We Predict a Riot | Cover Story | Salt Lake City Weekly

July 03, 2019 News » Cover Story

We Predict a Riot 

Inside one grassroots group's fight to stop the inland port.

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  • Peter Holslin

It was like a scene out of a Hitchcock end-of-the-world thriller.

In a packed committee room in the Utah Capitol in early June, 25-year-old activist Ethan Petersen handcuffed himself to a door handle and bellowed warnings laden with doom as Utah Highway Patrol troopers struggled to haul him away to Salt Lake County Metro Jail.

"This project is environmentally destructive! It will exacerbate climate change! This is destruction of the planet—we're not going to allow it anymore!" Petersen cried, interrupting a public meeting of the Utah Inland Port Authority, the state-appointed body in charge of overseeing development of a commercial hub in Salt Lake City's Northwest Quadrant.

Reporters snapped pictures and took video as troopers pushed dozens of activists chanting and holding banners out into the hallway. When a Deseret News reporter tried to step out to watch Petersen literally carried off to jail, an oil and gas lobbyist stood in her way, chiding her for giving the protesters media attention.

The demonstration—staged in flagrant disregard of the "rules of decorum" that guide the state's otherwise sleepy public hearings—was put on by Civil Riot, a civil resistance collective that in a few short months has launched a spirited debate over the highly contested project.

Since it was established last year, the Inland Port Authority has been the subject of backlash and controversy. Now, Civil Riot is upping the ante with civil disobedience tactics. Critics dismiss the activists' efforts as counterproductive pandemonium. But Civil Rioters have also gotten the thumbs-up from influential inland port opponents—including Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, who last week said she "absolutely" supports the protests.

"People need to have a voice," Biskupski told reporters at a news conference where she announced filing an amended complaint to her civil suit against the inland port, seeking a temporary injunction to shut it down while the case is litigated.

"At the end of the day, people on the board are not listening to this community. So, of course, there's going to be protests—and there likely will be more," Biskupski declared.

In interviews with City Weekly, members of Civil Riot say they're determined to vigorously disrupt the inland port, out of concern that the project will wreck the environment, worsen air quality and exacerbate economic disparities. Taking their cue from liberation thinkers like Angela Davis and movements like the "water protectors" of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, Civil Riot activists say the public has been ignored and it's time for stakeholders to listen. Organizers see what they're doing as part of a wider effort to reverse environmental degradation and create better opportunities for marginalized communities. For them, it seems the battle over the inland port is just the beginning.

  • Ray Howze

"There's so many different fronts to fight for people to have better lives," Petersen says in an interview at a café on North Temple. "I think we want to bring an energy that's very much direct action-oriented, so that people would start shutting stuff down and actually taking control of their communities again."

Hitting Them In the Mouth
The June protest at the Capitol was Civil Riot's second attempt to throw a wrench into the gears of the Inland Port Authority. The group also shut down the board's previous meeting in April, drowning out the proceedings with a megaphone and forcing board chair Derek Miller to adjourn the meeting less than 10 minutes after it began.

The Inland Port Authority recently announced it has canceled its next two meetings. According to spokesperson Aimee Edwards, the decision has nothing to do with Civil Riot—the board wants to give time for Jack Hedge, the body's new executive director, to get settled into his job.

Civil Riot members scoff at this excuse, claiming the cancellations as a small but notable victory.

"I think there's some reason to be happy. We kind of hit 'em in the mouth," Petersen says. "We shut down one of their meetings, we almost shut down another, and now they're canceling two other meetings. They can act like, 'This is on the schedule,' but it's not. They weren't planning on doing it. They've had to switch up their game."

It seems their efforts have made an impression.

Hedge, who previously worked as director of cargo and industrial real estate for the Port of Los Angeles, says in an email that meeting with community members is key to grasp peoples' concerns and to clarify what this project is all about.

