Peaceful protests take dangerous turn in Salt Lake City
Katie Workman and Jordan Ormond, KSL.com
Published at | Updated at
SALT LAKE CITY (KSL.com) — Protesters dispersed shortly before 11 p.m. Saturday night after protests calling for justice in the death of George Floyd, a black man from Minnesota, started out peaceably in Salt Lake City Saturday morning but escalated by Saturday evening.
As the day wore on, protesters vandalized stores, burned vehicles and threw objects; by the end of the day, protesters and officers were injured and many protesters were in police custody.
After a citywide curfew went into effect, law enforcement officers from across northern Utah gathered near the Salt Lake City Library, armed with shields and batons, formed lines across from the protesters and began moving forward to disperse crowds.
Rows of police officers advanced south on 200 East toward protesters about 10 p.m., firing rubber bullets to try to disperse those remaining few who were hurling objects toward police.
By 10:45 p.m. most of the crowds had been dispersed, and officers were loading the last few detainees onto a Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office bus.
All this, hours after state and city leaders ordered an emergency curfew for the city which began at 8 p.m. and will last until Monday at 6 a.m. Gov. Gary Herbert also tweeted that he “activated the National Guard to help control the escalating situation in downtown Salt Lake City. I once again call on all who are protesting to do so peacefully.”
Many of those downtown Saturday were mourning something. Some of the responding officers came from the Ogden Police Department days after mourning one of their own killed in the line of duty. Similarly, the original stated purpose of the protest was for those mourning the death of George Floyd while in police custody.
Downtown after curfew
A tense, chaotic scene unfolded as police officers walked forward, announcing “This is an unlawful assembly, go home!” with loudspeakers.
Stacked lines of police officers advanced, shoulder to shoulder, carrying shields, batons and rubber bullet guns, with armored vehicles behind them.
As officers moved forward, motorcycles revved, people chanted “Hands up, don’t shoot!” and some protesters threw items.
Protesters threw glass bottles, weapons and signs, but while officers continued to quickly advance intermittently, they refrained from rushing the crowd.
There were reports that one officer suffered a broken arm, and Salt Lake Police Chief Mike Brown said another officer was attacked by a baseball bat and suffered head injuries.
Several protesters were also hurt, many by people throwing rocks, bottles and other items.
Later, rocks were thrown over a reporter’s head and rubber bullets were fired into the crowd.
“Stop shooting! Stop shooting! You shot me in the face!” a protester screamed behind the reporter.
As the numbers were being reduced, there were scattered “pops” and smoke bombs.
“Leave the area, go home, quit throwing things, it’s not safe, it’s not a peaceful protest. You have been given a lawful command to disperse,” officers announced.
Utah Highway Patrol Col. Michael Rapich told KSL that “the dispersal order was continually repeated for one hour” in multiple languages before officers began taking the remaining protesters into custody.
Most dispersed at that point, he said, but “there were a few that chose not to; they were taken into custody without incident.”
He said officers would enforce the curfew Salt Lake City has put in place until 6 a.m. Monday.
“Hopefully that curfew gives everyone a pause” before continuing acts of vandalism, he said, adding the First Amendment is what Utah is about, but the platform of damaging state property is not what Utah is about.
Protests take a turn
The peaceful protests took a turn about 3 p.m. Saturday afternoon at the corner of 200 East and 400 South when people overturned a police car and set it on fire.
The vehicle’s windows were shattered, and before the fire was set, some members of the crowd were standing on top of the car dancing and waving signs; others in the crowd denounced such actions.
Meanwhile, a couple of armed men stood at one street corner, saying they were protecting protesters. At least one of these men was wearing a Hawaiian shirt, an outfit commonly associated with the far-right Boogaloo movement.
“It’s definitely starting to get out of hand here in Salt Lake City,” KSL TV’s Alex Cabrero said in a Facebook Live video.
Things settled down for a bit, but then around 5 p.m. people began to once again target police vehicles near 200 East and 400 South, hitting one police car with a skateboard several times. This was in the same area where a patrol vehicle was overturned and lit on fire earlier in the afternoon.
KSL.com reporters in the area saw two armored police vehicles arrive in the area, followed by 20-30 patrol cars from various agencies across the Salt Lake Valley. Police in riot gear got out and started yelling at protesters to leave.
As of 6:30 p.m., the National Guard had arrived on scene. It was unclear at that point who on the scene of the protest was related to the original protest and who had come in from outside groups.
From then on, the action came in waves, with some protesters throwing objects at police lines, injuring a few officers. Some protesters appeared to be injured in the scuffles as well, and at least a couple of people were taken into custody.
Another car was set on fire later in the evening and a man taken into police custody after witnesses say he showed a knife and a bow and arrow in the midst of a group of protesters.
