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SALT LAKE CITY — Protests over the Utah Inland Port Authority — as well as federal immigration policies, climate change and other issues — boiled over into violence and clashes with police Tuesday as protesters stormed the Chamber of Commerce Building.
Eight people were arrested. Of those, three were cited and released. Five were taken to jail — Elizabeth Chauca, 30; Rosemarie Obrien, 25; Kaden Fralick; George Zinn, 65; Hannah Zivolich — for investigation of charges ranging between assault against a police officer, trespassing, riot and resisting arrest, according to Salt Lake police.
Police reported minor bumps and bruises for both protesters and police, but no serious injuries.
It's the third protest related to the Utah Inland Port Authority — a project planned in northwest Salt Lake City to maximize Utah's place in the global import and export economy with a network of trucks, trains and air connections. Though the first protest successfully shut down the Utah Inland Port's board meeting, last month's protest resulted in clashes with police and one arrest.
Tuesday marked the first time that the protests escalated to violence. In a statement issued late Tuesday, Gov. Gary Herbert called the group's actions "borderline terrorism."
The protest — organized by the group Protect our Community and joined by Utah Against Police Brutality, Civil Riot, ICE Free SLC, and others — began peacefully outside of the Salt Lake City-County Building, but soon took a chaotic turn when more than 100 protesters marched across the street, blocking traffic, and then continued into the Chamber of Commerce Building.
Punches were thrown in several clashes with police.
A lead protester, Mariella Mendoza, rallied protesters together while she yelled into a megaphone, claiming the Utah Inland Port controversy, mistreatment of immigrants, climate change, past treatment of indigenous people, and police brutality, were all "connected."
"It's the system. It's capitalism. It's settler colonialism," Mendoza said. "It's the way we've been pitted against each other in this killer system."
Mendoza, calling herself an "anarchist," and other protesters riled the crowd, saying the Inland Port represents a continuation of "colonial violence" that she said will aggravate air pollution, "poison" children, exacerbate climate change, destroy habitat surrounding the Great Salt Lake, and negatively impact life for Salt Lake City's west-side residents.
"There is no more stalling. There is no more putting this off. The time is now. Our communities are being attacked from every single (expletive) angle," Mendoza yelled. "Rise up. Rise up. The time is now. … Fight for us as hard as we (expletive) fight for you."
The protest then moved across the street and into the chamber's building. Protesters stormed into the lobby and up elevators to the sixth floor, where they chanted and shouted outside the Salt Lake Chamber board rooms, where staff stayed behind closed doors while officers struggled to maintain control.
Protesters chanted "abort the port" as they banged on walls and windows. Some carried banners reading, "Here's your public comment" and "Pollution is not the solution."
"Derek Miller, Salt Lake killer," protesters chanted, faster and faster, outside of the chamber's board room, referring to the chairman of the Utah Inland Port Authority and president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce.
As police forced protesters off the sixth floor, some stayed and were placed in handcuffs. Dozens of other protesters filed into elevators and back down to the building's lobby, where chanting and singing continued.
People dressed in bird and buffalo costumes danced to drums, while the lobby continued to fill with protesters before more police came to force them out.
Chaos broke out in the lobby. As protesters and police continued to clash, both officers and protesters threw punches.
Police began shoving both protesters and members of the media out of the building, where both Deseret News and Salt Lake Tribune reporters were trapped against a wall behind protesters and police. Salt Lake Tribune reporter Taylor Stevens was shoved to the ground amid the chaos before some protesters helped her to her feet as they left the building.
Salt Lake police detective Greg Wilking called the protest a "dynamic situation," requiring a response from several different police agencies, including Utah Highway Patrol and Utah Transit Authority police to maintain order and safety.
"We understand people have the right to assemble. We certainly respect that. Sometimes we're guardians of that right," Wilking said, but he added police must "escalate force" when physical property is being destroyed and "people's safety is at risk."
