Salt Lake endures long day of protests as national anger over racism and the death of George Floyd grips the country

What started as a peaceful protest Saturday in downtown Salt Lake City turned more chaotic as the day went on.

SALT LAKE CITY — A drive-by protest of police brutality at Library Square Saturday morning simmered over the noon hour as a thousand marchers joined in before boiling over in the afternoon heat as demonstrators spray-painted vulgarities on the police station and burned a patrol car before marching up to the state Capitol.

Not long after, a “10-33” call went out asking officers throughout the valley to help, and to help quickly. Hundreds of police officers — with sirens and lights flashing — could be seen racing to the downtown area.

The governor activated the National Guard, one of 14 governors across the nation to do so Saturday, and the mayor ordered a curfew to start at 8 p.m. that will last through early Monday morning.

And just before 9 p.m., police began their march to restore order in Salt Lake City, closing a nearly 11-hour day of protest, violence and restraint in response to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s curfew edict is in effect until 6 a.m. Monday.

During the hours of curfew, people may not be on a public street or in any public place, including for the purpose of travel, with the following exceptions:

  • Law enforcement, fire, paramedics or other medical personnel,
  • News media
  • People traveling to work; attending religious services; obtaining food; caring for a family member, friend or animal; traveling to the airport; patronizing private businesses; seeking medical care; fleeing dangerous circumstances; or experiencing homelessness.
  • Private businesses may remain open, but people may not be out on the streets or in a public place for reasons other than these. 

“The safe space we offered for today’s protest ... is no longer safe for anybody,” Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said as she invoked an 8 p.m. curfew that will extend until 6 a.m. Monday.

Dozens were arrested, and several officers injured as well as some demonstrators. But the Beehive State did not see the level of violence experienced in other cities across the U.S.

Clearing the city

Police, who were joined by officers from multiple agencies across the Wasatch Front, stood shoulder-to-shoulder, in two lines that stretched the length of the street and beyond, attempting to push back the crowd that had swelled throughout the day.

As night approached, a military helicopter circled overhead, but officers largely stayed in formation downtown and at the state Capitol as protesters continued talking, yelling and chanting. Discarded posters blew across the Capitol lawn, while a lone couple collected discarded water bottles that were left or thrown by protesters.

“We are pleading with you to clear the city,” Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown said. “We’re not going anywhere. We intend to be on the street. We will enforce the laws.”

Police did not aggressively enforce curfew right at 8 p.m., and few protesters had left on their own.

By about 8:40 p.m., officers began advancing demonstrators toward City Hall. Some taunted and hurled expletives at officers, while others retreated onto the lawn.

By 9 p.m. at the Capitol, an order to disperse was played over a loudspeaker. The crowd began yelling obscenities and some were flipping off the deputies standing in front of them. Others began to leave the way they were told, but about a dozen people sat down on the plaza, showcasing their intent to stay.

“It is time to go home,” Brown said. “This is not helping. ... Nothing good can come of this now. This is not helpful. This does not promote the dialogue and conversation we need to have.”

Officers in riot gear were seen being treated for what appeared to be minor injuries, mostly heat exhaustion, Brown said. They’d been hit with projectiles and pushed and one was attacked by a protester with a baseball bat.

“Had it not been for his helmet, he could have been seriously injured or killed,” the chief said.

Dozens were arrested downtown as hundreds of police officers advanced south from 400 South to around 700 South. Officers led many with hands zip-tied into jail transport buses. At least two were arrested at the Capitol after refusing to leave the premises.

An attempt to restore peace

Mendenhall, who surveyed the area from an Air National Guard helicopter overhead, said no one would be allowed on public streets except law enforcement, news media, medical personnel, and anyone transporting food, traveling to somewhere, patronizing businesses, fleeing danger or experiencing homelessness.

“What is happening here does nothing to right past wrongs or rebuild a system that is unjust,” she said. “If you are on Salt Lake City streets right now ... go home.

“Stop destroying our city.”

Gov. Gary Herbert added, “Make no mistake, we’ll do whatever is necessary to restore order to our capital city, to Salt Lake.”

Recently retired Pastor France A. Davis, of the Calvary Baptist Church on State Street, said, “We are all part of this community. There’s no use anybody destroying any of it.”

