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Utah Politicians Criticize Violence During Salt Lake City Protests

Graffiti on Utah Capitol grounds.
Jon Reed
Graffiti on the grounds of the Utah Capitol after protests on Saturday, May 30.

Utah politicians are largely criticizing the violence that took place during a Saturday protest over the in-custody death of George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis. Some are calling for systemic change to prevent more deaths of black people at the hands of police. 

State Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, said protests are effective tools to bring awareness to issues, although she’s worried the violence on Saturday has diluted that message. 

Now, she said, it’s time to turn attention to making systemic change to avoid incidents like Floyd’s death. One way to do that is by registering to vote and electing politicians with an eye toward criminal justice reform, she said. 

Hollins said she’s been working on legislation to change how police officers interact with students in schools, like making sure behavioral issues don’t lead to arrests.

“We need to continue to look at our policy around the school-to-prison pipeline, as a lot of people know that's part of my concern,” Hollins said. “What I have been working on is how do we make sure that our young people do not have contact with the police in the first place.”

She is also calling on her fellow lawmakers to listen to Utahns about their experiences with law enforcement. 

“Last [Saturday] night was the result of people not feeling heard,” Hollins said. 

Gov. Gary Herbert activated up to 200 National Guardsmen to help with crowd control Saturday, and wrote on Twitter that “we condemn violence and looting.” In a press conference with Salt Lake City’s mayor and police chief Saturday evening, Herbert issued a strong rebuke of the events that were unfolding. 

“I think we need to call it what it is, criminal behavior,” Herbert said. “People are looking to riot, to loot and to create violence and that’s not acceptable.”

He added that he was “deeply saddened to see the defacement of our beautiful Capitol building by this weekend’s protestors.” 

Cleanup on the Capitol began Sunday morning.

Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, also condemned the violence. 

“What started as a peaceful protest to show unity for justice & good ended in violence & destruction,” Wilson wrote on Twitter. “Those that caused damage & inflicted violence on the media, our police officers & others do not represent the good people of Utah.”

In response to the protest in Salt Lake City, Republican U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney thanked law enforcement for their response. 

“In a very challenging and volatile situation downtown yesterday, officers remained professional and patient,” Romney said in a statement. “Utah’s men and women in uniform put their lives on the line each and every day, and tragically we were just reminded of that with the loss of Officer Lyday in the line of duty. Let’s support them during this difficult time as they mourn one of their own.”

Democratic Congressman Ben McAdams said violence is not the answer. 

“Peaceful protest has changed our country for the better,” he tweeted. “I support the right of anyone to demand change through peaceful protest. I do not support violence and destruction of property.” 

Utah’s ethnic and racial minority legislators released a joint statement Saturday, calling for change to the criminal justice system and urging protestors to demonstrate peacefully. 

“We have been working for decades to fight systemic racism. We are not backing down,” they said. “People are worn down. This pandemic has people physically and economically exhausted. They are outraged by the lingering injustice of another African-American man needlessly killed by police. We understand that people want to be heard. As legislators, we encourage people who choose to protest to stay safe, respect property, and respect social distancing.”

Gubernatorial candidate Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox came under fire for previous statements supporting President Donald Trump after he wrote a blog post calling for systemic change to law enforcement in order to prevent more deaths like George Floyd’s. 

“We must not recoil in surprise or disgust when those in the African American community march and protest and demand deeper systemic changes,” Cox wrote. “Instead, we must reach out and engage. We must listen to understand. And together we must act.”

Utah House Minority Leader Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said he appreciated Cox’s thoughts on the issue, but pointed out the “inconsistencies” of these comments and his support of President Trump. 

Cox has criticized the president for what he sees as divisive rhetoric, but said during a January gubernatorial debate that he supported him although he did not always agree with his style

“Is he a coward for not speaking out about words and actions of Donald Trump he surely knows are despicable?” King wrote on Twitter. “Or is he just politically expedient in a way that can be forgiven, overlooked, or justified? There are times in the past that he has crossed the conventional GOP line on issues in a way I admired. Like all of us, he can reasonably be seen as a jumble of inconsistencies.”

King called on Cox, and all elected officials, to speak up when the President speaks and acts in a way that they agree with — and to speak up when he doesn’t. 

Cox’s office did not immediately reply to a request for comment on King’s remarks. 

Sonja Hutson is a politics and government reporter at KUER.
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