Summer of Discontent | Cover Story | Salt Lake City Weekly

November 06, 2019 News » Cover Story

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    click to enlarge DEREK CARLISLE
    • Derek Carlisle

    A messy protest against the state's inland port this summer triggered a series of legal repercussions, including felony riot charges. A 73-page charging document filed by Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill in 3rd District Court last month outlines numerous allegations against 10 activists involved in the July rally at the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce.

    According to the court filing, one protester, Jackson Richman, allegedly spat in the face of a police officer during a scuffle as a crowd chanted "fuck the police!" in the building's lobby. Upstairs, as dozens of protesters shouted and sang during a sit-in on the sixth floor, Randy Navarette was caught on surveillance cameras yelling and stomping his feet atop the chamber's reception desk. Later, Richman and another protester, Joshua Baker-Cooper, allegedly went after a bicyclist across the street while a TV news cameraman tried to film them.

    Then there was the mystery-person who apparently used bodily fluids as a form of revolt.

    According to the charging document, Paul Gallegos, owner of Salt Lake-based cleaning and property maintenance company Wasatch Property Services Inc., submitted a statement to the district attorney claiming that he detected the smell of "human urine" in several of the chamber's offices while cleaning up after the protest. He also saw "what appeared to be human feces" left behind on the floor of a cubicle.

    "Mr. Gallegos described the feces as being fresh," the document states.

    In interviews with City Weekly, several activists balked at the suggestion that they, or anyone they work with, would ever do such a thing.

    "There were a lot of people who were there, and no one saw any evidence or has heard anyone talk about these allegations," Adair Kovac, a member of the grassroots civil resistance group Civil Riot, says. During the protest, Kovac, who uses they/them pronouns, was sitting on the floor with four other activists, their arms locked together by tubes, in an effort to force a meeting with Derek Miller, chairman of the Utah Inland Port Authority board and CEO of the chamber.

    "As far as we can tell, that was just made up to humiliate us," they add of the urination allegations.

    Kovac is among 10 activists facing third-degree felony riot charges by the DA as a result of the July 9 protest. Class B misdemeanor riot charges have been leveled against four additional persons in Salt Lake City Justice Court. All of them—let's call them the "Chamber 14"—are also facing various other misdemeanors.

    According to Gill, the felony riot violation alone carries a punishment of up to five years in prison. The charges have sent a shockwave through Salt Lake's tight-knit activist community, who see it as an attempt to silence the growing opposition to the inland port, a commercial shipping and warehousing hub planned for Salt Lake City's Northwest Quadrant.

    "I think they're just trying to share a message—don't speak up, don't talk about the mistakes of the police department, or we're going to come after you with criminal charges," Darin Mann, a former Democratic candidate for the state House and a local activist, says. Mann's wife, Michelle, is facing misdemeanor charges for rioting, trespass and assault in Salt Lake City Justice Court.

    Gill insists that politics didn't play a role in his decision to file.

    "I absolutely applaud our community to go out and protest and have their voices be heard. I think that is the right of every citizen to do so," he says, noting that he has participated in rallies himself. "The challenge and concern is that we cannot use the First Amendment as a shield to engage in what was otherwise criminal conduct. There's a difference between peaceful protest and protest that causes either injury or destruction of property."

    Of the charges, he adds, "It's not to suppress any person's voice. It's not about making a point or making an example of anybody. If this was any other group, you take the politics out of it, it's just an analysis based on what was presented to us."

    Whatever the case, it seems the incident has prompted some soul-searching among the activists—while also hardening their resolve to not back down against the highly controversial development.

    Protesters tussle with law enforcement at the July protest. - ISAIAH PORITZ
    • Isaiah Poritz
    • Protesters tussle with law enforcement at the July protest.

    Raising the Alarm
    The port has been divisive from the get-go. During the 2018 legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill in the final hours forming the Utah Inland Port Authority, granting an unelected body working on the state's behalf jurisdiction over 16,000 acres of land within Salt Lake City borders. The bill also gives the port authority a claim on tax increment revenue that would come from development in the area. These are plots of land and funds that would normally be under the purview of elected city leaders, and Salt Lake Mayor Jackie Biskupski has filed a lawsuit in an attempt to wrest back control.

    Meanwhile, the people have risen up. And by all accounts, they are pissed.

    While Mayor Biskupski has fought the inland port on constitutional grounds, activists opposed to the port frame it as a life-or-death environmental issue. Members of Civil Riot—a small but diverse band of activists whose members include young trans and non-binary individuals, Pacific Islanders, members of Native American tribes and several elderly progressives who form an affiliated group called Elders Rising—argue that the port's network of warehouses, transportation shipping networks and diesel-powered trains and trucks would wreak havoc on the ecologically fragile Northwest Quadrant and burden working-poor and immigrant communities.

