What was supposed to be a night of dancing to electronic beats under the stars in the Utah desert Saturday night turned into a nightmare for some 900 party-goers as they were suddenly attacked by 90 Utah law enforcement officers dressed in combat gear and carrying assault rifles. The PLUR (Peace, Love, Unity, Respect) kids proved to be no match for the paramilitarized SWAT teams that descended on them on the orders of Utah County Sheriff Jim Tracy.
"It's not just a mass gathering, there's illicit use of drugs, distribution of drugs," Utah County Sheriff's Sgt. Darren Gilbert told the Deseret Morning News early this week as questions began to be raised about the raid. "There was a lot of criminal activity just going on at the party itself."
Many early eyewitness accounts described the police as "soldiers" or "National Guardsmen" because of their rough tactics and combat uniforms, but no members of the armed forces were involved, according to Utah County authorities. Instead, the strike force consisted of Utah County Sheriff's deputies, Utah State Police members, a Utah Department of Corrections SWAT squad, and Provo city police. Police officers acted brutally and violently, pointing guns at some party-goers and assaulting others, eyewitnesses said.
Salt Lake City resident member Jonathan Meander, the Utah director of DanceSafe, a harm reduction group that works with the dance culture, was one of the hundreds who had arrived at the party before the big bust. "About 11:30, a helicopter circled the party and people started to scatter," he told DRCNet. "The cops started coming in with cammo gear and assault rifles and dogs and tear gas, and they were yelling and pushing and hassling people. If you tried to get your stuff, you got hit. I saw people get beaten to the ground. They were also trying to prevent people from filming them. The way we got the footage that has made its way to the Internet is that one guy was filming and a cop knocked the camera out of his hand, and one of his friends grabbed the camera and ran away," Meander said.
"I am disgusted. I saw a lot of stuff that just wasn't right," said Meander. "We wanted to go dancing in the desert, and they come with their assault rifles and beat us up."
The assault is being denounced by national organizations that support the dance culture, as well as by civil liberties and drug reform groups. "That raid was atrocious," said Marc Brandl, national director of DanceSafe. "This was harm maximization. If law enforcement had any concerns, they could have brought them up beforehand, instead of ruining these young people's lives," he told DRCNet. "This wouldn't have happened if it had been a Neil Young concert. This is an attack on rave culture, but the more they crack down, the more they drive it underground."
"Throughout American history, our government has attacked every new form of youth music, including jazz, hip-hop, rock and roll, and now electronic music," said Abby Bair, outgoing Outreach Coordinator for Students for Sensible Drug Policy. "A person is no more likely to use drugs at a 'rave' than at a Rolling Stones concert," she told DRCNet. "Fifteen years from now, Americans will look back on the rave laws to see them for what they really were: an absurd effort to criminalize youth culture and a direct violation of 1st Amendment rights."
In the meantime, said Scott Morgan, associate director for Flex Your Rights, a group devoted to teaching people how to effectively exercise their constitutional rights in police encounters, the only recourse may be the courts. "There isn't much we can do to prepare citizens for an experience like this," he told DRCNet. "When law-enforcement chooses to attack rather than protect citizens, the only thing you can do is keep suing them until they can't afford helicopters and camouflage battle-suits."
This is not the first time Sheriff Tracy and his SWAT team have been accused of excessive force. In May of this year, the Utah County SWAT team manhandled a Springville family when it erroneously raided their home. In documents filed as part of a federal lawsuit last month, the Lawrence Chidester family claimed their adult son, Larry, was tackled and his face shoved into the ground and rocks although he was standing with his hands in the air repeatedly saying "I am not resisting." The Chidesters also allege SWAT members threw homeowner Lawrence Chidester to the ground and pointed a gun at his head. While the SWAT team was aiming at the house next door, Sheriff Tracy justified the assault on the Chidesters by saying they became involved "as an ancillary issue." They were lying, anyway, he told the Provo Daily Herald.
The Utah County Sheriff's Department public relations machine was in high gear from the get-go. Sgt. Gilbert warned reporters that "raves" are a serious threat where drug use and underage drinking take place. "Reports of sexual assaults, overdoes, firearm violations, vehicle burglaries," also are to be expected, he said. At Saturday's party, a 17-year-old girl overdosed on Ecstasy, but was treated at the scene and released to her parents, he said. Gilbert also mentioned claims from women to have been sexually assaulted at an earlier party. An earlier party in nearby Little Moab had attracted 3,000 people, and the department wanted to avoid that, he said. "There's no doubt in my mind that this one could have been at 2,000 plus (people)," he said. "That's why we hit it so early."
Even in the wake of the raid and the rising clamor about Utah County assaults on the dance culture, Sheriff Tracy told the Salt Lake Tribune his office monitors the Internet, searches for party flyers, and sends up police helicopters in an effort to snuff out such gatherings. "If they're going to run one on a Wednesday night, we'll find it," he said. "We will ensure we find them and have them curtailed before they ever get to that point."
But the sheriff may have bitten off more than he can chew. The Utah dance party community is aroused, and no one more so than event promoter Brandon Fullmer, also known as DJ Loki. "The police were totally out of line," he told DRCNet. "What they did was totally uncalled for. There was no reason for them to use excessive force. They may deny it, but we have it on video. They came in without a warrant and manhandled people, including a 90-pound girl who got beat down. How are we supposed to respect the police when they come and treat us like criminals?"
Fullmer has hired noted Utah civil rights attorney Brian Bernard and plans to file a lawsuit, he said. "Our attorney is reviewing the case right now, and once we figure out how to proceed, then bam! We will take action. I've been doing this a long time and I make sure to cover everything. They've shut down other shows, and I understand that. But when I do everything needed to make this legal, they are not right to shut us down."
Fullmer disputed the sheriff's office statement that he lacked a permit. "They are saying I didn't have my permits, which is a flat-out lie," he said. "I'm not some kid; I'm a businessman and I've been doing these events for 10 years. We were in complete compliance with the requirements of Utah County."
The Utah County Sheriff's Office claimed that the event was not properly permitted because under county ordinance, events with more than 250 people must receive a permit from the county commission. But the sheriff's office was being intentionally misleading, said Fullmer. "The county law says you need the permit if you're going to have more than 250 people and the event is going to last more than 12 hours, but our event was not scheduled for more than 12 hours, therefore we did not need that permit."
Versus II had done everything required of it, said Fullmer. "We had a permit from the county health department, we had emergency medical technicians on scene, we hired security licensed through the state of Utah. By the way, six of those arrested were our security people. They had confiscated drugs from party-goers and the cops arrested them for drug possession for the drugs they confiscated!"
Fulmer and his attorney aren't the only lawyers examining the raid. "We have a lot of problems with how that entire matter was handled. We are extremely concerned, especially about the excessive force issues, as well as about the apparent attack on free expression and free assembly" said Dani Eyer, executive director of the Utah American Civil Liberties Union. "We have received complaints and are gathering stories and are in internal discussions about how to proceed."
Utah County Sheriff Tracy managed to shut down one more party, but in doing so he was brought unintended and unwanted attention to the county and his department. Now the question is how much the taxpayers of Utah County will have to pay for his attacks on young Utahns.