PROVO — Two days after gunshots rang out during a protest in downtown Provo decrying racism and police brutality, two dueling protests faced off in another demonstration near the Provo Police Department.
About 200 people combined were gathered downtown in another protest against systemic racism prompted by the deaths of Black Americans killed by police, and an armed counterprotest against them.
On one corner of the intersection of Center Street and 300 West, people participating in what they called a race equality demonstration were raising posters and chanting messages like “Black lives matter, every single day” and “No justice, no peace” and “I can’t breathe.”
Among them was John Sullivan, one of the organizers of the protest and a member of the newly formed group Insurgence. He moved to Utah to train with U.S. Speedskating, and he said many groups are organizing protests all over Utah because not everyone can travel to the protests that have been held almost daily in Salt Lake City.
“I’m not scared now, and I had no hesitation (about protesting),” Sullivan said, noting some of the people in the counterprotest were taunting them. “I’ve had death threats. ... Some people formed a group against us just to come out here tonight with us. There was even more reason for me to come out here and change things because we’re not about violence or racism. We want to unify people to bring awareness to the situation and bring unity to the community so that all people have equal opportunities.”
On the other three corners of the intersection, people openly carrying firearms including assault rifles stood in stoic groups, many wearing camouflage uniforms and tactical gear, some carrying Trump 2020 signs and American flags.
That group, called Utah County Citizen’s Alarm, was organized by Casey Robertson, who said, “I saw the news about the shooting that happened out here on the street, and it was disturbing to me,” he said.
“I grew up in Provo. This is my town,” Robertson said.
So he created a Facebook group Tuesday morning that amassed 2,500 people in the first 24 hours. An event from the group called for those who wanted to join him in a counterprotest.
“I said, ‘Let’s all go down and protect our community,’” Robertson said. “And we showed up in force. And I’m so happy about it. ... We’re just concerned citizens that want to protect the community.”
The counterprotesters yelled things now and then, but mostly stood and talked amongst themselves.
Many in the crowds were from Provo or were students at nearby Utah Valley University, with a few people from Salt Lake coming down to show support for the organizers of Provo’s protests. Among those protesting racism was Rae Duckworth, who lost her cousin to an officer-involved shooting in Carbon County. She’s a member of a couple of organizations that have helped organize protests along the Wasatch Front.
“I’m just here to show solidarity with them,” Duckworth said. “They had some issues the last time they tried to protest, so we thought we’d come down and just show them we stand with them.”
All of those protesting said they knew there would be counterprotesters, and some who came did so simply to provide security for the protesters, most of whom were not armed.
“Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt us,” Duckworth said of the advice given to fellow protesters. “They’re going to say whatever they can to make us upset so we retaliate. Like I’ve always said, Black lives matter, we don’t resort in destruction or violence. So they may partake in that, but we won’t.”
Lex Scott, the founder of Utah’s Black Lives Matter chapter, which is unaffiliated with the national organization, said she came simply to ensure the safety of Wednesday’s protesters.
“I heard and saw that racists were basically organizing an armed protest against the peaceful protesters, so I came down to provide security,” she said. Her advice to ensure a peaceful event was simply, “Don’t take the bait.”
Duckworth, who was at the first protest more than a month ago, said she’s surprised Utah has had protests in multiple cities almost every day since George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police in May.
“I’m super blown away by the support from little, little old Utah,” she said. “I would never give Utah this much credit, but I’m proud of my state. I’m proud to actually say, ‘Hey, I’m from Utah because we’re handling stuff.’”
On Monday, a protest against police violence turned violent when police say a gunman fired through the window of an SUV as protesters blocked the road. After the shot, the driver drove forward, pushing protesters aside and knocking one to the ground.
The driver, a Provo resident in his 60s, suffered a gunshot wound to the arm and shrapnel in his eye and stomach.
The suspected gunman, Jesse Taggart, 33, of Salt Lake City, was arrested Tuesday night for investigation of attempted aggravated murder and aggravated assault causing serious bodily injury. He is also accused of rioting, threatening use of a weapon in a fight, criminal mischief and firing a weapon near a highway.
Report ad Provo police also confirmed Tuesday they were looking for a second gunman who is seen in videos brandishing a weapon but not shooting.
While minimal police presence was seen at Monday’s protest, Provo police on Wednesday had shut down the intersection where the groups were gathered. Police stood next to counterprotesters and about a half block behind. Officers from other jurisdictions were also on hand to help with traffic and crowd control.
Sullivan spoke to the crowd and advised people to be calm and friendly and not respond to any provocation.
“I found it very disheartening because harming another human being, I can’t do it,” he said. “They think that’s why we’re here, to harm other people. But that’s the actions of a few people. ... Let’s spread a message of unity, helping one and other, loving one another.”
The crowd cheered him as horns honked in solidarity and the protesters applauded.
At one point a man began yelling at the racial equality protesters, and they began responding by chanting “Black lives matter” until Sullivan called them back. He told them to listen to the speakers and to ignore anything coming from the other side of the street.
As police blocked traffic for them, the protesters marched about three blocks to the Utah County Courthouse, while some counterprotesters questioned why they were demonstrating in Provo and urged them to go to other states instead.
At the courthouse, they listened to several speakers before laying on the ground for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the amount of time that Floyd was on the ground with a police officer’s knee on his neck. During that time, a few counterprotesters tried to engage in conversations with protesters, but most were ignored or asked to leave them alone while they listened to speakers.
Clinton Uitnbogaardt, who is from Orem, said he came out to the counterprotest “to support my community.”
He said the shooting incident motivated him to attend the counterprotest to make sure Wednesday’s event remained peaceful and safe.
“They have every right to protest,” he said. “They have every right to say what they say. However, they need to stay safe and respectful and follow a peaceful protest.”
He said he’s adamantly opposed to any violence, and said he was pleased Wednesday’s two demonstrations remained peaceful.
“I support a lot of the things they say, provided that it’s peaceful,” he said. “I wish they were a little more educated about what they’re saying. ... I feel like the statistics don’t support what they’re saying.”
Several counterprotesters, including representatives of a group called Keepers of Liberty, wanted to engage in conversations, but for the most part, protesters declined anything but brief exchanges.
“I would love to talk with them,” Uitnbogaardt said. “I feel all too often, it’s been shouting. All too often the loudest voice wins. That’s not the solution. It never has been. ... We live in America, everyone has the right to their opinions. That is why I live here.”