A peaceful-turned-violent protest over the inland port on Tuesday has resulted in a lot of finger-pointing: protesters blame police for the escalation, while Gov. Gary Herbert, Derek Miller, and others have claimed the protesters went to the Salt Lake Chamber to bully and intimidate. In a press conference, Herbert referred to the protest as “borderline terrorism.”
As the protest escalated out of control, so has the response from public leaders. No one supports or condones the violence that erupted during Tuesday’s protest. That should go without saying. At the same time, it is inaccurate and irresponsible to paint these protesters as domestic terrorists--one, because they aren’t, and two, because it is hypocritical to use that kind of inflammatory language while calling for increased civility.
A terrorist is someone who systematically uses violence and intimidation as a weapon of coercion. Domestic terrorism is a serious problem in the U.S. (although that specific wording isn’t necessarily reflected in crimes prosectued.) White extremist mass shootings and attacks are on the rise, both nationally and globally. Violence, and the threat of violence, is the cancer we must root out of our society.
But it is a mistake to automatically conflate an intention to engage in civil disobedience with an intention to commit violence. By all accounts, inland port protest organizers insist they had planned for a peaceful demonstration of civil disobedience with singing and chanting. When public officials portray those protesters as dangerous and unstable, they are widening the political divide they say they want to close.
It’s not hard to connect the dots between the aggressive, top-down process that gave us the inland port and the aggressive, bottom-up backlash in response. If, truly, there has never been an incident like this in Utah before, the most obvious conclusion is not that West Side residents have suddenly become ferocious extremists out for blood. Instead, the backlash reflects that this project has fallen too far outside the norms and expectations Utahns have for large-scale public undertakings.
For leaders, the answer to public unrest in Utah should not be vilifying those who oppose them or other strongarm responses. The answer is peacemaking. This protest, alarming as it became, should signal to those in power that the inland port process has not had sufficient transparency, accountability, or public input to assuage people who feel their communities are in serious danger. It would be foolish for state leaders and for the Inland Port Authority Board to continue to brush off those concerns.
Protesters are community members who will be directly impacted by an inland port. They were wrong to assault people and potentially damage private property. But they aren’t the enemy. And they certainly aren’t terrorists. Gov. Herbert and others should know better than to suggest otherwise.
Lauren Simpson is the policy director for Alliance for a Better Utah