Torres: Utahns Need to Break Laws to Change Them


Xiangyao Tang

Demonstrators at the protest of the overturn of Roe v. Wade in Salt Lake City, Utah, on June 24, 2022. (Photo by Xiangyao “Axe” Tang | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Gaby Torres, Opinion Writer


The recent influx of attacks on Utahns’ rights — the Dobbs decision, the policing of trans girls’ bodies, police violence, abuse concealed by the LDS church — has evoked significant public outrage. Many respond with civic engagement like contacting elected officials and protesting with proper permits. These injustices have long persisted, and activists have always spoken out against them, but we have yet to see concrete change when we follow the rules. What is stopping Utahns from rightfully engaging in civil disobedience? The answer lies in a backward legal framework made to punish activists. The criminalization of protests exposes the failure of our democracy through excessive red tape for permit applications, a subjective definition of disorderly conduct and inherently unjust laws that must be broken.

Red Tape and Protest Permits

State injustice brought to public attention warrants public resistance. Protests show a united front on the part of citizens and are an effective means of public demonstration against injustice. Eliza McKinney, a member of Decarcerate Utah, talked about their motivation to protest, saying, “The hope is to disrupt the normal flow of life, to make sure that people are aware of the pain and the harm that’s being perpetrated by the state, and to get the public’s attention so we can also get people in power to listen to people’s needs and to start making changes.”

However, organizers are required to seek approval from state officials to organize, most notably through an Event Permit that ranges from $50-$200 in fees varying from city to city. Through approval processes and fees, state officials regulate what we’re allowed to organize against. These pencil-pushing tactics raise the underlying question: How have we allowed the oppressors to control our acts of resistance, too?

Criminalization is Subjective

Section 76-9-102 of the Utah Criminal Code outlines unauthorized protests as Disorderly Conduct. The subjective terms of the code, with public annoyance and unreasonable noise being among the parameters of what makes individuals guilty of the offense, are troubling. Risking such severe consequences can deter even the most adamant of protestors, but that’s exactly how the government means to disenfranchise the message of movements. Even the pretense of obstructing vehicular traffic exposes a phenomenon of automobiles being weaponized against racial justice. Traffic blockades as non-violent resistance serve to bring awareness to important social justice movements.

Unfortunately, several states have introduced legislation regulating demonstrations. This effectively violates the first amendment and defines what is considered free speech in more subjective terms. These bureaucratic processes function to limit the expression of public resistance to state injustice. “Over the past decade we’ve seen this massive crackdown on any type of protest,” McKinney remarks. “They keep passing these laws to make it harder and harder for people to do anything meaningfully in a protest.”

Unjust Laws Must Be Broken

On May 23, 2020, Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal was shot and killed by Salt Lake City Police Officers. When Utahns called for accountability through public demonstrations, some protesters were charged with a first-degree felony — carrying a penalty of life in prison for their participation. Convicted felons are unable to vote.

After taking a plea deal, the protesters instead paid a $100,000 fine. These days, you just might receive harsher punishment for criticizing murder than for committing it.

Demonstrations are an effective method of promoting the enactment of state-level anti-discrimination level legislation. Some of the most famously effective demonstrations were criminalized by the state as civil disobedience, such as the 504 Sit-In which was pivotal for the disability rights movement.

“Right now, I think everyone can agree that what our government values doesn’t align with anybody, whether you’re right or left,” McKinney said. “I see civil disobedience less as like, acting out against the state, but more people banding together to actually do things that align with their values.”

Regardless of how closely a demonstration “follows the rules,” there will always be backlash from those they seek to resist. Even Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem in 2016 to bring awareness to the systemic oppression against Black Americans received harsh criticism. The quote-on-quote “right way to protest” depends entirely on who you ask.

And while following laws and restrictions have the potential to lead to reforms, it isn’t enough. Decarcerate Utah advocates for the abolition of prisons and the police force. As a member, Eliza McKinney said, “reforms end up just entrenching those systems even more.” This brings more power, money and resources to the police, allowing them to “further surveil and harm people.” We need actions larger than surface-level reforms to tackle large problems.

Protests are a pillar of democracy and are disorderly by nature. When legislators restrict and criminalize protests, they fail to respond to their plight, ensuing consequences that can be unpredictable. Utahns are tired of asking politely for their rights to be respected, only for officials to feign interest in election years and fail to deliver during their terms. Civic engagement advocates reform, but civil disobedience spurs revolution. We have to ask ourselves, how far are we willing to go?


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