"It's important for people to know and understand what the Utah Inland Port Authority is and is not—with what it can and cannot do," Hedge tells City Weekly in response to a list of questions sent seeking comment about the project. (Edwards declined multiple requests to make him available to speak over the phone or in person.) "It is important for me to meet with community members and understand [the] issues and concerns of the community to help us develop and craft the vision and mission of the Utah Inland Port."

State officials have been kicking around the idea of an inland port for decades. The plan, supporters of the project say, is to build a major hub for shipping and trade, leveraging Salt Lake's centralized location in the Intermountain West and the city's already robust network of shipping infrastructure, rail lines, airport access and road routes to make big gains on global business opportunities. They say a "hub-and-spoke" model recently introduced in an amended state bill also offers possibilities for rural areas in Utah, which can serve as satellite ports to the one planned for Salt Lake's as-yet-undeveloped Northwest Quadrant.

"I think that there would be a lot of interest, a lot of economic activity, a lot of warehousing where people would want to access the port here—or ports here—in the state of Utah. And all of that lends itself to a stronger economy," Greg Hughes says. The former Speaker of the House helped bring the Inland Port Authority to fruition and is now weighing a run for governor.

History repeating
The idea for an inland port first emerged in 1974, when the Legislature passed a bill granting state and municipal officials the ability to establish a port authority to shore up shipping and trade in Utah.

In 1987, Salt Lake County established a task force dedicated to the idea of a port authority. A Virginia consulting firm was hired to draw up a comprehensive report on potential economic benefits and laid out a plan for how to start one. But the efforts stalled when members of the task force reportedly couldn't agree on whether the undertaking was worthwhile. Hughes says there also wasn't enough funding to pay for what, no doubt, would have been a costly undertaking, requiring massive construction of warehouses and other infrastructure.

According to a report by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, interest over an inland port authority resurfaced in 2006, when the World Trade Center Utah opened and Union Pacific built a $90-million intermodal terminal for cross-country railroad shipping in northwest Salt Lake. A few years later, Salt Lake City reactivated its Foreign Trade Zone—a federally authorized area where international companies can operate without paying customs duties or import tariffs. Elected officials, land developers and other stakeholders were also encouraged when reconstruction on Salt Lake City International Airport began in 2014 and the state decided to relocate the prison to the city's Northwest Quadrant.

  • Enrique Limón

Last year, Gov. Gary Herbert signed the Utah Inland Port Authority into law with SB234. The bill was introduced by Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, and it passed in the final hours of the Legislature's 2018 session.

The sudden passage of the bill left Salt Lake officials and residents feeling blindsided. The city had sought to revitalize the area on its own terms by adopting the ecologically friendly "Northwest Quadrant Master Plan" and engaging in other efforts. Biskupski has refused to negotiate with state officials as she pursues her lawsuit. Her amended complaint, filed in 3rd District Court, argues that the project violates the Utah Constitution because it takes away city authority over land and property taxes in the 16,000 acres of Salt Lake's Northwest Quadrant where the Inland Port Authority now holds jurisdiction.

Other activists have voiced concerns about worsening air quality, increased traffic congestion and the way the project could disrupt the habitat of migratory birds in the Great Salt Lake wetlands. Long-underserved western neighborhoods like Rose Park and Poplar Grove could also face the brunt of industrial pollution and congestion.

Given his experience in California and the Pacific Northwest, Hedge says he's aware of the impact port operations can represent. "I've seen it, I've lived it, and I didn't move here to recreate it," he states. "We will do better. We have a lot of work to do to get there—but we will do better."

Resistance DNA
To Civil Riot, the inland port represents just another example of capitalist greed—a project that will contribute to the exploitation of wildlife habitats and indigenous lands, further depleting the planet's natural resources while laying environmental burdens on underserved communities.

Petersen and Sonny Anderson, the founders of Civil Riot, held their first meeting on March 14. They keep the group open-ended, welcoming anybody who would like to attend. So far they've attracted as many as 100 people at each meeting, with about 20 or 30 fellow activists forming a core group.

