SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert and Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski called for "civility" and "unity" a day after inland port protesters stormed the Chamber of Commerce Building and clashed with police.
But the mayor and the governor were anything but united Wednesday, issuing their calls from separate news conferences in the same building after Biskupski refused to join Herbert at his press event. The two are currently embroiled in a lawsuit over the Utah Inland Port Authority.
Biskupski and Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown were initially expected to join Herbert, according to a news advisory issued from the governor's office, but they chose not to attend. Herbert told reporters to ask Biskupski why.
Minutes after Herbert concluded his remarks, the mayor and the police chief held their own press conference at the state Capitol a floor below. Biskupski would not elaborate on her decision not to stand alongside the governor, other than to say there was a "bait and switch" and that Herbert discussed many things that have "nothing to do" with the protest.
In addition to condemning violence, Herbert also discussed Biskupski's lawsuit against the state over the Utah Inland Port Authority and disagreements he and the mayor have had over the state's role in creating the port. Biskupski's lawsuit contends state leaders' creation of the port authority board violates the state constitution by usurping city powers.
Yet despite their legal dispute, Biskupski and Herbert shared a nearly identical message, condemning violence used in Tuesday's protest.
"I condemn it in the strongest of terms," Herbert said, calling for inland port protesters and elected officials alike to "deal with these issues in a civil and respectful manner."
Herbert joined Utah Department of Public Safety Commissioner Jess Anderson and Derek Miller, Salt Lake Chamber president and CEO and chairman of the Utah Inland Port Authority board, to issue his call.
"I'm here to say we need to stop it now. We need to nip it in the bud," Herbert said, adding that violent protesting is not "American." He criticized some protesters for being "self-proclaimed anarchists."
Tuesday's protest, Herbert said, was unlike anything he's ever seen in Utah, calling it "borderline terrorism."
"We have not had people go into a private building, uninvited, and cause the kinds of problems and destruction that took place in the Chamber of Commerce Building," the governor said. "That's an escalation I have not seen before."
Herbert said city and state conflicts over the Utah Inland Port Authority should be hashed out in court, and any protests should be peaceful.
"I'm not here to debate the pros and cons of the inland port," Herbert said. "I'm here to debate and discuss about the unsavory activities of those who would disrupt in a violent way to express their opinion and not do this in a respectful and civil manner."
Biskupski, declining to comment on Herbert's comments, said she was "disappointed" when the protest "devolved into violence."
"Violence … will only deepen the divide between us and shut the door on advancing us as a community and our concerns," the mayor said. "We are diminished when we use force as a sword."
Biskupski said she hopes "we will not see this type of activity again and that we can instead have productive discourse on resolving the differences that lie between the citizens and the residents of Salt Lake City and our state government."
The media notice for Wednesday's news conference was issued by the governor's office 30 minutes prior to the gathering at the Capitol, where Utah Highway Patrol troopers maintained tight security around the Capitol's Gold Room, allowing only Capitol credentialed members of the media to enter.
Earlier Wednesday, Biskupski issued a statement after she said she was "fully briefed" by the police chief about the protest, condemning all acts of violence.
"As mayor, I support the right of all citizens to peaceably assemble and protest the actions of government. It is a fundamental cornerstone of our democracy to do so," Biskupski said. "I do not, however, condone violence of any kind, no matter the situation."
But some protesters blamed police for escalating violence. Video recordings circulating on social media later showed some officers shoving and punching protesters as they forced them out of the chamber building's lobby.
Protester Darin Mann, a Utahn who ran unsuccessfully for the Utah House of Representatives last year, shared two videos on Facebook showing an officer punching a protester in the face while other officers shoved and dragged protesters.
Mann said he personally was "punched and choked" and the protest "turned violent by a militant police force."
Asked about videos circulating of police officers punching protesters, Anderson said any inappropriate use of police force will likely be investigated.
"We all can improve," Herbert said. "The call for civility is for all of us. And the call to condemn violence is for all of us, also."
Brown pledged that Salt Lake police will investigate officers' use of force and protester acts of violence and will press for charges if their investigation calls for it.
"Look, if you come to Salt Lake City and your intent is to conduct yourselves in a violent, aggressive … destructive behavior, we will stop that behavior, and we will hold you accountable," Brown said.
While the chief indicated more charges could be screened, eight people were arrested Tuesday for investigation of charges ranging from rioting, criminal trespassing and resisting arrest.
Of the five who were booked into the Salt Lake County Jail, one — Elizabeth Chauca, 30 — was arrested for investigation of assault on a police officer. Chauca "tried to claw/punch at an officer" when the officer released her to help another officer, a police affidavit states.
"As we try to defend the rights of those that want to exercise their voice and First Amendment rights, it will not be tolerated that you assault police officers," Brown said. "And so we will seek justice for those that assault our officers at will."
In a statement issued Wednesday evening, the group Civil Riot claimed the purpose of the protest has been overlooked in media coverage and announced a news conference of its own scheduled for Thursday morning.
"Yesterday afternoon, environmental justice activists occupied the Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce to directly address Derek Miller in protest of the construction of the inland port. The activists occupied the lobby and upstairs office of the chamber nonviolently; five people peacefully locked down upstairs and many more filled the downstairs lobby with song and dance. The significance of this protest has been lost in the media as the Salt Lake City Police Department and government officials have misconstrued the activists as agents of violence rather than agents of change," the group said in the statement.
The Utah House Democratic Caucus also issued a statement Wednesday, calling for protests to "always be peaceful and nonviolent," but putting the onus on both police and protesters to not escalate to violence.
"It is never acceptable for protesters to attack anyone, destroy property, or create mayhem, nor for law enforcement to use inappropriate force," the House Democratic Caucus' statement said. "It is incumbent on police and protesters not to escalate tensions into what we saw yesterday. We applaud Utah's highly engaged citizenry who care about good public process and policy. We all want a safe place to exercise free speech.”
Miller, standing alongside Herbert, described how Salt Lake Chamber employees felt fear when protesters entered the building "yelling, screaming, many of them wearing masks." He said they broke security cameras located in the lobby. Some, he said, "urinated in some of the offices."
"What would you be thinking and what would you be feeling if you were at your private place of business and such an attack happened?" Miller asked. "That's how the employees at the Salt Lake Chamber were feeling — under attack by a violent mob."31 comments on this story
Miller said "in a sad twist of irony" the protests occurred at the exact time the port authority board's environmental working group was holding a public meeting, "having very robust conversations" with members of the public.
"I understand there are questions and concerns. I have questions about what this will mean environmentally," Miller said, adding that one of the first things the port authority board did was commission an environmental study.
"We will know the facts," he said, "and we should always be governed by facts, not fear."