Michael Orton contributed to this story
13 LGBT Utahns and their allies were arrested this afternoon on Utah’s Capitol Hill, following a demonstration against the Senate’s shutdown of SB 100, a bill that would make it illegal to fire or evict someone just because they happen to be gay or transgender.
The protesters formed a human blockade in front of the main doors to Governor Gary Herbert’s offices, refusing to let anyone in or out. Utah Highway Patrol (UHP), who handles security at the capitol, warned the activists that they could be arrested if they refused to move. But they were met with a resounding “No!” as the small group of 15 refused to budge until Senate leadership agreed to give the bill a public hearing.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser (Republican – Sandy) had previously said that he would not allow the non-discrimination bill to receive a hearing, because “emotions were too high” after a Utah Judge overturned Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage back in December. This attitude highlights one of the main frustrations for the protesters, who pointed out that marriage laws are completely unrelated to employment and housing laws.
Troopers appeared reluctant to make any arrests, and eventually Senator Steve Urquhart (Republican – St. George), the sponsor of SB 100, was asked to come speak to the activists. “I don’t want to see anyone arrested,” he told the group, but he thanked them for their passion and willingness to speak up.
Niederhauser himself made several offers to the group (via proxy), including an offer of a private meeting between the activists and himself. But each time, the offers were rebuffed, and the activists said the were willing to put their liberty and freedom on the line unless the Senate gave the bill a hearing. “I don’t even have a parking ticket on my record,” said Donna Weinholtz, one of the protesters who has been an advocate for human rights issues for years. “I have a blank sheet of paper, and I’m willing to write on it today.”
For most of the morning, state officials worked feverishly to avoid escalating an already tense and emotional situation. Emotions peaked when Alan Bachman, an assistant to Utah’s Attorney General Sean Reyes, approached the protesters and told them that they were risking arrest by remaining in place. “We are here in the same spirit as Rosa Parks,” the protesters responded, “and we’re not moving.”
[pullquote]”Whenever the Eagle Forum wants an audience with the Governor, they get it. When [President of the conservative lobbyist group Sutherland Institute] Paul Mero wants a discussion, there’s no delay. We’ve been cut off for far too long.” – Troy Williams[/pullquote] While media continued interviews with those in the blockade, a group of Utah middle school students were ushered from the Governor’s office by their teachers. Bachman declared that he had been advised that there was “no one on the other side of that wall,” in an effort to diffuse the protest effort and render it pointless. But the group remained undaunted. “The ‘process’ has been to ignore LGBT people for years,” observed Troy Williams, who organized the protest. “Whenever the Eagle Forum wants an audience with the Governor, they get it. When [President of the conservative lobbyist group Sutherland Institute] Paul Mero wants a discussion, there’s no delay. We’ve been cut off for far too long.”
Eventually the governor’s staff quietly exited side doors, taking away any power the activists had in blocking the door. At that point, the group of 15 moved to block a large committee room, and things escalated quickly. Members of the public and lobbyists weren’t able to get in to the room to visit with lawmakers, and angry shouts started ringing out. “Arrest them all!” yelled one woman.
UHP told the activists they could face felony charges if they refused to move, but the activists still refused to yield. At that point, UHP surrounded the group and 13 of the protesters were handcuffed and quickly led off to the Salt Lake County Jail.
“Freedom and Justice for ALL!” Williams yelled as he was led away.