Their approach is modeled on Petersen and Anderson's experiences at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota. In 2016 and 2017, they joined thousands of other "water protectors"—including Native Americans from across the country, along with politicians, environmentalists, activists and journalists—in a mass protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline, a 1,172-mile-long underground oil pipeline that threatened to ruin sacred grounds and contaminate the region's water supply.

Although the protests attracted broad-based support and widespread media attention, they also turned violent as private security contractors and police in riot gear sought to clear out the unarmed protectors with attack dogs and water cannons. To these two young activists, the militant response underscored the unwillingness of government authorities and business interests to compromise when decisions have already been made behind the scenes.

  • Peter Holslin

It also made Anderson reflect on the larger history of Native American persecution in the United States. In 1961, his own tribe, the Menominee, were stripped of their tribal status by the federal government. They spent the next decade fighting back, retaining their hunting and fishing rights in a landmark 1968 Supreme Court ruling and later regaining their sovereignty with a bill signed by President Richard Nixon in 1973.

"I come from a long line of resistance. It's in my DNA," says Anderson, who also has roots with the Ho-Chunk Nation. "I think I was drawn to stuff like this. I always had it in me, but it took me a while."

Petersen grew up in Cache Valley in northern Utah. He was studying math, chemistry and biology at the University of Utah when he first started getting into the writings of political thinkers like Gene Sharp and Frances Fox Piven. He took a leave of absence from his schooling to join the protest at Standing Rock, where he says he was arrested multiple times. The experience deepened his knowledge of social issues and indigenous culture, he adds.

"A lot of it was just learning and being quiet," Petersen recalls of meeting Native American activists and organizers from across the country. "They implemented a lot of stacking where, for example, white men were discouraged from speaking in certain meetings, so that the voices of women and people of color could be prioritized. It was really insightful because we tend to occupy all the predominant spaces in society, and we tend to have a disproportionate influence on policy and everything."

Back in Salt Lake, Petersen has taken these lessons to heart in his work with Civil Riot. He says members make decisions collectively, embracing progressive values against misogyny, racism and homophobia while avoiding the dogma of ideological purity.

Some Civil Riot members joined in the effort against the inland port because they see parallels with struggles they've previously been involved with. 'Amelia Niumeitolu and her husband Ti Tavai were part of an initiative in Los Angeles County dedicated to halting construction of the Southern California International Gateway, a $500-million rail yard project headed up by a subsidiary of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate, which threatened to bring clouds of diesel fumes and other health risks to nearby residential areas and schools.

"As soon as we heard about what was going on here in Utah, we felt that it was going to be the same thing—but inland," Tavai says. "Reaching the communities of people of color, working its way out here."

"We wanted to get involved," Niumeitolu adds.

Welcome to the Big Top
Jeff Hartley, a Utah lobbyist and political strategist who has been part of discussions over the Inland Port Authority since its inception—and who drew jeers on social media when D-News reporter Katie McKellar posted video of him standing in her way during Civil Riot's June protest—says the project would offer major benefits, bringing the state's array of import and export activities under one roof.

"You already have a lot of these activities going on, they're just not coordinated," Hartley says. "Under a state initiative, you could coordinate all of that activity so that it is logical and it makes sense. You could actually divert a lot of traffic that's going to Salt Lake City now and keep it out of Salt Lake County."

Important things like this are impossible to talk about, though, when groups like Civil Riot create a "circus atmosphere" at public meetings, Hartley says.

"Rather than having good policy debated in those board meetings, we just have protesters chaining themselves or handcuffing themselves to fixtures in the room," he says. "It's just a distraction. It's just noise."

And what about interfering with a reporter who's doing her job? Hartley downplays what happened with McKellar, claiming he was acting out of frustration and only blocking her way for four seconds. "I have a right to express my frustration with and disagreement with Katie's choice of what's newsworthy."

