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Melanie Martin and Sandra Luo: Charges from July 9 Salt Lake City protest should be dropped

On Jan. 6, right-wing rioters stormed our nation’s Capitol, sending elected representatives fleeing. Meanwhile, cities across the nation are dropping the vast majority of charges against Black Lives Matter protesters — whose alleged crimes were a much-needed wakeup call about the magnitude of police brutality against people of color.

But here in Utah, we’re still talking about red paint.

The charges against those arrested in conjunction with the July 9 Justice for Bernardo protest are particularly egregious for their sheer absurdity. (Buying red paint is a felony?!) However, this is just one of many outrageous acts of state repression. People arrested after May 30 and other protests last summer are facing criminal charges for property destruction that are on par with murder and rape.

Locking people up for years is not the answer. Instead, the government should show empathy for people’s just rage by dropping the charges against the July 9 group — whose preliminary hearing is fast approaching — and for all those facing repression for their alleged actions. They have already faced the trauma of Utah’s indeterminate (“five years to life”) sentencing for charges that, once they added a “gang enhancement,” became first-degree felonies. And they’ve already suffered in countless other ways.

These are people who live their commitment to social justice every day, despite this nightmarish ordeal. They speak up for the unhoused community and provide essential supplies to those facing winter on the streets of Salt Lake City. They are irreplaceable members of our community, and it’s time to follow the example of numerous other cities and drop their outrageous charges.

In many cases, cities have dropped these charges because they found the protesters were simply exercising their basic civil rights. The New York Times calls the scale of arrests and subsequent dismissals unrivaled since the early 1960s. In Detroit, most charges were thrown out in January. Considering the degree of violence these protesters were subjected to, that was the least the city could do.

Salt Lake City’s July 9 protest was yet one more event where police violently swept in and turned a nonviolent protest into a horrific and chaotic scene. Ramming a vehicle that people were sitting inside with their massive van and surging at protesters in riot gear, they displayed the same behavior they had shown at the 2019 inland port protest. Running in with fists swinging, they’d begun shoving and grabbing necks in chokeholds without even a warning. This time, they had batons and beanbag guns blazing.

This is part of an appalling trend: Police departments across the nation are using militarized tactics when dealing with protests against their own violent behavior. Analyzing hundreds of social media posts, ProPublica found a stark pattern of police using violence to spark confrontations with noncombative protesters. Tactics like kettling — officers surrounding protesters so they have no way to escape — create an atmosphere of panic, sometimes forcing protesters to defend themselves against heavily armed police. At a moment when our city should have been listening to protesters’ grievances, it was instead escalating tensions.

Now is the moment to deescalate. The July 9 protesters, and all those demanding social justice, are important members of our society. Even if you don’t approve of their actions, consider the emotional tenor of last summer and the degree of collective rage that swept the nation. It’s time to allow them to heal from the trauma of facing felonies. A gesture of empathy would go a long way toward bringing about the healing our society so desperately needs.

Melanie Martin and Sandra Luo organize with Decarcerate Utah, an Salt Lake City-based group that seeks to abolish the prison-industrial complex.

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