    "Those warehouses are going to kill people with the additional pollution that they cause," Kovac says, dismissing Gov. Gary Herbert's recent promise in a news conference that the port authority is hard at work trying to make the "cleanest, most green port in America."

    "There's so much money in this particular project. They're calling it the biggest development project in Utah history. Well, of course, that money would not go to the people," Kovac continues. "Any jobs created would be relatively few—because we're more and more automated—and low-paying, insecure temp kind of jobs. That money would be flowing to the wealthy, the elite class. And they have every incentive to create a fake process, where we can submit comments, and then [they] go ahead and build the thing."

    "We've been working within the process all our lives. It hasn't worked," adds Jill Merritt, a septuagenarian activist from Elders Rising, a local group focused on climate justice that often works side-by-side with Civil Riot.

    Demonstration inside the chamber office building in July. - ISAIAH PORITZ
    • Isaiah Poritz
    • Demonstration inside the chamber office building in July.

    'A Very Terrifying Experience'
    A series of aggressive protests against the project kicked off in April, when members of the newly formed Civil Riot appeared seemingly out of nowhere to shut down a public authority's board meeting. They made an even more spectacular showing at the board's next meeting in June.

    But the July protest was the most brazen yet.

    The rally was organized by several groups—including ICE Free SLC, SLC Brown Berets and Civil Riot—and it began as a peaceful gathering outside the City and County Building, with demonstrators of all ages waving colorful, handmade signs, playing makeshift drums and dancing in buffalo and bird costumes meant to illustrate the wildlife who will come to a sad fate if the inland port is built.

    The protest then took a turn when activists moved across the street, temporarily holding up traffic on 400 South and then massing in the lobby of the building where the chamber is headquartered. The plan was to confront chairman Miller directly. But now they were on private property, which provoked a police response.

    Darin Mann, who was in the lobby with his wife at the time, recalls that the situation went south when a woman and an older man fell, or were pushed over, as protesters started interacting with police. Suddenly, the revelrous mood spiraled into violence as officers started shoving people out the doors and throwing punches, according to Mann. One of the protesters was pushed in the shoulder, right where she had a surgical port implanted.

    "It almost seemed like they were just out for blood. It was a very terrifying experience, actually," Mann recalls. "It just kind of erupted out of nowhere."

    Unedited video of the scene posted by Fox 13 afterward lends weight to Mann's account; at the 40-second mark, the video shows an officer in a yellow coat lunging aggressively across the room in what appears to be an effort to subdue a protester. Dozens of other demonstrators file into the lobby, and as the video continues, an ugly shoving match ensues as people chant and try to hold ground against a throng of lawmen.

    Isaiah Poritz, an editorial intern with City Weekly at the time, also made it up to the sixth floor, where activists demanded a face-to-face meeting with Miller. When he didn't appear, five members of the group locked arms in a maneuver that the district attorney's criminal complaint describes as a "sleeping dragon," in which protesters typically use handcuffs and PVC pipe to make it difficult for police to disconnect them and make arrests.

    In the middle of this chaos, it seems, someone allegedly left a foul-smelling surprise for the chamber staff, according to the complaint.

    The DA isn't leveling charges against any protester specifically for the urination and defecation claims. No other evidence—such as footage from surveillance video or police body cameras—is outlined in the charging document to bolster the suggestion that someone from the protest was responsible. City Weekly wasn't able to independently confirm whether it happened. Two employees who worked in the building didn't respond to messages seeking comment. Wasatch Property Services Inc. also didn't respond to requests seeking comment, and chamber spokesperson Marisa Bomis declined an interview, citing the ongoing legal action.

    Police body cam footage, released to The Salt Lake Tribune after the rally, shows that staff evacuated the sixth floor as the occupation was going down. It also shows that police stood by for at least 15 minutes, awaiting backup, while the protesters chanted and sang unseen in parts of the chamber offices. Civil Riot co-founder Ethan Petersen, who was arrested on the sixth floor and is also facing felony riot charges—as well as numerous other misdemeanor charges for other protests he has been involved in—says he never observed anyone relieving themselves at the time.

    Speaking with City Weekly, Petersen acknowledges that it could've been possible—at least theoretically—that an activist might have done the deed when no one else was watching, given there were so many people. Whatever the case, he has more pressing issues to think about.

