COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS — What started as a peaceful march against police brutality Sunday resulted in fights between some protesters and officers after Cottonwood Heights police tried to prevent the group from walking in the residential roads.
After clashes that included both a few officers and protesters getting injured, eight or nine people were arrested. Firefighters treated those with injuries on the scene, Cottonwood Heights Police Lt. Dan Bartlett said.
“They were in the road. We told them that they couldn’t be in the road, they need to stay on the sidewalk and observe all the traffic laws. And they didn’t want to do that, and at the point that we stopped them and told them that they needed to get on the sidewalk or they were going to be arrested,” Bartlett said.
He said neighbors had been complaining to police about protesters blocking the roads in the residential neighborhoods.
“We were gonna let them exercise their First Amendment right as long as they’re following all the laws and doing it peacefully,” Bartlett said.
Protesters said the dance march against the 2018 death of Zane James, who was shot by Cottonwood Heights police, had been peaceful as it moved down the street from Mill Hollow Park, which is adjacent to a subdivision in Cottonwood Heights.
James, 19, who was white, died after being shot in the back after police say he had robbed two stores at gunpoint. It was later determined he was carrying a realistic-looking pellet gun. James’ parents have filed a lawsuit against former officer Casey Davies and the city.
One of the protesters arrested Sunday was Aaron James, Zane’s father.
“This is a dance protest. I’ve gone to the past three events. It’s the most positive, peaceful protest I’ve been to. It’s all about spreading love and positivity to these neighborhoods, these communities. And the police showed up — three cars at first on either side — and tried to tell us to stay on the sidewalk,” protester Eric Jerome said.
“We complied, but there were a lot of people, so it was impossible for everyone to stay completely on the sidewalk. And then, cops started putting their hands on people, pushing them, shoving them. It escalated. ... It was horrific and extremely unjust,” he said.
A Facebook Live video of the protest from Cottonwood Heights Councilwoman Tali Bruce shows the group wearing masks and walking through the neighborhoods carrying “Black Lives Matter,” “Justice for Bernardo” and other signs, chanting and playing music. The video later shows police tackling protesters and arresting them.
Some in the crowd of about 100 wore shirts designed to look like concert T-shirts and displaying the words “Sim Gill’s Zero Action Tour” on the back with a list of officer-involved shootings Gill has investigated as Salt Lake County district attorney.
The group was then stopped by a police roadblock as officers instructed the protesters to walk on the sidewalks and not in the road. The marchers stopped, and several argued with officers insisting that it was legal to walk in the street. The arguments continued for several minutes before the crowd decided to go around them and generally appeared to use the sidewalks.
“This group has been to every other city in the valley without issue, but they come to Cottonwood Heights and we show up like it’s a war zone,” Bruce is heard saying in her video.
Minutes later, there are more confrontations with police and the video shows heated arguments and officers making arrests.
Bruce is heard joining other protesters, asking police why they’re deploying Tasers.
“Are you kidding me? … What is wrong with you?” the councilwoman says to one officer as she approaches the front yard of a home where three people are being arrested. “You can’t punch me in the throat. … I don’t have to get back.”
“Yes you do,” the officer replies.
“(Expletive!) Why do I have to get back? Because you’re tasing someone over a water bottle?” Bruce says.
The video shows one woman face down in the grass being handcuffed with zip ties screaming that she can’t see.
Bruce narrates that she was hit in the throat by an officer “and then shoved aggressively to where I … almost fell. Look at what they’re doing to these little girls. … What is wrong with Cottonwood Heights? I cannot believe you tase and pepper sprayed, and the blood on that person’s shirt! … This is out of control!”
The councilwoman becomes angry again in the video after seeing an officer chase after a protester.
“The officer with the pink face mask is the one who shoved me in the throat and on the shoulder and now he’s tackling someone over words! Over words! That person did not touch him!” she says in the video.
Another officer with blood dripping from his nose confronts Bruce as she tries to get closer.
“Back away, please. Back away,” the officer says. “This is a crime scene!”
“Yeah, your crime, your crime,” Bruce replies.
Moments later, police are seen tackling a shirtless man in the gutter as he struggles to free himself. An officer in green fatigues is seen swinging a baton and spraying members of the crowd as officers surround the man and protesters scream at police.
Part of the video appears to show an officer being pushed or falling backward into the street as he appeared to be trying to arrest someone in the chaos.
“This is why we march!” some in the crowd yelled. “You brought the violence,” others chanted to officers.
Earlier in the Facebook video, Bruce approaches Cottonwood Heights Police Chief Robby Russo who is sitting inside his vehicle.
“Get out of the street or I’ll arrest you,” the chief immediately says to her in the video as he gets out of his vehicle and follows her as she retreats to the sidewalk. Russo mentioned something about sending her to jail before walking away after she told him she was on the sidewalk.
Russo is specifically suing Bruce, the city and 10 unnamed employees contending that Bruce improperly worked with others in city government to try to oust him. The lawsuit says Bruce and others publicly called his integrity into question and took “careful, coordinated action” to form allegiances and wrongfully terminate him. He is seeking damages of more than $500,000.
In a later Facebook Live video later Sunday evening, Bruce said she was heading to a hospital to receive medical care after she was “punched hard in the throat by an officer and shoved so hard down that the accessory in my hair came out.”
“I can’t even believe this is Cottonwood Heights,” she said.
After the arrests occurred, the protesters rallied in a park adjacent to a neighborhood into the evening, sometimes mocking the officers from surrounding agencies who lined the sidewalk across the street, and sometimes chanting phrases like “Justice for Bernardo” and “Justice for Zane.”