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Pyle: Behind the wall in Salt Lake City

Published April 26, 2013 5:27 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

People ask me questions about what it's like to live in Salt Lake City.

What it's like for someone who didn't grow up around here, isn't a member of the predominant (or any) faith, is known to have a nip of John Barleycorn from time to time and personally trends blue in the reddest state in the nation.

It's no problem at all. Because, as they note, I live in Salt Lake City. And that, apparently, is somewhat different from living in what some of the hired hands on our professional basketball team, who also didn't grow up around here, call "the city of Utah."

I'm within walking, bike-lane or light-rail distance of three secular colleges. There is more classical music, modern art and cutting-edge theater and cinema than I could ever take full advantage of. I can get a drink — beer or coffee — any time I want.

Nobody, unless I was too dense to notice, has ever shunned me or any member of my family because we weren't members of the right religion. Even when the other people concerned were.

My mayors (city and county), my state legislators and, until the last round of legislative gerrymandering, my member of Congress are/were all Democrats.

In Cold War terms, it could be described as like living in West Berlin, before the wall fell, or in Hong Kong, maybe even since China took it back. Even though there are no Checkpoints Charlie between here and the more conservative environs where we sometimes venture. On our way to Moab.

And if you are going to use police-state metaphors, even though there is no police state around here, it is hard not to think about the local police.

For example, Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank. Even if you rolled him out of bed in the middle of the night to respond to some emergency, and he showed up wearing jammies with pink bunnies all over them, you'd take one look at Burbank and say, "This man is a cop." Shaved head. Trim mustache. Four stars on his collar and a pistol on his hip. If his photo doesn't show up in a Google search, try his evil twin, G. Gordon Liddy.

He's also a cop who holds long and fruitful negotiations with Occupy Salt Lake City, avoiding the violence suffered in other cities. Arrests street protestors as gently as possible. Rightly decries the idea of using local law enforcement to crack down on immigrants who might be here illegally because it drives a damaging wedge between street people and street cops. Views prostitution as a non-victimless crime where the victims are too often the ones who get arrested. And, as a board member of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, called the failure of Congress to pass more stringent background checks for gun sales "a disgrace."

There there's Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill. Not so imposing in visage, perhaps. But he just earned himself a great deal of credit, and the law enforcement Officer of the Year award from the International Footprint Association, for looking the scandal-wracked West Valley City Police Narco Squad in the eye and dropping the charges in 88 drug cases brought by that disgraced outfit. Because it was the right thing to do.

Contrast those actions with the Utahns who carry out federal laws in these parts by, for example, sending environmental activist Tim DeChristopher to prison for 21 months because he wouldn't give up his First Amendment right to argue that his monkey-wrenching of a later-discredited federal oil lease auction was morally justified. The federal officials who turned DeChristopher from an unknown college student into a political prisoner, particularly District Judge Dee Benson, are almost caricatures of what some people, even some people who live here, think of when they think of Utah culture.

As I said, like living in West Berlin. And someday, as the population grows, new generations come of age and the deeply woven local tradition of basic human decency sees broader horizons, the wall will fall.

• George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, learned his craft over a quarter-century in Kansas, which, really, isn't all that different.






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