The day after Gov. Gary Herbert denounced a violent inland port protest and doubled-down on calling it “borderline terrorism,” organizers behind the demonstration denied that they instigated any violence and blamed “police brutality” for pushing, shoving and punching at the Salt Lake Chamber offices Tuesday afternoon.
At a press conference Thursday at the Sierra Club’s Utah offices, activists with groups including CivilRiot, Utah Against Police Brutality and Rose Park Brown Berets said they had planned a peaceful protest and instructed participants not to mask their faces or engage in violence.
Activists also criticized the response from Herbert, police handling of the protest and media coverage of the event.
Eight people were arrested and five were booked into jail following the Tuesday protest.
An organizer named Anco, who declined to give his last name, said protestors entered the Salt Lake Chamber building on Tuesday in an act of “civil disobedience,” chanting and singing in opposition to the inland port. Soon after, police entered and chaos broke out.
Organizers said law enforcement never gave “a unified call for dispersal,” and had there been one, they would have retreated.
“This is a community mainly of black, brown, and indigenous people on the west side. We don’t have the luxury to just go out and fight the cops,” Anco said. “We were completely unprepared for the police to choke, throw, corral and punch us.”
Anco admitted “we made mistakes” and called the protest “a huge learning experience for Salt Lake City as a whole,” including organizers and media.
The protest was the third and most violent demonstration against the planned inland port. The project, currently in its planning stages, will be a commercial hub spanning some 16,000 acres near Salt Lake International Airport. Opponents of the project say it would negatively impact the Wasatch Front’s air quality and sensitive ecosystems near the Great Salt Lake.
Salt Lake Chamber President and Utah Inland Port board chairman Derek Miller described masked protestors yelling, breaking security cameras and urinating in some offices during the latest protest. He said many chamber employees felt like they were “under attack from a violent mob.”
Protest organizers said what was described as urine was actually a water bottle that broke in the chaos.
Miller stressed that the Chamber is a private business and he serves as chairman of the inland port “as a citizen volunteer.”
Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown described the demonstration as the “most violent” he has witnessed in his 28-year law enforcement career, and mainly blamed protesters for instigating it.
Some demonstrators shared videos that show police punching and dragging people to the ground. Brown said he would investigate reports of violence by police.
“I had a cop grab my throat and he was trying to jam his thumb into my throat,” said Carlos Martinez, an organizer with Rose Park Brown Berets. “I was unarmed, I had my hands back. I didn’t even want to touch his wrist because if I did, it would have been a felony.”
The protest drew sharp criticism from elected officials, many of whom said they supported the right to protest peacefully but condemned protestors caught on video fighting with police and journalists.
Gov. Herbert and Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski held separate press conferences the day after the protest to denounce the violence. Biskupski was invited to Herbert’s press conference, but described it as “a bit of a bait and switch” and said she did not want to discuss any topics besides the protest.
The separate press events show remaining tensions over the project, which Biskupski has described as a “land grab” by the state. The mayor is currently suing over the project’s taxes and land use authority.
Activists took particular issue with Herbert’s “borderline terrorism” comment, which they described as “coded racism” and said “puts targets” on the backs of organizers of color.
The groups also took issue with invitations from Herbert, Miller and other officials to continue to provide feedback at the inland port’s public meetings, which one organizer described as a “veneer of an open process.”
“We have gone through the civil process of raising our hands, waiting our turn, being in a place where we can discuss ideas, and that’s gotten us nowhere. Absolutely nowhere,” Martinez said. “We have voiced our concerns about this and nobody is listening.”
Organizers also criticized media coverage of the protest and said the focus on violence takes away from concerns about the impacts the inland port would have on air quality and the environment, particularly for minority communities on the west side.
“Let’s not be naïve, (the inland port) is going to have a massive environmental impact no matter how they set it up,” said Dave Newlin with Utahns Against Police Brutality. He said there are going to be too many buildings, cars and “goods flowing through this place for it not to have an extremely negative environmental impact.”