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PROVO — A strange thing happened late Wednesday night during a protest for racial equality and an end to police brutality in downtown Provo.
It happened after the group had marched to the Provo Historic Courthouse, after they kneeled on the steps for 8 minutes in memory of George Floyd, and after they had turned aside an angry counter-protester who tried to confront organizer John Sullivan of Insurgence USA (the counter-protester declined to offer his name when reporters and photographers asked for it).
It happened shortly before the co-founder of Black Lives Matter’s Utah chapter, which is not affiliated with the national organization, called for everyone to go home well before 10 p.m. on a mid-week summer night.
But before that, Sullivan and other event organizers yelled into a bullhorn at the handful of counter-protesters that remained on the opposite street corner of 300 West and Center Street. He asked if anyone wanted to say something, to address the crowd, free of retribution and with the utmost safety in mind after more than three hours of protests.
Wednesday’s demonstration was, after all, a free speech zone protected by the First Amendment, and so it was only fair.
So John Fitzpatrick, a member of the nascent militia group Keepers of Liberty who attended the rally, stepped forward and began walking to the crowd. A few hesitated to let him pass, likely because of the firearm strapped to his back. But at the behest of group organizers, they ushered him and his friend Tyler Warner to the front of the crowd of just over 100 individuals.
And as Fitzpatrick tried to scale the 5-foot retaining wall in front of the Provo police station, he slipped. Whether because of the 70 pounds of gear and body armor he wore, the firearm nearly the length of his wingspan, or simply because he lost his footing, Fitzpatrick started to fall.
One protester reached down and caught him — then hoisted him up, gear and all.
The two embraced. The crowd cheered.
"That guy that I hugged, he didn’t have to give me a hug. We have a virus going around … and he could’ve had a valid reason to turn it down. But he didn’t," Fitzpatrick said.
"I think that right there said more about unity than anything that anybody could’ve said. We’ve got Proud Boys here, unjustly labeled as white supremacists, and they were invited to speak. That’s more important than me speaking."
That guy that I hugged, he didn’t have to give me a hug.
–John Fitzpatrick, Keepers of Liberty
As music from a nearby coffee shop on 300 West and Center Street blared loud music, attempting to drown out the demonstration, Fitzpatrick shouted into a bullhorn he had never used before to "the largest crowd I’ve spoken to since the third grade."
He asked for unity, introduced his group, and tried to start a dialogue with those on the other side of the street — and, in some cases, the other side of the aisle.
"Everybody was staying so divided, and I had to jump in and do something," said Fitzpatrick, who lives in Woods Cross. "By the time we got here, everybody had moved to the courthouse — so we jumped in and took a knee with them just to get in there and bridge that gap," he said. "I have my own personal opinions on how everything goes, but that’s how you create a dialogue. A small compromise goes a long way."
Fitzpatrick knows even his own group has a long way to go before real change is enacted. They want to attract members from across the political spectrum, but he knows most of the current members lean dominantly to the right — except for one registered Democrat who makes his voice heard, he added cheekily.
When asked if there are "any Black members" in the Keepers of Liberty, Fitzpatrick was quick to respond," no, but I hope that changes soon."
The group is young. That’s why they’ll talk to anybody who will listen.
Those who want to engage in further dialogue are asked to reach out on social media, where they are free to be part of more conversations.
"So far, we’re just going out and talking to everybody. It’s been a really good experience. People are pretty welcoming and very understanding when we’re willing to talk," said Warner, who lives in Santaquin. "I think everybody has a lot of common ground. The far left and far right are focused on one point, but we need to look at the whole spectrum. Then we’ll find out we have a lot more in common."
The message of close to 100 counter-protesters who met around the same number of protesters for racial equality and an end to police brutality Wednesday near the steps of the Provo police department was of peace and unity, of a cry for change and a need to address systemic racism in society.
Protesters want an end to police brutality. Counter-protesters, many of whom showed up with firearms, wanted to show support for their friends and family in law enforcement who they feel are being unfairly attacked at the expense of a few bad cops.