He pleaded with people to protest more effectively.

“It’s OK to be frustrated,” Rev. Davis said. “Do all you can, but do it nonviolently.”

At one point, a man showed up with a bow and arrow and allegedly aimed it at protesters just before he was attacked by a group of people. That man, who is known to police, was taken away injured and bloodied from the scene as protesters then flipped and looted his car and set it on fire. Explosions could be heard from blocks away and dark smoke billowed into the air.

The man later returned and got into a verbal argument with protesters.

“I came down here originally to help the cops,” the man said. “But, all I did was yell out, ‘All lives matter’ and I got beat up by black people.”

It was a scene similar to the final night of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City when officers in riot gear used similar tactics — with shields and rubber bullets — to push a large crowd that refused to disperse out of the city.

Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera and many of her officers and deputies were on scene to assist and they brought a bus and other vehicles to transport arrested protesters to the Salt Lake County Jail.

“We just need peace. Too many people are getting hurt. I’m willing to come to the table with whoever wants to come and talk to me about the issues. Especially with what’s going on nationwide,” she said.

“I get it. I’m a person of color as well and I get it. I’m happy to listen. I’m happy to make changes. But this is not how we do that,” Rivera said.

She said the Unified Police Department has been doing all it can to make sure its officers are as diverse as our communities.

“And it helps. But we need to communicate and listen, not just communicate. We have to learn to listen and be willing to make those changes and I’m happy to do so,” she said.

Lorena Burciaga yells in anger for people to leave after protesters smashed the windows and stole goods from a 7-Eleven in downtown Salt Lake City on Saturday, May 30, 2020. Protesters joined others across the nation to decry the death of George Floyd, a black man, who died while being taken into custody by police in Minneapolis earlier this week. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Unsafe conditions

Father Paul Truebenbach, of St. Peter and Paul Orthodox Christian Church in Salt Lake City, was at the protest to protect the church near the 7-Eleven that was looted at 400 South and 300 East.

He said he asked officers if he should hold church services Sunday, to mixed reaction from police.

“This idea of social justice is so dangerous because it seeks to change everything around you. In orthodox, it is the opposite, it seeks to change us. You can’t change what you don’t have,” Father Truebenbach said.

He said about a half-dozen people will be guarding the church through the night and no decision had been made about services.

Jacenta Morris, 36, a black woman from Salt Lake City, said she came to protest with her family, to be a part of history she hopes will result in change. But the violence that ensued disturbed her.

“I think this is too much. I think they should calm down and do it a different way than rioting,” she said.

“I worry about my sons, I have two boys,” Morris said. “Anything could happen to them, they could be walking down the street and anything could happen.”

Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, pleaded with people to stop the violence.

“We understand the frustration and anger of those protesting,” she said, adding that the protest started out OK, but “the conversation changed.”

“Nobody will remember why we were here,” Hollins said. The original message opposing systematic racism, she said, will be overshadowed by violence.

“The solution is not burning down a city.”  

Disordered destruction

At least two police vehicles were destroyed or suffered heavy damage. In addition to an unoccupied Salt Lake patrol car being overturned and burned, another unmarked police vehicle had its windows smashed out. Other vehicles parked nearby were vandalized as well, including a news media vehicle, which bore the painted words: “Stop protecting them.”

After a couple of hours of letting protesters get their frustrations out, police in riot gear and armored vehicles started to form a perimeter around the library and systematically move people out of the area.

TRAX service in the downtown area was halted about 5 p.m. and travelers were encouraged to avoid the area.

Protesters knelt in front of a line of officers wearing riot gear outside the Salt Lake Main Library just after 5 p.m. Behind them was a burnt out and vandalized police car that hours earlier, protesters had pushed on its top, beat out the windows and started on fire.

Another large group of protesters shouting and holding signs convened at the Utah Capitol, where a line of troopers from the Utah Highway Patrol stood, not letting them get close to the building.

Looting was reported at a 7-Eleven near the library, although there was also a video of protesters intervening and pleading with others not to steal or destroy property.

Jay Barton said he was inspired by a former military man who yelled at the protesters, telling them their actions were hurting their cause.

Barton said the unidentified man was telling him he felt inspired to come downtown Saturday when suddenly a group of protesters ran toward the convenience store, broke windows and started stealing beer and other items.

