During the July 14th Salt Lake City Council working meeting, Mayor Mendenhall defended the extremely violent actions of police during the July 9th protest. City employees had been asked the night before not to come into work that day, because they expected civic unrest in response to Sim Gill announcing that the murder of Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal was legally justified. Before the protest started, multiple police forces arrived in riot vans fully geared with shields and body armor, with helicopters ready to fly overhead projecting a dystopic voice to disperse crowds.
Mendenhall claimed that the police only responded to the actions of protestors. “The intent didn’t change until after the destruction of the DAs office,” she told the Council Tuesday. “The protest tenor shifted dramatically, and then the police department did to reflect that.” Yet the use of riot gear and vehicles, helicopters, the reinforcement of other police forces, and the warning for city employees to stay home all imply that SLCPD was prepared for a violent confrontation with protestors. Night after night, protestors have blocked roads, spread paint, and plastered the DA’s office with protest signs. The only thing that shifted in the tenor of the July 9th protest was the disproportionate response of the police.
The evidence that Chief Brown used to justify police brutality was 5 broken windows. Mendhenhall claimed that the damage is estimated between $100,000-$200,000, yet police estimated the cost of their replacement at $6,000 per window. How, then, did this “hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage” occur? What exactly is our city asking to be repaired with our taxes? What is this expensive public building really providing, other than a place where the police are justified for murder and our criminal justice system is used as a force of intimidation?
Mendenhall referred to the property damage several times as “violence.” When our city officials selectively classify violence as paint and broken windows, they devalue threats to actual lives and livelihoods. They prioritize the aesthetics of their deluxe offices over people’s pain and suffering. But we know the expression of grief and pain is not violence. We know that standing in the streets to draw attention to injustice is not violence. We know that breaking public windows–bought with our money–that do not feel pain, that do not have hopes and dreams, that do not have family members who love and mourn them, is not violence. We know that lives are beyond value, as opposed to buildings, which do not have feelings or a body for violence to be committed to them; nor do they have a community that will mourn for their loss or pain.
Violence is beating people with batons. Violence is breaking noses with riot shields. Violence is shooting people with bullets, made of any material, that penetrate skin, dislocate knees, and cause internal bleeding. Violence is ramming into cars with no concern for the people inside or the protestors standing in the way. Violence is anti-maskers organizing rallies and grocery flash mobs without any adherence to social distancing best practices, who will continue to spread COVID-19 to the same communities that are disproportionately killed by the police.
If we are serious about reducing violence, we must start by confronting the root of its source. The police are trained to control, contain, and quell dissent; they are not trained to administer care or safety to people in need. Their reaction is not new: this violence came exactly one year after their extreme brutality against Inland Port Protestors. SLCPD, and all police, continue to respond to threats to property with physical assaults and state suppression. The anger and frustration of the protestors is not the problem—rather, our system does not have channels where we are heard or where our creative, bold ideas will be embraced, so we are led to acts of desperation. We want to live in a world where we do not have to fear the rise of police violence and the threat of incarceration. We want to operate in a community that holds each other accountable for causing harm to others, and feel rightfully enraged when the police are not held accountable in any sense, even symbolically.
Mayor Mendenhall said that the city will prioritize deescalation and implicit bias training for officers, but then justified this escalated violence, claiming protestors brought it upon themselves. The violence on July 9th was far from deescalation, and the police went on to target people of color to charge and book in jail, despite many white organizers holding or attending similar demonstrations. We cannot expect city officials to hold officers responsible for unnecessary use of force and racial targeting when they themselves do not see the problem. Our marginalized community members constantly feel unsafe in the presence of the police—understandably so when the city repeatedly shows that it values property over people, when it prioritizes the comforts of business owners and complacent residents over those who are speaking out against violence, and when it targets any BIPOC activist who questions this status quo.
While protestors are forced to protect themselves and each other from both the police and white-supremacist counter protestors, Mayor Mendenhall embraces the violence enacted against them. This is unacceptable. Broken windows and spilled paint do not justify violence. Instead of rushing to repair buildings and erase all evidence of civil unrest, city officials should consider how to create public spaces that actually serve and reflect the people who live here. They need to consider creating public spaces that welcome and encourage equity, safely protect the constitutional right to assembly, and honor marginalized voices. Protestors are not randomly damaging property to enact terror and control (as the police do regularly to our unsheltered population), they are making important statements about who these public offices actually protect and serve. Public officials need to listen.
Mayor Mendenhall mentioned these protests have taken place for over 40 days. That she continues to misunderstand the people’s efforts for true public safety is willful ignorance at this point. The policy or advocacy avenues that are supposed to deliver change are failing us time and again. Utah is not immune to these issues, and we are in solidarity with our communities all across the country that have been organizing daily protests since May. Broken windows policing is proven to be rooted in discrimination and racism in New York, and it’s hard not to see how Salt Lake City and County officials uphold this predatory concept by siding with the police. By victim-blaming the protestors for how the police enacted their militarized tactics, Mendenhall and the SLCPD disrespect and dehumanize the very thing the protestors are fighting for: the end of police violence.