Salt Lake City police arrest 16 in tense showdown with homeless camp protesters at City and County Building

Salt Lake City police prepare to confront protesters at an 'illegal' homeless camp on Washington Square, Jan. 5, 2020. Photo: Gephardt Daily/Patrick Benedict

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah, Jan. 5, 2020 (Gephardt Daily) — Sixteen people were arrested in downtown Salt Lake City early Sunday morning after a series of violent clashes between riot police and protesters at what officers said was an illegal homeless camp on Washington Square outside the City and County Building.

The showdown began about 10:30 p.m. Saturday, when police clad in riot gear arrived in force and slowly encircled the camp, which had been set up Friday morning as part of an organized protest over the city’s homeless crisis.

As police moved into position, officers with bullhorns addressed the crowd.

“By the power of the Salt Lake City Police Department, I hereby inform all persons in this assembly that you are in violation of City Ordinance 11.12.080, camping on public grounds, streets and parks, playgrounds, and 15.08.020  park hours violation. You are hereby ordered to leave. Failure to disperse will subject each of you to arrest and prosecution. You may leave to the south or the west.”

Photo: Gephardt Daily/Patrick Benedict

Police also repeated an announcement that 78 shelter beds were available overnight and no one who needed a place to sleep would be turned away.

The announcement was met with a chorus of obscene catcalls, as protesters shouted back that the nearest shelter was 38 blocks away and that 400 beds were needed, not just 78.

Salt Lake City police prepare to confront protesters at an ‘illegal’ homeless camp on Washington Square, Jan. 5, 2020. Photo: Gephardt Daily/Patrick Benedict

While the majority of “occupiers” left the encampment, a few dozen remained. They continued to defy police warnings, which grew in intensity while dozens of additional riot police appeared on the perimeter.

Cops and protesters were suddenly nose-to-nose as police mounted the first of several charges and put demonstrators on their heels. Pushing and shoving ensued. One protester claimed he’d been shot with pepper balls.

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Slowly, police advanced across Washington Square, herding protesters and a dwindling number of homeless into a smaller and smaller area.

Salt Lake City police prepare to confront protesters at an ‘illegal’ homeless camp on Washington Square, Jan. 5, 2020. Photo: Gephardt Daily/Patrick Benedict

Officers had just managed to corral the remaining protesters inside the tent city when another caravan of cop cars arrived, including reinforcements from Unified Police.

Soon,  a final squall line was formed as police walked shoulder-to-shoulder clearing the area of stragglers. It was then that the first of the 16 demonstrators was arrested and led away in handcuffs.

Police made one last push to secure the area, targeting several protesters who continued to harass police at the southeast corner of 500 S. State Street.

Two photographers were injured in the final charge, including one working for Gephardt Daily. Both men were knocked the ground even though they’d been told by officers minutes earlier that it was safe to stand there. Both men were attended to by EMTs before being released.

Photo: Gephardt Daily/Patrick Benedict

SLCPD later commented on its operation on social media.

“Our officers have shown great restraint in dealing with these individuals,” police said on Twitter.

“We have planned and carried out a strategic removal of the protesters tonight. We have provided resources for those that are experiencing homelessness. We invite a civil dialogue to address concerns.”

Police also tweeted that “property of those arrested will be held in evidence for safe keeping. Storage containers provided by the city will hold this property until the owners can arrange to pick it up. No cold weather items have been taken from those that are experiencing homelessness.”

Salt Lake City Police Department officials said they would hold a press conference to address their operation Sunday afternoon.

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