"There is a time and place to protest, we certainly respect that and will defend that," Wilking said. "But when it goes too far, then we're talking about disrupting businesses … assaulting people, that's gone too far, and that's when we have to really step in and ensure the public's safety."
Wilking said those who were arrested will face criminal charges, and "they need to be more careful about that mob mentality. … It's dangerous for a lot of different reasons on everyone's side."
In his statement Tuesday evening, Herbert said activists' actions "went way beyond the pale today when they stormed the Chamber of Commerce Building, attacked journalists, and terrified workers at the chamber.
"This was more than just a protest; this was borderline terrorism. This was more than people just standing up for a cause they believe in; this was having no tolerance for a difference of opinion. This was bullying, intimidation, and violence, and will not be tolerated. I call upon all elected officials, all people of good will and character, and all running for the office of Salt Lake City Mayor to condemn today’s protests in the strongest terms," Herbert said.
The governor emphasized that while peaceful acts of free speech are welcomed in the state, "violent protests and rioting have no place in our society."
In a news release after the protest, protesters from the group Civil Riot said their protest was "nonviolent" while police responded with a "violent show of force, shoving people out of the building, grabbing and jostling people, and even punching some people in the face."
“Nonviolent direct action can shine a light on the grave injustice being done by the powerful elite with this destructive development, through the harm it will cause to the surrounding communities, wildlife habitats, and the planet,” said Adair Kovac, one of the protesters and a member of civil resistance group. “The violent response from the police yet again proves that law enforcement serves and protects the wealthy and their property and interests, not the majority of people.”
As the protest spilled outside and into the street, Salt Lake police had already shut down a segment of 400 South between State Street and 200 East. Dozens of patrol vehicles lined the street. Protesters continued to bang on the glass windows and doors as a line of officers stood watch.
Chamber staff members watched the chaos from a balcony several floors up.
As the protest wound down, several scuffles outside broke out between protesters and reporters, as well as a man who was yelling racist insults. Protesters swarmed the man and began punching him. Protesters also attempted to shove a KUTV photographer's camera off his shoulders, and Salt Lake Tribune photo editor Jeremy Harmon dodged protesters attempting to block his camera.
Derek Miller, chairman of the Utah Inland Port Authority Board and president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber, said no chamber staff were injured, though they were shaken. It's not clear how much property was damaged by the protest.
"We haven't done a full assessment yet of the damage, but we are grateful and fortunate to be able to say none of the team members were physically injured in an act of intimidation and people trying to terrorize the chamber family," he said.
Miller lambasted protesters' tactics, saying there was "no reason" for them to storm chamber offices, which he said are unrelated to the inland port. He called the protest "chaotic," "violent" and "intimidating."
"These are people who come to work every day, and they should not be subjected to that," he said.
Miller added: "I think it's sad that we see on an increasing basis this sort of radical fringe element growing out of control around the country. They use threats, intimidation and mob tactics for one goal, and that is to silence the rest of us, and it's sad to see that happening in Utah."
Additionally, Miller said he takes his governor-appointed job as chairman of the Utah Inland Port Authority seriously.
"Most importantly, I'm not going to back down from what the governor has asked me to do with the inland port," he said.
Since last month's board meeting, the Utah Inland Port Authority hasn't yet met again, and so far a July meeting hasn't been scheduled. Protesters have pledged to continue crashing board meetings until the port authority project is canceled.
Miller said another meeting hasn't been scheduled yet not because of the protests, but to wait until after the newly hired executive director, Jack Hedge, has a chance to advance work on the port authority's business plan and environmental impact study.
"I don't anticipate there being anything for the board to act on until those things are done," he said.
Hedge said in a statement issued later Tuesday he was "disappointed" to hear of the protest, noting the port authority was holding a stakeholder meeting at the same time.
"At the same time that a small but vocal group was unsafely protesting downtown, the Utah Inland Port environment and habitat working group was productively soliciting ideas on ways to create a modern, safe and environmentally sustainable logistics hub," Hedge said. "Our hope is that this one small group does not overshadow the good work being done by so many others."