When it came time to speak up, several of those counter-protesters did.
Like Thad "Chief" Cisneros, a member of the Proud Boy organization. He says the group is often painted as a white supremacy group for its philosophy on western civilization, but he thinks that's unfair.
The Anti-Defamation League says the Proud Boys are often described as "violent, nationalistic, Islamophobic, transphobic and misogynistic, its members represent a range of ethnic backgrounds, and its leaders vehemently protest any allegations of racism."
Cisneros insists he’s not a "white supremacist;" in fact, he’s Latino and Native American, he says.
And it’s going to take everyone — white, Black, Latino, and people of all races, religions and ethnicities — to make the kind of change that everyone at Wednesday's rally hopes to see.
"The only way we’re going to do this is if we’re unified," he told the crowd, who moments before had chanted that Black lives matter. "Unity is the only way we are going to make any kind of difference in this world."
The two groups met previously on the corner of Center Street and 300 West — in front of the Provo Police Department — and though no major incidents occurred, there was tension in the air.
One group called for social justice and an end to police brutality, while the other called for support of police officers.
Both, however, called for an end to violence. Violence is not the answer, protesters on both sides of the street told KSL.com.
If any violent actions came from Wednesday’s demonstration, organizers made it clear that those individuals would be disavowed from the organization.
"We will not accept you if you create violence," said Sullivan, who worked with Insurgent USA who helped organize the demonstration. "That is not acceptable. We do not want that."
The group’s message was too important to be distracted by violence and tension-filled altercations, he added.
"I found it very disheartening. I feel like harming another human being — I can’t do it," Sullivan said of Monday’s events. "I don’t want to see it. I don’t want anyone to be harmed. I don’t want anyone to fall victim to police brutality. That’s what we’re here for, so why are we going to harm other people?
"They think that’s why we’re here, to harm other people; that’s ridiculous."
Both groups also carried firearms; while several counter-protesters that met in front of the Old Provo Courthouse dressed in camouflage and carried rifles with tape that read "live ammo," a handful of protesters in support of racial equality could be seen with handguns strapped to holsters.
Both openly said they hoped not to use the weapons.
"The narrative that protesters are violent is a lie," said Lex Scott, the Black Lives Matter Utah founder who came to support the demonstration in Provo. "We’ve been protesting peacefully, and we are fighting against police violence. So I came down here to support the peaceful protesters today."
Scott made it a point to carry her own firearm, holstered to her hip the entire evening, to Wednesday’s protest. She did it so as not to be intimidated by a group that would carry arms, but also because "Black people have a Second Amendment right to bear arms, too," she told the demonstration at one point.
There’s that unity thing again.
More than Sullivan and the protest organizers spoke to the group. In addition to Fitzpatrick and Cisneros, there was Tango, a Los Angeles native and Black business owner in Utah, who stood on the wall with a microphone and an American flag. A veteran of the Iraq War also called for unity and an end to violence.
Like Fitzpatrick, many of the counter-protesters call themselves patriots. But a true patriot is one who finds compromise to make society better, he said.
"We want to interact and create dialogue with the other side," he added. "It turns out, we all just want to be left alone."
Both groups also decried violence, saying they didn’t want a repeat of the shots fired Monday that led to two arrests, another outstanding police search, and one individual in the hospital.
Sure, tensions were high, but nothing escalated more than a few shouts and chants from one side of the street to the other.
For the most part, the crowd of close to 100 counter-protesters, most of them unmasked, stood quietly on three street corners while demonstrators for racial equality gathered near the steps of the Provo Police Department.
A significant police presence was also brought in from Provo City, aided by neighboring jurisdictions in Utah County, and even officers from Bluffdale. Police placed barricades at the corner of Center Street and 300 West, as well as neighboring streets downtown up to University Avenue, where the group marched late Wednesday night.
All in the name of safety and unity.