“This man immediately walked up front and started yelling at the people who shattered the glass. His words where inspiring. Truly a beautiful moment.”

“This isn’t the answer. This is what they want. They want us against each other,” the man yelled. “You need to be against every single person who’s turned this into a criminal activity. … This isn’t right.”

Police were also seen responding to reports of vandalism at City Creek Center mall. It was not immediately clear whether anything was stolen.

Large rocks and fireworks were thrown at police in riot gear as protesters chanted phrases such as “Black lives matter,” “No justice, no peace,” and “I can’t breathe.”

A woman also attempted to attack several protesters with a hammer, hitting another woman who declined medical assistance, Salt Lake Police Sgt. Keith Horrocks said.

Protesters wrestled the hammer from the woman, Horrocks said, and she ran off before police could find her.

Police and protesters clash near Library Square in Salt Lake City on Saturday, May 30, 2020. Protesters joined others across the nation to decry the death of George Floyd, a black man, who died while being taken into custody by police in Minneapolis earlier this week. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Fighting for change

Katie Allen Yazzie, a 17-year-old Navajo girl, attended the rally with a sign that said, “My skin is not a weapon.”

“Me being a person of color does not mean that the police should be scared of me or of anyone who has the color of my skin or darker. It’s to the point that I’m scared of police in general. I don’t want them around me because they’re not good to me,” she said.

Her mother, Christine Allen, attended on Saturday with her. She said officers have helped her in the past and she respects them, but believes all people aren’t treated equally.

“I think that a society is only as good as the people who are the most vulnerable are treated,” she said. “We have to stand up for each other because people of color don’t’ have a police force they can rely on. They have to rely on the community. They have to rely on each other.”

Ishjon Hawkins, 30, of New Orleans, said he joined the protest because of the way he feels police have treated him in the past.

“Me being a black man, growing up, I had a lot of run-ins with the police and they’re aggressive. They abuse their authority,” he said. “We want change. We need different laws.”

Asked if he has issues with police in general or just some officers, Hawkins said, “Honestly, it’s white police. It’s just like they’ve got it out for us. … I don’t get it.”

Marvin Oliveros was at the protest and encouraged people to continue protesting. Belgard’s step-brother, Cody Paris Belgard, 30, was shot and killed by five Salt Lake police officers in December 2018. The shooting was later determined to be justified by the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office. 

Oliveros said he understands better than anyone what Floyd’s family is going through.

“I know the pain they’re going through. I know the answers they’re searching for,” he said, encouraging protesters to “keep up the pressure” so all victims of police brutality are remembered.

“While we were devastated to hear what happened to George Floyd — and make no mistake: we condemn what happened on all counts — we were saddened today to see the violence and riots here in Salt Lake City,” Salt Lake City School District Superintendent Lexi Cunningham said. She said police were using East High School as a staging area to respond to the protests, which erupted in pockets all over the city after dark.

“We urge all community members to continue the fight to end systemic racism, to look for peaceful ways to improve communities daily, and here in Salt Lake City, we urge you to please be safe and follow the curfew established by Mayor Mendenhall,” Cunningham said.

Standing their ground

The exterior of the state Capitol was vandalized, as was the stone retaining wall near the street. At one point, two people with cans of spray paint wrote obscenities on the walkway and granite pillars, but just as a trooper moved to shoo them away, another waved him back to the line of officers on the last set of steps leading into the Capitol’s front doors.

The officers, most of whom stood stone-faced as protesters yelled questions or obscenities at them, were from several agencies, including the U.S. Marshal’s Office and the Utah Highway Patrol. Some officers engaged in conversations with protesters, including discussions of race, history and philosophy.

Among those talking with officers was Rae Duckworth, who lost her cousin Bobby Duckworth in September 2019 to an officer-involved shooting in Wellington, Carbon County. She said she was there with Black Lives Matter and Utahns Against Police Brutality.

“We’re just here peacefully protesting ... and I just really want to have conversations,” the 28-year-old Salt Lake County woman said. “I really think transparency and communication are two big issues. We don’t know what law enforcement does. We know they police themselves, and that doesn’t do anything good or valuable for the community.”

