I was walking up the hill on North State Street toward the Utah Capitol yesterday afternoon when I saw the banners come out.
“DECLARE A CLIMATE EMERGENCY.”
“GENOCIDE - ECOCIDE.”
Usually when activists stage a protest at the Capitol, they’ll post up on the south steps. This time, environmentalists decided to host their event in front of the Capitol. In the middle of the street. Blocking all the traffic.
Cars honked and motorists screamed just after 4:30 p.m. as members of the local grassroots groups Civil Riot and Elders Rising—along with a new group, the local chapter of UK-based Extinction Rebellion—manned their posts in front of rush hour traffic. Dozens of cars were backed up all the way down North State Street, and members walked up and down the sidewalk, explaining to drivers why there were there. Another member of the group read chants and sang songs.
“When the people rise up, then the powers come down,” they sang as cars and SUVs pulled U-turns and drivers screamed insults amid the snarl of stalled traffic stretching all the way down the hill.
I was the only reporter who showed up to cover the protest. Interestingly, I probably wouldn’t have been able to even attend if I hadn’t walked to the Capitol—if I’d taken a car or a bus to get there, I would’ve been stuck in traffic and missed the whole thing.
“We’re all so concerned about what’s happening and we want the governor and all the leaders to declare a climate emergency and start doing what needs to be done,” Jill Merritt, a 72-year-old member of Elders Rising, told me during the protest. “In 1992, at the Eco Summit in Rio, we allowed the issue to be framed as an environmental issue instead of a human rights issue. What the children are telling us is this has been a human rights issue all along. They have a right to air they can breathe and water they can drink, and they have a right to a livable planet.”
“If you’re under 30—I bet you are—you have a good chance of witnessing radical destabilization of life on Earth,” she added.
Merritt explained that the activists were blocking the streets as a warm-up for today’s Global Climate Strike, a worldwide protest timed to coincide with the 2019 Climate Action Summit held by the United Nations in New York on Monday. Hundreds of young Utahns ditched school to join in this afternoon with a march from the City and County Building up State Street to the Capitol, the Tribune reports.
At the Capitol yesterday, it was only a matter of time before the cops showed up. The activists’ brazen approach made me wonder if this protest would take an ugly turn, but after a summer that saw an increasingly confrontational relationship between the authorities and grassroots activists, this time around there were no arrests and no aggressive actions.
Two Utah Highway Patrol troopers consulted with the protesters and then stepped in to redirect traffic. They also worked to defuse the situation when one woman jumped out of her car and started screaming at the protesters. A few SLC police officers showed up and helped clear out North State Street while making no effort to prevent the activists from holding up their banners.
After about 40 minutes, the activists packed up and seemed to be calling it a day. But as soon as they got to the bottom of North State Street, they pulled out the banners once again to stage an impromptu, definitely unpermitted march down the middle of South State Street all the way to the City and County Building. They ended up blocking off yet more traffic while a motorcade of at least 10 police vehicles with flashing red lights—including squad cars, motorcycles and black police vans—followed behind.
"We insist that our leaders act now. If nonviolent direct action is the only way to get them to listen to the people, so be it," Extinction Rebellion local coordinator Adair Kovac stated in an emailed statement to media later that evening. “We must keep raising the alarm, and we will. The alternative is social and environmental collapse.”