    "I really have little concern for whether somebody defecated and urinated in the offices of the Chamber of Commerce," he says. "The city and the board of the port and the Legislature are pretty much taking a big shit on all of us right now with this project. So a little shit in the offices of the chamber really doesn't keep me up at night, to be honest."

    • Sarah Arnoff

    Means to an End
    In case you're wondering, Gill also has lingering questions about the inland port.

    "There are genuine concerns about collateral environmental impact. It certainly runs contrary to the idea of local sovereign control. I think the Legislature acted in a very heavy-handed way, where 20% of the land that belongs to the city is being taken," he says. "I'm genuinely concerned about the profiteering that will occur without it returning back to local communities, which are going to be right next to it. What is the real investment strategy to those communities, which otherwise have not gotten access to that? I'm concerned deeply about taking that revenue away from Salt Lake City. Those are all legitimate issues."

    But Gill stresses that his decisions have to come separate from his personal opinions. Asked about activists' charges that the case against them was filed to silence their cause, he says politics did not play a part—his job was to analyze the evidence strictly on its own terms and determine if there was cause for a criminal case.

    "I take my job very seriously. I look at my duty. I took an oath to enforce the laws and I look at the quality and the quantity of the evidence," Gill says. "I take the politics of it off. That's why I have the privilege of being independently elected, because I have a responsibility to the law and to the evidence."

    According to Gill, a team of attorneys from the DA's office and the city spent months reviewing evidence before filing the charges. Activists and news outlets posted extensive video, and footage also came from the building's surveillance cameras and police body cams. Over a series of meetings, attorneys reviewed what they sifted through, bounced ideas back and forth and eventually determined the charges based on the apparent level of violence and property damage and the allegation that protesters had trespassed on private property.

    "I believe in the First Amendment. But the First Amendment cannot be a license to engage in otherwise criminal conduct," Gill says, emphasizing that the defendants all remain innocent until proven guilty. "The ends cannot justify the means. It's not about your ability to protest—it's about the collateral damage that you cause."

    Now, it looks like a handful of protesters might take the fall for the whole group.

    Stewart Gollan, an attorney who is representing many of the accused activists pro bono through the Pioneer Justice Center, a Salt Lake nonprofit, says that felony riot violations don't require defendants to be pinned to specific activities. The Utah Criminal Code states that someone is guilty of rioting if they're engaged "with two or more persons" in "tumultuous or violent conduct and thereby knowingly or recklessly created a substantial risk of causing public alarm." To be charged with a felony, there has to be property damage or injury to a person. But the individuals currently facing charges don't all necessarily have to be the ones that caused that specific injury or property damage. They just have to create a tumultuous situation in which that criminal activity occurred.

    "It is a serious charge," Gollan says, declining to go into detail about the case, since he hasn't had a chance at this early stage to look at all of the evidence that will be presented against the protesters.

    But what about the police? The DA's charges don't address the behavior of the law enforcement officers who were seen punching and shoving activists. According to Gill, the team of attorneys did examine police conduct. In one case, they saw evidence of an officer throwing punches. But he later documented his blows in a report, and the prosecutors expected that they would face resistance if they filed charges, with experts testifying that the officer was trained to administer "distraction" blows. So the DA decided not to push the issue.

    Detective Greg Wilking, a spokesman for the Salt Lake City Police Department, says the department is waiting to see results from an internal audit, as well as a review currently being conducted by the Police Civilian Review Board, to determine whether officers violated any department policies.

    Wilking argues that the protesters were ultimately the ones who created a problem in the first place.

    "We always look at all of our use of force incidents, and any time there's complaint ... we're going to look at [it]," he says. "Understand that they were asked to leave, and at that point when they aren't leaving and we're starting to have to use force, then it becomes a more dangerous situation for all involved."

    Adair Kovac - PETER HOLSLIN
    • Peter Holslin
    • Adair Kovac

    Unfollowing the Process
    Since July, many of those involved in the fight against the inland port seem to have gotten more organized and better coordinated. A month after what went down at the rally, about 100 concerned residents and local activists showed up en masse to a Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency meeting to speak out against a resolution city councilmembers were considering to set aside a tax increment reimbursement of up to $28 million for a developer working on infrastructure improvements in a part of northwest Salt Lake that falls within the port authority's jurisdiction.

    The agreement was first given the thumbs-up by Mayor Biskupski and the city council in 2018, weeks before the port authority was formed—part of a city government effort to get the jump on the state's attempt to take control of development in the area, the Deseret News reported.

