Environmental Politics, Politics, Social Justice

CATALYST goes to the inland port rally

July 11, 2019

Sophie Silverstone

What began as a peaceful protest became a scene of confusion, violence and frustration at the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce building on Tuesday. “I love that you’re using your interns as bodies at a protest, Sophie,” said a neighbor as I left my house that morning after sharing what was on my docket for the day: I would be attending the inland port rally, I was bringing five CATALYST interns, and we would also be covering the rally. I refuted that comment by jovially explaining it was an educational experience for my interns to cover a protest, regarding an event we all felt strongly about. Yet I knew from attending past rallies that we were headed into the unknown.

The “Protect Our Community – Protegé Nuestra Cominudad: Rally against the inland port, environmental racism, and colonial violence,” organized by ICE Free SLC, SLC Brown Berets, Civil Riot, Utah Against Police Brutality, and Wasatch Rising Tide press release I received July 5 explained that on July 9,

“Demonstrators will demand that the Utah Inland Port project be canceled immediately and that anti-racist, sustainable rewilding alternatives be developed and managed by local communities. Similarly, demonstrators demand the protection of communities on the West Side, including migrant and Latinx folks, who will be disproportionately impacted by the project. People living within Ute, Eastern Shoshone and Goshute lands, so-called Utah, demand that these communities are defended from the threat of economic projects that primarily benefit the wealthy.”

I prepped my interns and assigned who would be doing the Facebook/Instagram livestreams, the headcounts, the photos, the videos, the audio recording, and last but not least, taking hand-written notes. There were six of us. Some of us had been to rallies before, and for some of my sweet team of 20 to 29-year-olds, it was their first time at a protest. We saw media comrades there such as Roger McDonough, from KCPW. One of our interns spotted Taylor Stevens from the Salt Lake Tribune, whom she had gone to high school with. We greeted each other with nervous smiles. This was the calm before the storm.

Mariella Mendoza speaking at the Salt Lake City County Building

iPhones in hand, we soaked in the speeches made at the City and County Building in the mid-afternoon sun: Mariella Mendoza Cardenas, who was one of the main organizers; her sister, Sheri Whiteland; Diego Abalos from Party for Socialism and Liberation; and Brynn Dalton of the Salt Lake Democratic Socialists. The northern steps of the building were lined with young and old people, serving as a pleasant-looking backdrop to the speakers, holding signs with sunflowers, a buffalo, a seagull, migratory birds, and signs about climate change.

“Our greatest resource is being destroyed, and that’s our children,” said Sheri Whiteland, who had been in Louisiana fighting the Bayou Bridge Pipeline, who talked about the pipeline and the port projects as intentional warfare against Earth.

All the speakers enumerated the atrocities that people of color and people of lower socio-economic class have witnessed at the hands of… well, for lack of better words, rich racist white people who seem to make most of the big business decisions in our country. The Facebook event description read,

“On the west side we watch as rent prices go up, and as corporations try to build infrastructure for their ideas of “progress”. They tell us that a new jail will keep us safer, and that the inland port will provide jobs, but we know better. We know that it is communities of color who are always affected the most by these changes. We know that it is our children who grow up with refineries in the background and smoke in their lungs. We know that it is only those who don’t live in our neighborhoods and live our lives who benefit from the environmental racism and classism thrown at our community. WE HAVE HAD ENOUGH. As migrants, as people of color, as indigenous folks, we call for this rally in front of the City and County in Salt Lake City building alongside our siblings from the North and South, to FIGHT BACK, and to remind each other that it is only US who will protect us.”

Yes, the inland port was the main theme, but themes of colonialism and the underbelly of rage that has been repressed for millennia kept cropping up.

“Now is the time to rise up,” said Mendoza in her closing speech. “Now is not the time to sit back… Taking care of our community is a form of self-care.” But Mendoza was not done. After the protest proceeded to haphazardly block traffic on 400 South between State St. and 200 East, crossing north to the terrace of the Salt Lake Chamber Building, Mendoza yelled into a megaphone with deep ancestral rage that erupted from a place I could only fathom came from the blood-curdling terror and the trauma of the first colonization of Indian and Mexican lands by white settlers: “They say the port will give us more jobs and the new jail will keep us safer, we call BULLSHIT!”

See the video here

Inside the lobby of the Salt Lake Chamber building, protestors danced and chanted—chants such as “Abort the port!” “People over profits,” and, “Derek Miller, Salt Lake Killer.” Derek Miller, chairman of the Inland Port Authority and also CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber, was on the sixth floor, where some of the protesters went. Our team of six did not follow, but watched the lobby fill up with the chanting protesters. The security people seemed nervous that we had surrounded the front desk.

Next door, at Planet Fitness, a lone guy ran on the treadmill, seemingly unaware of the chaos nearby. Meanwhile the lobby was getting loud with protesters. More speeches were made. “The riot police have been called, and are on their way,” someone announced. This was not the time for me to be responsible for any of my five interns getting accidentally hurt or arrested at a supposedly peaceful protest, I thought.

What happened next, I’ve had to rely on other news sources to understand. Eight protesters were arrested. A number of cops and protesters were injured. Fox 13’s coverage showed the close-up angle from the vestibule, in the tense moments as the riot police pushed the protesters out of the building. There is a confrontation between a protester asking for a policeman’s badge number, and him refusing to tell her. The cameraperson and other members of the press try to get out of the way. The full clip lets the scene play out for viewers.

KSL’s coverage, on the other hand, shows quick clips of the vestibule standoff between riot police and protesters, but also interviews a man who claims to have been beaten up by protesters in front of the City and County Building. He had been walking by, according to his interview, and heard protesters say that the property in question was taken from Mexico and belongs to Mexico. He says he disagreed with them, saying, “If anything, it belongs to the Indians.” Then, he says, they “started beating me.”

