COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS — Michael Whittington stood at the outer edge of several hundred people encircling speakers addressing a crowd protesting for criminal justice reform outside the Cottonwood Heights Police Department.
He wrapped one arm around his 9-year-old granddaughter, who stood in front of him, and he held his other arm in the air, recording the protest organized by Black Lives Matter.
“I’ve been doing this for 50 years,” he said. “Can you believe this is my neighborhood?”
He and his granddaughter stopped by the protest on their way to watch his son play in a football scrimmage at Brighton High. The protests of 2020 feel different to him because of who is out marching.
“Because the kids are involved,” he said. “There’s more kids under 30 than there are my age.”
He said seeing his predominantly white community rally for changes in a criminal justice system they say brutalizes Black and brown people is moving.
“It’s about time, to be honest,” he said. “The thing is, they’re starting to understand what we were going through. ... When they see it with their own eyes, they understand.”
The protest was organized by Utah Black Lives Matter founder Lex Scott, and it was a raucous gathering with alternating jovial moments, including a bit of dancing, and poignant stories and passionate pleas for substantive change.
“Cottonwood Heights has a track record of racially profiling Black and brown people,” she said. “They recently incited violence at a peaceful protest of children who were roller-skating through Cottonwood Heights. They infringed on their constitutional rights to protest and freedom of speech. We came out to let them know.”
The Friday night protest drew several hundred supporters. It also drew more than 150 counterprotesters, including heavily armed members of Utah Citizens Alarm, a group that was formed “to ensure peace” after violence erupted at a protest in Provo.
The protesters who encircled Scott and other speakers were determined to have a peaceful event. There were, however, people trying to instigate either conversations or debates, and one man, in particular, who was yelling and attempting to start a conflict.
About 8 p.m., Scott asked those protesting with Black Lives Matter to leave, as the event was ending, but some of the counterprotesters quickly moved in to try and talk with or debate protesters. Several groups, including a group of moms in yellow shirts, attempted to keep themselves between the two groups, but several small debates continued, even as Scott and most of those involved in the protest were leaving.
About 30 minutes after the event officially ended, a man who was recording video and talking with members of Utah Citizens Alarm, and according to a witness who did not provide a name, the man with Utah Citizens Alarm sprayed mace or pepper spray at the man recording a video.
The spray hit several people, including a woman who has asthma and was treated at the scene by Unified Fire. She was taken to a hospital, while the man taking video was “escorted to his car by police,” according to the witness.
Another woman was also injured by the spray, but she was treated by Black Lives Matter volunteers in the parking lot of a church across the street from City Hall.
The protest alternated between chants and speeches, most of which were impromptu.
Among those who spoke was a man named Edgar Aguirre, who lives in Ogden, but traveled to the Cottonwood Heights because he wanted to support “my Black brothers and sisters.”
“I support everything that’s going on,” he said. “I’m so blessed to be here right now. ... Black and brown people, we have the same struggles, and it’s time for us to take care of each other. So Black and brown people, we have to unite together to end the system that’s oppressing us.”
Aguirre was able to get to the protest thanks to Emily Radivoyevich, who saw something he’d written on social media about hoping he could navigate public transit to get to the protest.
She said she wanted to help him get to the protest and participate herself, because as a white woman, she believes she needs to educate herself about the struggles facing people of color.
“It takes a lot of years of unlearning, actively participating, but it’s really important to me,” said Radivoyevich, who lives in Salt Lake City.
Hannah Clark stood partway between the protesters and the counterprotesters with her 2-year-old son and husband, Griffin Anderson. She had a Thin Blue Line flag draped around her body, and she said she came out to support the police officers in her hometown.
“I think it’s important that we come out here and support the police,” she said. “As a Black woman, I haven’t always had the best experiences with police officers, but at the same time, I’ve also had really good experiences with police officers.”
She said she’d recently been assaulted, and that police officers were a lifeline.
“I felt like I was saved,” she said. “And there have been a number of times where the police officers have been there to save me and my family. ... I feel like they should be paid more.”
Most of those who spoke shared stories of discrimination, and at one point, Scott asked all of the white allies to kneel while the people of color stood. When she begged the protesters to leave, she reminded those who consider themselves white allies that if they caused trouble, it would be Black and brown people who would suffer the consequences.
Scott said if people want to know how to help with the movement, which is multifaceted and extends far beyond protests, they should go to blacklivesmatterutah.com and “they will get all the updates.”