Hughes, for his part, bemoans the way hardline opponents of the inland port refuse to participate in the public process. The board has hired an outside company, Envision Utah, to gauge public opinion, while its meetings are meant to provide a way for citizens to observe proceedings and get involved. Hughes says he's sympathetic to opponents' concerns and thinks it would be more effective if they voiced them through the proper channels.

"It's sad, because I think there are incredibly important questions to be raised about our air shed, about truck traffic," Hughes says. "But I also think there are discussions and answers, or at least ideas to be shared, that would address these concerns.

"If public access is merely meant to shut down the work—the public work—[then] that is not what open hearings were ever meant to do," he adds. "You don't want people screaming past one another or not hearing each other."

  • Peter Holslin

Keeping It Civil
These assurances don't mean much to Civil Riot. In their experience, the public meetings mostly just provide a pro forma opportunity for citizens to vent their feelings, and then watch helplessly as the real decision-makers get down to business.

"We know it's bullshit, and we're calling it as bullshit," Petersen says.

Members of Civil Riot rolled deep at Inland Port Authority meetings in February and March, with a handful of activists delivering public comments for the official record. Petersen and others also attended an Envision Utah public forum in February, as did Niumeitolu and Tavai. But the meetings felt to them like a charade. The board members were letting the people speak, but were they listening?

"They set their timer and you're, like, mid-stream thought and the timer goes off and they start talking over you," Nate Haslam, a Civil Riot member who spoke at the March board meeting, says. "We sat there for two and a half hours to get three minutes."

Other critics of the project share their frustrations.

"They did come to testify. This wasn't just out of the blue," says Deeda Seed, a former city councilwoman who has been following the inland port project closely as a member of the Stop the Polluting Port coalition. "We've all been testifying for over a year now, and have been really dismissed by the board: 'Oh, this is just a perfunctory thing.' There's been no substantive response to the concerns that are expressed. And I will say that the testimony for the most part has been really eloquent and issue-specific ... All sorts of community members have been coming and very bravely speaking to the port board, but we haven't really seen a response."

Civil Riot wants the inland port to end, or at least for stakeholders behind the project to put out a more concerted effort to engage the people of Salt Lake.

Ruthless & Individualistic
On June 19, members of Civil Riot marched to the Sugar House offices of Colmena Group, a real estate firm involved in efforts to develop the inland port. Two activists blockaded the door with a giant banner, while another lead the group in a series of chants of "Abort the port!" and "No justice, no peace!"—their voices bouncing off the brick walls of the surrounding buildings in the courtyard that included Colmena's offices.

Michelle McKee, a mother who has struggled with asthma because of Salt Lake's air quality, knocked on the heavy glass doors with hopes of delivering a letter of protest to Colmena president Lance Bullen. When nobody answered, she read the letter out loud: "We are no longer interested in politely asking those of you with power and influence to allow us a livable planet. Your pursuit of profit and luxury requires that you be ruthless and individualistic to a degree that is criminal."

Later that day, a woman who answered the phone at Colmena Group's offices took down City Weekly's contact info and passed it to an outside PR firm for comment. Mike McCarlie at DJM Consulting Group, a Salt Lake City-based agency that specializes in crisis management, emailed a statement that pointedly did not mention the protest or the activists behind it:

"We are encouraged by the Utah Inland Port Authority (UIPA) Board's desire to create a project that is smart, forward-thinking, sustainable and clean. Many ideas have been discussed, such as increasing rail capacity to slow the growth of truck traffic, use renewable energy within the port, construct energy efficient buildings and other ideas that are sustainable and would benefit our state. We look forward to working with the State, the UIPA Board, cities involved and city councils as they determine the way forward."

Who did the statement also forget to mention? The public.

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About The Author

Peter Holslin

Peter Holslin

Holslin is City Weekly's staff writer. His work has appeared in outlets including Vice and Rolling Stone. Got a tip? Drop him a line.

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