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Urged to get out and vote, 1K protesters eschew marching after early morning Black Lives Matter gathering

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SALT LAKE CITY — The Black Lives Matter movement has descended on Utah, with chants of “no justice, no peace,” “I can’t breathe,” and “our streets.”

But it has not ended, organizers told attendees in a morning protest Wednesday.

More than 1,000 people gathered at Washington Square Park shortly after 6 a.m., and the crowd grew throughout the morning as speakers from all walks of life and several ethnic communities addressed them from the steps of the Salt Lake City-County Building in a protest officially organized and recognized by the Utah chapter of Black Lives Matter.

“Why 6 am? Because infiltrators are asleep. It’s cooler. We will get a smaller crowd of people who are so dedicated that they actually woke up at 5 to fight for black lives at 6am,” Lex Scott, the founder of the Utah chapter of Black Lives Matter, wrote in a Facebook post last week.

Organizers began delivering speeches at the protest shortly before 7 a.m. Protesters held signs reading: “We need police reform,” “Who do you call when you can’t call police?” and “1 bad apple spoils the bunch.”

People who were only at the protest because they want to destroy property were asked to leave the event.

Shortly before 9 a.m., Scott announced the group would not march, because "black people are sick of marching."

The crowd slowly dispersed, but plenty stuck around. Within a half hour, only a few dozen remained, engaging in polite conversation and patronizing a few black business owners who set up booths.

No significant police presence was noted at the rally — not even the usual Salt Lake police and Utah National Guard combined barricade that has blocked off part of 200 East in other protests. Still, organizers repeatedly called for peace, preferring to keep the focus of the nationwide conversation on their message and not violence, vandalism or looting associated with some protests.

More appeals and action for reform are to come, organizers said.

“When the crowds go away, we will be here fighting for police reform,” Scott said, recalling the group’s first protest that included three people. “We will not go away until police are reformed.”

Scott told the crowd that the Utah chapter of Black Lives Matter was working with police officers on several reforms, including:

  • De-escalation training for police;
  • Civilian review boards "that have the power to bring charges against police";
  • Revamped use-of-force policies;
  • Preventing officers who have been fired from getting hired by another police agency;
  • Release of body-cam footage, with sound, unedited, within 10 days of an officer-involved shooting;
  • Use of more weapons that are not lethal, including bean bag guns and rubber bullet guns; and
  • “We want police that murder black people to be charged with murder.”

"We will never stop," Scott said. "We will never stop. We will never stop fighting until police are held accountable for their actions."

The demands fall in line with conversations between Black Lives Matter and Salt Lake police over recent years. During Tuesday night's city council meeting, Salt Lake police chief Mike Brown confirmed that chokeholds will no longer be a legal resort for officers in his department moving forward.

Previously, the department had not taught chokeholds to its officers, but it was never codified, according to Salt Lake police detective Michael Ruff. After Tuesday night, it is now formal policy.

Salt Lake police also instituted a policy to not use tear gas for crowd control, Ruff told KSL. Officers had never used gas for crowd control outside of a SWAT team situation, Ruff said, but Tuesday's decision again codified the unofficial determination.

Wednesday's rally was originally set to last well into the mid-morning hours, with plans to dissemble around noon.

As the crowds grew after 6 a.m., organizers kept bringing black protesters to the front of those assembled. This was for them, they said, even as scores of supporters of all ethnicities continued to pour in.

"I liked seeing that it was culturally diverse," said JuleeAnn Rivera, who came to Salt Lake City from her home in Syracuse. "I think until the majority starts standing up for the minority, nothing is ever going to change. That was really good."

Scott and other organizers reminded the mostly mask-clad protesters to follow social distancing protocols during the COVID-19 pandemic, and volunteers passed around hand sanitizer, water and masks for those who did not bring one.

It’s important that black voices are elevated in the conversation for racial equality, organizers said.

“Our fight for survival has no schedule,” Scott told the crowd.

Several other calls for police reform rose up, both from the crowd and from speakers. That group included Utah elected officials, like Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, who is among the Utah politicians supporting a bill aimed at police reform tactics, including a statewide ban on chokeholds and knee holds in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death while under the knee of a former Minneapolis police officer on May 25.

“We have truly come a long way since the days of segregation,” Hollins said. “But we still have work to do.”

Instead of marching, organizers and speakers consistently told gatherers to vote.

Hollins and other speakers — Rep. Karen Kwan, D-Murray, and Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake, who gave brief statements — were among those urging the protesters gathered to vote. Utah’s primary election is June 30, a vote-by-mail election, and organizers set up tables to help those in attendance register to vote and fill out the 2020 U.S. Census.

“When this rally is over, when we are done marching, we have to go vote,” said Darlene McDonald, who chairs the Utah Black Roundtable.

“We have to learn to vote.”

Voter registration was set up on one corner of the quad, organized by the nonprofit National Tongan American Society, and volunteers spread out before, during and after the event to help register for the voting process.

“No one’s going to hear you unless you’re at the table,” said Penina White, who helped lead the nonprofit’s efforts. “In order to get a seat at the table, you have to register to vote. You want laws changed? You have to be able to be a part of that, and part of that is being a citizen and getting out there to vote.”

Nearly 100 people registered to vote at Tuesday morning’s protest, which is in line with similar figures from other days of protests, White said. Those numbers, when spread across multiple events — including protests — add up to significant change.

“They add up pretty quickly,” said White, whose group also helps file immigration and citizenship paperwork.

Utah Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake, brought her 15-year-old daughter to the demonstration, but noted her fear. It’s a fear that was common among many speakers, who spoke of fearful brushes with police, even some to the point of brutality.

“She’s angry,” Escamilla said of her daughter. “She needs to be angry and scared. It matters.

"Every life matters. But right now, black lives matter."

Escamilla added that the six legislators of color in the 104-member Utah State Legislature will continue to fight for Utah’s community of color but urged those in attendance to vote and keep each of them accountable.

“We are going to stand behind our black brothers and sisters,” Escamilla said.

“We are going to change policy. We need your help. We need to make every legislator accountable. Every vote needs to matter — for you, for your brothers and sisters, for your family, for your parents."

Contributing: John Wojcik, KSL NewsRadio; Felicia Martinez, KSL TV


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A proud graduate of Syracuse University, Sean Walker has covered BYU for since 2015, while also mixing in prep sports, education, and anything else his editors assign him to do.


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