    Rather than greet them with police, City Weekly observed as city councilmembers, working as the Redevelopment Agency, accommodated the public with an overflow room in the City and County Building. There was a television set and livestream for anyone who couldn't get into the main room where the meeting was held. City staffers instructed people on how to sign up to make a statement and handed out printouts with detailed information about the resolution. Snacks and water coolers were set up in the hallways.

    The marathon public comment session lasted more than two hours. Another public comment was held the following week—and despite the public outcry, the council voted unanimously to approve the resolution, not wanting to lose control of the land (and the resulting negotiating leverage) to the state.

    "This was Tuesday, 2 p.m., right? I saw more people out there to speak against the subsidies and against the port, giving legitimate public comment—more people than I have ever seen at a city council meeting," Kovac recalls. "That's people following the process. It didn't achieve anything."

    Last month, coalitions against the inland port put up another united front when the port authority board convened at the Capitol for its first public meeting in four months. Compared to the violence and chaos of the rally in July, this showing of opposition unfolded for the most part with the coordination of a choreographed ballet, mixing civil-disobedience tactics with public-process engagement and old-fashioned heckling.

    Some activists came armed with whistles hidden beneath dust masks, creating a shrill cacophony moments after Miller began the proceedings. About 10 minutes in, the whistles quieted down to allow for a lengthy public comment session, where attendees spoke about their opposition to the project—and unloaded their frustrations on not just the port board, but also James Rogers, the board's co-chair, who represents District 1 on the city council.

    At the beginning of her public comment, Deeda Seed, a former city councilwoman and the leader of the Stop the Polluting Port coalition, asked the audience to raise their hands if they were opposed to the port. Hundreds of hands and anti-port signs went up. "Look at that! It's a room full of people who hate this idea!" she said, before slamming the council for passing the tax increment resolution in August.

    "Today, we have development occurring on warehouses, possibly as much as six million square feet of new warehouse space, with no analysis of the air quality harms. Don't separate yourself from the city—you're all in this together, and we as the citizens are going to hold you accountable for the consequences of this if we can no longer live here," she told the board, to cheers and applause.

    Deeda Seed - ENRIQUE LIMÓN
    • Enrique Limón
    • Deeda Seed

    The meeting was the first one featuring Jack Hedge, the board's new executive director. Voices quieted down as he began reading a staff report, explaining the authority's goal is to "develop global logistics for the next generation."

    "What does that mean? Well, to me, it means that we build it right, from the beginning," Hedge said in his Texas drawl, his eyes lowered as he read from a printout of a document before him.

    "Don't build it at all!" someone yelled as voices piped up from the crowd.

    He continued reading, saying the port's drivers would work off a framework "to protect the natural areas, our air and water and various species that call this area home. To be a catalyst for creativity and innovation and sustainability. To build it right for the long haul. To enhance and grow opportunities for our communities and the people who live and work there."

    "Lies," a voice piped up.

    "Bullshit," another muttered as Hedge went on.

    "Pie in the sky!" a man exclaimed in a sad, gravelly voice.

    "I am extremely grateful for the opportunity that has been given to me, and I pledge to do my very best to fulfill this vision and the mission of this organization and the people of the state of Utah," Hedge concluded. "I'm not aware of another opportunity like this anywhere in the world," he added, as a wave of groans shuddered across the room.

    Jack Hedge - PETER HOLSLIN
    • Peter Holslin
    • Jack Hedge

    'Bodies on the Line'
    According to Gollan, the attorney from the Pioneer Justice Center, the center is currently in the process of getting the various protesters' cases scheduled in the courts. Some of the defendants are facing charges for additional protests. On Monday, Nov. 4, the district attorney handed down misdemeanor charges to Petersen and Kovac for obstruction of a meeting or procession for a protest they were involved in at the Pioneer Day Parade on July 24.

    It seems the chaos of the Salt Lake Chamber protest has had some negative repercussions for the movement. Kovac's roommate was among those who ended up with criminal charges after getting thrown to the floor by police and busted on the chin as the protest unfolded. She hasn't been to another rally ever since. Another friend told Kovac that in the wake of the protest, his wife asked him not to attend demonstrations or political meetings out of fear that something bad could happen.

    But even as Kovac faces the possibility of jail time, that hasn't shattered their commitment to activism and civil disobedience.

    "We're trying to be out there, physically be there, and put our bodies on the line against these abstract things—the money, the contracts, the corporate structures," Kovac explains. "Nothing's inevitable. All of this other stuff is just social constructs, right? It's words. It's ideas. It's not physically there—and hell, even if those warehouses get built, that doesn't mean they have to keep running the trucks to them. The air can be cleaned. All this can be stopped at any point in time."

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