SALT LAKE CITY — The day after Gov. Gary Herbert denounced a protest over the inland port as "borderline terrorism," a group of organizers told reporters they meant the protest to be "peaceful" and that "police brutality" escalated violence to shoving, punching and choking — accusations that police countered later Thursday.
"It is our right to occupy these spaces, and for police to rain such violence on us peacefully occupying spaces shows their interests do not lie with the people, it lies with private property," said Carlos Martinez, an organizer with the Rose Park Brown Berets, one of the groups who joined in on Tuesday's protest at the Chamber of Commerce Building. The building is a private place of business.
Organizers from other groups, including Civil Riot, Utah Against Police Brutality and University of Utah's Students for a Democratic Society, attended Thursday's news conference at the Sierra Club offices.
They told reporters their groups did not encourage or condone violence, and that violence was incited by police after they began shoving, dragging and in some cases punching protesters. They blamed police for not giving a "unified dispersal request" to the entire group and rather began using force to remove protesters after only telling individuals to leave.
"We were completely unprepared for police to choke, throw, corral and punch us," said Anthony Anco, who described himself as a community organizer and "communist."
Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown held his own news conference Thursday afternoon, citing new arrest numbers and stating his department is investigating the protest, including reviewing 119 body camera downloads.
"Our officers were spit on, scratched, kicked and had bottles and different items thrown at them," Brown said.
He said six officers were assaulted, 10 protesters were arrested, and 75 officers responded to the protest over the course of five hours. The 10 were arrested for investigation of charges ranging from assault against a police officer, trespassing, rioting and resisting arrest.
"Our officers handled the situation in an exemplary way, and I'm proud of them," Brown said.
Protester videos have circulated on social media showing officers punching, shoving and dragging protesters, and on Thursday some of the protest organizers accused police of choking them.
Asked about those accusations, Brown said he's opened an internal affairs investigation of officers' use of force. Incidents will also be reviewed by the Citizen Review Board, he said.
Brown showed a clip of police body camera footage in which officers can be heard talking with protesters on the sixth floor of the building, sitting outside the Salt Lake Chamber offices. Police can be heard telling protesters to leave multiple times or they'll be arrested.
"There's no reason to go to jail for this," an officer is heard saying on the clip. "We're trying to be cool. We're trying to give you a chance. We've been here for 15, 20 minutes letting you do your thing. Now it's time."
Protesters sitting on the floor and crowded around the officers then begin to chant loudly and repeatedly "Abort the port," and do not budge.
A full 40-minute version of the footage, released later Thursday night, showed the 20 minutes leading up to the confrontation, in which officers warn two protesters acting as communications liaisons twice that if the protesters do not leave, they will be arrested. Some of the protesters leave to avoid arrest, but others stay, sitting down on the floor outside the chamber offices.
The full video also shows the officers arresting the remaining protesters, after giving them one final warning to leave. One man who resists is wrestled to the ground by several officers, who tell him they will use a Taser on him if he keeps resisting. Another protester, a woman, yells at the officer handcuffing her that he is breaking her wrist; he tells her he is not.
Several protesters are linked together through tubes that they've stuck their arms into. As police attempt to un-link them, at least one person yells that the officers are hurting them. The officers eventually figure out the mechanics of the tubes and are able to remove protesters' arms, apparently without significant pain on the part of the protesters.
"I think you can see from the clip there was a lot of restraint and a lot of dialogue and a lot of officers asking people for voluntary compliance," Brown said of the shorter version of the footage released Thursday afternoon.
Brown also noted "there's a huge difference between public property and private property," and protesters were trespassing when they began occupying the building.
Thursday morning, organizers blamed media for "sensationalizing" the violence and for drowning out their message against the proposed Utah Inland Port — a project they say will contribute to climate change, harm the Wasatch Front's air quality and negatively impact all Utahns, particularly Salt Lake City's west side where many poor and minority populations live.
They claimed the proposed inland port and other social issues, including police brutality, are interconnected because they say the port represents privileged interests while also more negatively impacting poor and minority groups.
At the same time, organizers acknowledged some protesters pushed and shoved back at police officers after being told to leave, actions they said they did not condone. They also noted that many protesters at Tuesday's demonstration weren't part of their organizations.
"This was a huge learning experience for Salt Lake City as a whole," Anco said.
"Yes, we made mistakes," Anco said, when reporters questioned why the protest escalated to violence and pressed why protesters were fighting with police and in some cases reporters.
"I think there should be a lot more discussion of possible violence breaking out and having training among us all on how to mitigate that," he said. "As we move forward our organizing, this is something that we are heavily taking into consideration now."
However, Anco also said the governor's comments calling the protest "borderline terrorism" only "put a target on all (protest) organizers' backs."
He also continued to blame police for escalating the violence.
"There was a lot more violence on their end," he said. "This wasn't just a one-sided thing. They weren't protecting anyone. They choked a lot of people and brutalized a lot of people."
Dave Newlin, an activist with Utah Against Police Brutality, said Brown needs to be asked the same question.
"What are you going to do next time to make sure your officers don't start throwing punches, don't start choking people?" Newlin questioned.
Asked if police used any de-escalation tactics at Tuesday's protest, Brown said he hasn't reviewed all of the body camera footage yet, "but I would anticipate that is the case."
Deb Blake, a protester with Utah Against Police Brutality who attended Tuesday's protest, said when protesters began to clash with police in the lobby of the building, she asked a police officer not to touch her, showing she had a port on her chest where she receives chemotherapy for her breast cancer.
"I said, 'Please do not touch me.' He said, 'You need to go,' and right before I could even step back the officer next to him put his hand and shoved me on my port," Blake said. "It was not cool. We were protesting peacefully."
During Tuesday's protest, when police entered the lobby to disperse protesters dancing and chanting, many protesters began booing, and some shouted "(Expletive) the police" and "pig." Some masked their faces with bandannas. Though officers told protesters to leave, some stayed and shoved back.
"I can't speak for those protesters who decided to continue to hold space," Anco said. "All I can say is as community organizers, we had discussed there would be no violence, there would be no masking up, and you do not touch the cops."
Anco also blamed police for "rushing in and causing panic."
"When you have 10 cops armed to the teeth, coming in, grabbing people, shoving them, there is no bullhorn, there was no whistle of a unified direction to get out," he said.
In the meantime, the Utah Inland Port Authority has not yet created a clear plan for the project, so there's no telling yet what a Utah inland port will even look like.
But to the protesters, any port at all — even if it claims to be environmentally friendly — should be stopped.58 comments on this story
"I hope that what we've done makes it a better plan, but I also don't think we should be naive to think that millions of dollars of goods flowing through a centralized port where rail, trains and airports all meet together is going to have like no environmental impact," Newlin said. "Let's not be naive. This is going to have a massive environmental impact, no matter how they set it up."
Contributing: Gretel Kauffman
Correction: An earlier version inaccurately attributed a quote about protesters accusing police of "choking, throwing and punching" protesters. Activist Anthony Anco made the statement, not Carlos Martinez.