A witness said the man drove up near a crowd of protesters at 200 East and 400 South. The witness said the man got out of the vehicle with a large knife attached to his side and pulled out a bow and arrow and attempted to shoot someone.
KSL TV cameras were rolling as protesters tackled the man to the ground. Police officers in the area pulled the man from the crowd and took him into custody.
Shortly thereafter, a black vehicle which some witnesses said belonged to the man with the bow and arrow was flipped over by protesters and lit on fire.
The area was crowded with protesters and armored police officers attempting to keep the crowds away from the burning vehicle.
Later, the man was again seen among the crowd. Police said he was no longer in custody, but they intend to screen charges against him.
Utah organizers planned events Saturday with the intent to peacefully honor George Floyd’s death. The black Minnesota man died in police custody after white police officer kneeled on his neck earlier this week.
The morning event was intended to be an in-car protest only, organized by Utah Against Police Brutality. Protesters were asked to drive by in their vehicles and honk at the public safety building as they circled the block.
Hundreds of protesters on foot circled the Salt Lake City Library several times before filling the sidewalks in front of the Salt Lake City Police Department public safety building, holding signs reading “Justice for George,” “White Silence” and “Stop Police Brutality.”
Aaron Campbell, a man who said he has experience with protests, said he came out to help keep people safe. He said he attempted to organize on-foot protesters in groups of 20 to obey social distancing requirements, but they were “swarmed by a large group of about a hundred.”
Protesters with loudspeakers led chants such as: “This is what democracy looks like!” “Black Lives Matter” and “I can’t breathe.” Protesters cheered and raised signs amid the ruckus, still backed by constant honking and the revving of motorcycles.
As chants continued, two protesters scaled the entryway of the precinct and spray painted the building with the words “George Floyd,” “(expletive) da police” and “Enough is Enough,” among other things.
Passing cars honked in support, and many of their windows were painted with protest slogans or posters.
Egg shells and food remained littered the steps after the protesters left, and tomatoes and empty egg cartons were discovered nearby.
Campbell said a man on a Harley Davidson motorcycle helped break up the protest in front of the police building when he slowly drove through the crowd and encouraged organizers to continue walking. Many obeyed the suggestion and much of the crowd dispersed, though smaller groups remained on street corners and in front of the building.
Construction signs, local bus stations and the Utah Transit Authority’s Library Station were also vandalized.
Protests continued in the early afternoon at the Utah State Capitol Building, where hundreds gathered on the steps and peaceful continued chants. Some protesters passed out water and others scaled light posts.
A rainbow LGBTQ+ pride flag billowed in the wind in front of the building, and passing motorcyclists continued to rev their engines to cheers.
Additional graffiti reading “Blue lives murder” and “No justice, no peace,” among others, covered areas of the steps and grounds. Graffiti was also found on the Capitol’s front windows, much of it painted in red. Protest signs were also taped to the windows.
Hundreds knelt on the front steps with fists in the air in tribute of George Floyd, and a protester with a loudspeaker gave a brief speech denouncing police brutality and encouraging protesters to remain active because “showing up is not enough” to end injustice.
In the evening, officers lined up at the Capitol steps, preventing protesters from entering the building. The message law enforcement tried to communicate was that everyone has the right to gather and protest, but they were there to make sure the situation didn’t turn violent.
About an hour after curfew, Utah Highway Patrol troopers were ready to enforce the curfew at the Capitol, and most protesters were leaving. Troopers were heard on loudspeakers telling the roughly two-dozen remaining protesters to disperse and were advancing their line to encourage protesters to leave.
As of 10 p.m., at least two people had somehow made their way inside the Capitol and were peering out through a window.
UHP is tasked with protecting the Utah State Capitol building, which was vandalized, but no one illegally breached the Capitol, Rapich said.
And damage at the Capitol would be repaired quickly, he said.
“Our Capitol is a symbol of our entire state.”
Local NAACP reaction
In comments to KSL Saturday night, Jeanetta Williams, president of the NAACP Salt Lake Branch, said the organization does not condone the destruction that has happened during the protests in Salt Lake City.
“We do realize the frustration that people have been feeling but the violence in the protests is not something we want to see,” Williams said. “There’s better ways to do it than to do the type of violence that we’ve been seeing. … This protest is not a badge of honor whatsoever. We want folks to not fuel tension.”
The NAACP does not condone protesters hitting and throwing objects at officers or anyone else, or vandalism, she said.
“Those are things we are very disheartened about,” Williams said.
“It does a discredit to the work that we’ve done as a nonprofit civil rights organization” and she invited people to join their cause to “do some good but not do the violence.”
Contributing: Jacob Klopfenstein, KSL.com; Alex Cabrero, Garna Mejia, Mike Headrick and Shara Park, KSL TV