She said several officers engaged in conversations, and she felt most of them were productive. She pointed out that at least one said he’d meet with local Black Lives Matter leaders to discuss what kinds of change would restore trust and confidence in policing for those who feel unfairly targeted.

“They even have their opinions about George Floyd, that they’re brave enough to speak up about,” she said. “And they’ve also told me that they actually speak up against racism in their own departments, which is a step that needs to be taken.”

One officer said he was married to a person of color, and he told her he thought it would be helpful to him as he raises four mixed-race children.

“I think one of them actually felt this movement,” Duckworth said. “Versus the other ones who stand there like brick walls or statues.”

Some people were passing by and decided to join the line of officers standing on the bottom stair of the Capitol steps, including one man who said, “I’m here to protect the people’s house.”

One black man engaged in an hourlong conversation about institutional racism with a number of those standing with police, including a firefighter and a Native American teenager. The small conversation expanded as a Hispanic man passing by added his thoughts, and the group jumped from slavery to genocide to the lack of educational opportunities and whether the protests accomplished anything important.

As he rode away on a scooter about 7 p.m., a police officer yelled to him, “Awesome.”

Clouds moved in and some rain fell, but the crowd thinned and then swelled throughout the afternoon and evening. At one point, protesters threw water bottles, rocks and other items at police.

Earlier in the afternoon, while the protest was calm, people spoke about why they were there.

“As a country, I just feel broken, and I feel scared for everyone in the black community. I just feel that our country is just not letting us live our lives, and innocent people are being killed for no reason,” Savanah Norman said, becoming emotional in front of the Salt Lake City Public Safety Building.

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“I do feel a lot of support today here. Seeing a lot of people come out is very liberating and exciting to see, because I think, here in Utah, there is still a lot of racism. And so I’m really happy that people came out to show support,” Norman said.

“I just think we’re at our last straw,” she said. “This is it. People are fed up, and they have every right to be. And I think this murder of George Floyd, everyone is just done. We’re done.”

A show of solidarity

Early on, the protest remained relatively uneventful, with even some children out with their parents to call for justice for Floyd.

The protest had originally been planned as a vehicle caravan, with participants discouraged from rallying outside of their cars. Organizers asked for the protesters to maintain physical distance from others.

Thousands of people in vehicles circled the Salt Lake City Police Department, many waving signs from their windows that said slogans such as “Black Lives Matter” and “Justice for George Floyd,” with others decrying racism and calling for police reform.

“I feel like I know what my ancestors went through in the 1960s, and it’s sad that here in 2020, we’re still saying, ‘I can’t believe this. We’re saying, ‘black lives matter.’ This isn’t the first time a black man has been killed like this,” Zala Long told the Deseret News.

“It’s good because I feel like we’re showing the world, and we’re showing the SLCPD that we see them and we’re watching them, and we’re letting our voices be heard. I feel a lot of empathy, I feel a lot of sadness, but also I’m glad that we’re saying their names. We’re saying George Floyd, we’re saying ... Ahmed Arbery. We’re not going to forget about them. We care about them, because if we don’t, then no one else will,” she promised.

She said she feels the Floyd case is getting more attention than others.

“But I feel like we’ve been at the tipping point for years. we’re tired of fighting for our rights, but we’re going to fight for our rights,” she said, explaining that she believes the police force needs to be restructured to root out systemic racism.

“The question isn’t who’s next, it’s when is he next. When am I next, when is she next, when are my brothers next, when is my mom next, when is my dad next?” Naia James added.

Within an hour, cars packed the streets, creating a standstill in traffic downtown, and thousands also marched on foot chanting “We can’t breathe,” making their way up to the state Capitol.

Beth Jennings and her family lived in Minneapolis before moving to Utah, and says she has friends there who are being impacted by the turmoil.

“We just wanted to show solidarity with the protesters in Minneapolis right now against police violence,” Jennings said.

Haizel Jennings, 10, said of Floyd’s death: “I feel like it’s sort of unhumanizing of that cop because I feel like it’s sort of human right to try, if at some point you could stop someone dying, to stop it. It’s part of human rights, I think.”

“I would hope all of us will stand tall for the issues of civil rights,” Herbert said. “What we see today is not typical Utah behavior. We’re better than that here in Utah.”

Contributing: Annie Knox, Alex Cabrero