications for unsheltered people in the future are terrifying. If you were to visit Washington Square Park now, there is no trace of the camp any more. The medical supplies, heaters, food, various blankets and possessions of those who lived there have all been confiscated, presumably locked away somewhere.
A community wiped out overnight and, the next morning, just across the lawn on the steps of City Hall, our new mayor, Erin Mendenhall, was sworn in.
There are reasons for rules, undoubtedly, but it seems that some in Salt Lake have forgotten that the people have the right to protest and fight laws that we know only benefit those in power ... and leave the rest of us out in the cold.
Jessica Hayes is a 30-something Army veteran and transplant to the Salt Lake area. Having moved to Utah on the principle of “Why not?”, she’s found community, compassion and somewhere to call home in the valley, not to mention the strength and motivation to finally stand up and speak out.