Photo by Sarah Ta

Taylor Stevens writes in the Tribune that a fight broke out between protesters and a man yelling racial slurs at them on the City and County Building grounds. Could this also be the man whom KSL interviewed? The one who says he disagreed with them, and then they just started punching him? Who started the violence first? The protesters or the passerby? Who started the violence first, the protesters or the police?

Subsequent articles have been written, and numerous videos have surfaced showing the debacle of the protesters being forced out of the building by riot police. It seems like everyone is waving their measuring sticks at the first blow of physical violence at the protest as the most important indicator of fault.

In surveying the scene before our team left the protest, and before things got ugly, I realized the options were clear: Stay for a violent uproar that the news cameras would catch anyway, or leave before things got out of hand. I wasn’t there to join in on trying to figure out who was going to throw the first punch. It was clear that was already going to happen. I wasn’t prepared to shepherd all six of us into the middle of the conflict against an entire riot squad, so we began to leave.

The least I could do was get more photos to capture the moments before we left the scene. Stopping on the street, I asked a sunflower sign-holding protester, bandana covering half her face, if I could take her photo. To my surprise, she said “no,” I did not have her permission. “Don’t talk to them,” another protester, told the woman I had asked, as she glared at me. Up until this point I had felt as if I had been leaning more toward the side of protester rather than reporter. I showed up with the protesters, sympathetic to the cause, chanting along with the chants. Their cause was my cause. But now I felt confused. What was their cause? The inland port? Anti-colonialism? Abolishing ICE? And who were they fighting against? The inland port authority? White people in general? The media? Me?

I breathe air in this valley. I feel a deep connection to the diverse people and wildlife that call this valley home at any point in the year due to migration. But this was both my protest and not my protest at all. I am not brown. I am not black. Even though my ancestors fled Europe when the persecution of Jews started to look grim, before Nazi Germany came to power, I cannot say this land was stolen from my people.

But this uncomfortable confrontation with the woman of color holding a sunflower is an indicator of something deeper. As my interns and I debriefed after the rally, here I was taken aback by the way this protester treated me. Here I was, a middle-class white girl who was born in this country, showing up at this rally with little to lose. This woman, who had fear and uncertainty in her eyes, perhaps had everything to lose by attending this rally. I was not making myself very vulnerable showing up that day. She was.

It’s an awkward thing to do, but in processing this confrontation, I need to acknowledge my privilege. I have a voice, right here as I type these words. This is where I get to speak out about my experiences and my opinions. The members of the inland port authority, also, have many privileges that many of the protesters may not. Governor Herbert and Derek Miller, two people with tremendous amounts of power, who have both denounced the protest for being violent, can also voice their opinions from privileged safe spaces. Many people living in this valley who breathe the same air we breathe, do not have this luxury. The rally is where they have gone to speak out and feel like they have a voice.

Otherwise, no one seems to be listening. As Robert Gerhke’s Tribune article on the rally this week said, “No matter how many times members of the public have spoken out against the port — civilly and calmly, as the governor has asked — it has been as effective as politely asking a freight train to change its course.”

Governor Herbert and Derek Miller may call the protesters violent… terrorists… anarchists. But there are many kinds of violence. Listening but not hearing or responding directly to multiple statements of community members who have come before the board is another kind of violence. Passing the Port bill, allocating $8 million to this board, hiring an executive director before there is even a transparent plan, are other forms of “violence” and another kind of abuse of power. Our legislature repeatedly has committed this type of violence. Multiple voter-approved specific initiatives (such as the Medicaid bill and the Medical Cannabis bill) were altered at their core and rewritten by a small minority of those in power in our legislature who have their own agendas and interests.

The people of Utah followed the lawful procedures in our democracy. A small group of legislators repeatedly revised the will of the people. What kind of democracy is that? The Inland Port Authority Bill was passed with no dialogue with people most immediately affected by living with a port in their own backyard, near where their children play during recess. Where hundreds of diesel fueled trucks will dump dangerous toxins into their air and then their lungs. With the unanalyzed agenda of expanding the toxic effects of the port for the purpose of shipping literally tons of coal and other fossil fuels to and from our valley on a daily basis. This is another kind of violence.

This bill was passed without discussion, without regard to the health impacts on children of those “others”. The fantasy of this kind of thinking is that these actions won’t affect all of our children. There truly is no place to hide when it comes to polluting our air and water and soil, no matter how much money or privilege you may have. This is a generational violence no amount of money or power can undo.

And yes. We can discuss about how protest movements need to be vigilant and nonviolent in their actions in order to bring change. They must, as Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. taught, maintain the moral high ground in the face of multiple acts of violence by those in power by virtue of their partnership with and access to those with money and privilege. But we are at a crossroads on this precious planet. Can’t those who are working towards building the inland port see? There truly is nowhere to insulate privileged loved ones – not even with great money and access to deep power.

Part of me has wondered why I didn’t stay at the protest until the bitter end. The simple answer is: the scene was nearing a violent crescendo, I hate violence, and with a group of six of us, me as the leader, it was time to go. And waving my measuring stick at acts of physical violence isn’t my specialty anyways. I believe having that uncomfortable moment with the sunflower-holding protester had some value. Seeing the fear and pain in her eyes, and instead of taking it personally, I can try to understand it. Instead of walking away from her and feeling the divide between us, instead of walking away from the rally on Tuesday frowning upon the protesters who “lost their moral high ground,” I dare myself, and everyone else who wants to gawk at the violence that ensued at the protest, to become aware of our own positions of power from where we gawk and ask, what other kinds of violence exist in this entire equation that are not being acknowledged? And––what can we do about it?