SALT LAKE CITY — A peaceful protest that began outside the Salt Lake City Public Safety Building with a silent demonstration in memory of George Floyd, who was killed by police in Minneapolis, swelled to several thousand people Wednesday evening as the group marched through the city and up to the University of Utah.
The demonstration came hours after Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall lifted her weeklong nightly curfew following several nights of mostly peaceful protest since a weekend protest turned chaotic and violent, and lasted past the 8 p.m. mark when the curfew would have taken effect.
Kayla, a 20-year-old African American student who asked to only be identified by her first name, said she joined the protest out of anger and frustration, but she hasn’t given up hope that changes to how government and law enforcement “exert and abuse their power” were in reach.
She was among the thousands gathered at the U.’s President’s Circle Wednesday evening.
“People here are being reminded that voting and education and standing up for what’s right are the things that can change this world,” Kayla said. “Right now, here, and in Minneapolis and so many other places, too many ... black and brown people, are living in fear. And they’re dying at the hands of cops.
“It’s everybody’s problem and we have to draw a line now ... and say no more, no more.”
Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown took a knee with protesters Wednesday as people flooded the Public Safety Building plaza, where the demonstration began. There, speakers implored the crowd repeatedly to keep things peaceful.
Quiet stretched over the large group after a speaker called for the crowd to lay down on the ground for eight minutes and 46 seconds, marking the running time of a cellphone video that captured Floyd’s death at the hands of police. The plaza was silent, save for the distant rumbling of a Department of Public Safety helicopter circling above.
Following their time outside police headquarters, the crowds moved to 400 South and marched toward the University of Utah, escorted by Salt Lake police. There, they again spread out on the ground in silence in memory of Floyd.
Gathered at President’s Circle on the U. campus, speakers touched on numerous topics, led chants and exhorted those in attendance to vote, noting candidates they felt are worthy of their support. They also talked about the deeper social inequities they said are reflected in data showing a disproportionate number of people of color have died as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Unlike protest activities earlier in the week in the downtown area and at the Capitol, there was no obvious law enforcement presence on campus Wednesday night.
Utah Jazz guard Nigel Williams-Goss (@NigelWG5) on the grounds this evening in Salt Lake City. After this term, he has one class left at Gonzaga to earn his master’s degree in Organizational Leadership. pic.twitter.com/LUY9KyCrbA— Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes) June 4, 2020
Earlier in the evening, Brown, accompanied by a deputy chief, stood at the front of the public safety building to listen to speakers who told those assembled that “this isn’t a conservative problem or a liberal problem ... it’s a human problem.”
“I think we are seeing a lot of hate and discontent across this country and it stems from that incident that we are all talking about in Minneapolis,” Brown told KSL. “I think people are mourning (Floyd’s) loss, and with that mourning they are finding power and they are finding their voice to talk about racial inequality.”
Brown said he believes having face-to-face conversations is essential to moving “the needle and making a difference,” as trust is essential to policing the community.
“If you are ever going to have those conversations you’ve got to put your pride away, you’ve got to put everything aside and we need to sit down and talk,” he said, adding that the department is here to listen.
He described a conversation with two protesters Wednesday evening, in which they shook hands and became far closer in those 20 minutes because of the personal connection they made. Such interactions, Brown said, are essential to building trust and relationships with the community.
Thousands of people protesting peacefully in Salt Lake City. pic.twitter.com/QzIGv3lmzd— Alex Cabrero (@KSL_AlexCabrero) June 4, 2020
One individual, who identified himself only as John, said he’s been protesting police brutality occurring in Salt Lake City and across the nation just about every day since Saturday. He said he’s grateful the curfew is lifted, but he’s still “waiting for signs of actual substantive change.”
“Once the peaceful protests stop all the police get to go home to their families and everything’s fine for them, but things are not fine for people of color when this is all over if nothing changes,” John said.
He said federal and state leaders need to listen and create legislation that reflects what the movement is about.
“I’m just a white guy, right, and I don’t have the same perspective of somebody with color looks like, but I do know that we’ve got a grotesque police brutality problem, we need to hold policemen accountable,” John said.
In a tweet Wednesday about ending the curfew, Mendenhall said, “After seeing the respect that protesters have largely shown for one another, police, and our city, I believe that Salt Lake City is once again proving itself to be a place of peace and progress.”
It’s a change of tone as Salt Lake protesters continue to demonstrate against the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
Today I will be ending the curfew in Salt Lake City. After seeing the respect that protestors have largely shown for one another, police, and our city, I believe that Salt Lake City is once again proving itself to be a place of peace and progress. #utpol#slc— SLC Mayor Erin Mendenhall (@slcmayor) June 3, 2020
Mendenhall’s curfew, which she announced Monday to last for a week, required people to stay off public streets and sidewalks between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m., but had exceptions for emergency responders, media and anyone given permission by city officials. It also included exceptions for anyone traveling to and from work; attending religious services; obtaining food; caring for a family member, friend or animal; traveling to the airport; visiting private businesses; seeking medical care; fleeing dangerous circumstances; or experiencing homelessness.
Mendenhall received some backlash for the curfew, with some saying it was “heavy-handed.” Other groups, like Utah’s chapter of the ACLU, also challenged its constitutionality, saying it raises First Amendment and fairness concerns, in part because it allows some activities to take place in public but not others.
But Mendenhall has defended the curfew, saying it balances First Amendment rights while protecting residents and neighborhoods by keeping protests at manageable levels during the day, and not allowing them to spiral out of control at night. She also said it was made in consultation with Gov. Gary Herbert, and based off of what had been happening at protests in other cities across the nation.
But after Tuesday night’s protests remained mainly peaceful, Mendenhall decided to lift the curfew.
“I want you to know that I see all of you out there doing your best not only to keep things peaceful, but also coming together across lines to communicate and connect,” Mendenhall tweeted. “I don’t want this simmer of frustration to disappear, but I want to work together to direct it toward positivity and progress.”
In her tweets, Mendenhall again referenced systematic racism in America.
“Throughout cities and our nation, overt racism and implicit bias affects the ability of people of color to fairly access health care, education, our economy, the judicial system, food, child care, and more opportunities than we can name,” Mendenhall said. “I am committed to this work, and I know you are, too.”
Contributing: Katie McKellar, Sahalie Donaldson