Black Lives Matter gaining traction in Utah, seeking answers

Jeremy Stanford
Black Lives Matter protesters gather in Salt Lake City. (Jeremy Stanford)

The Black Lives Matter movement in Utah has been a small, loosely organized activist group. But that is changing.

The deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, both African Americans, and five Dallas Police officers all happened between July 5 and 7. The following week, three police officers were shot and killed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and one officer was shot and killed in Kansas City, Kansas. Some believe these acts of violence against law enforcement were inspired by Black Lives Matter, but members of the movement have denied these claims and have called for an end to violence.

Black Lives Matter protests in Provo and Salt Lake City have not received nationwide attention, but Utah’s small band of Black Lives Matter activists have made their voices heard. On July 9, hundreds gathered in front of the Salt Lake City Police headquarters for a peaceful protest against nationwide police brutality, and more protests are planned later in the month.

“The time has come for change, and people are starting to realize that,” said Bashaun Williams, one of the organizers of the Salt Lake City protest. “The uneducated people who wanted to not acknowledge it are starting to realize that this is getting bad.”

Information regarding police brutality, against minorities or otherwise, is inconsistently reported. The Washington Post’s real-time database that tracks fatal police shootings, combined with U.S. Census Bureau data from 2015, concluded that white Americans were killed by police in greater numbers, but that African American citizens were killed by police at a higher ratio.

Proponents of Black Lives Matter have insisted that this apparent imbalance against African Americans is the result of racial profiling by law enforcement. But opponents of the movement suggest that police shootings are the result of criminal activity, regardless of race.

On the day following the shootings in Dallas, the Pew Research Center released a study that found roughly 40 percent of Americans are supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Despite the fact that Utah still does not have an official Black Lives Matter chapter, these events are drawing considerable crowds as support and sympathy for this loosely-organized movement grows. The Black Lives Matter Utah Facebook page had 16 followers before July 5, but had more than 140 followers soon after.

Utah’s Black Lives Matter protesters have no official leadership. As Black Lives Matter events in Utah become more frequent and attendance continues growing, event organizers like Williams are concerned that they cannot continue to fill the leadership void without help.

“We already have our hands tied with so many other things,” Williams said. “We can’t always be the people to start something. There has to be more involvement from a lot of people.”

When asked why Utah does not have a Black Lives Matter chapter, some event organizers noted that people may be hesitant to involve themselves in the movement because it may seem to contradict the peace that they value. “People are governed by their religion a lot,” said event organizer MayKela Cox. “They’re afraid to not come across as a good Christian.”

Lex Scott, one of the prominent figures of the movement in Utah, is currently leading the effort to establish the first Black Lives Matter chapter in the state. Scott, along with one other Sandy resident who has chosen to remain anonymous for safety reasons, has tried multiple times to contact the three founders of the activist group, but so far they have received no response.

According to Jacob Rugh, a BYU sociology professor who specializes in issues of racial equality, establishing a chapter of Black Lives Matter in Utah is not unrealistic.

Rugh also noted that leadership of high-ranking community officials, such as politicians and police chiefs, is equally important when it comes to repairing strained relationships with minority groups.

“It’s very important that they get out in front of people,” Rugh said. “It’s proactive instead of reactive.”

The organizers of the Salt Lake City protest on July 9 expressed a similar point of view. Some expressed concern that no police officers showed up to the event, which was held right in front of the police headquarters, to have a question and answer session with the protesters.

“I would like to see the police get involved in talking to us,” Cox said. “These protests are peaceful, for now. But we’re trying to get answers.”

Salt Lake City Police Detective Cody Lougy said that although the force does not send officers to every Black Lives Matter event, they have maintained an open dialogue with the public, including activists and protesters.

“We’ve had several meetings; we’re open with the public,” Lougy said. “We’re trying to bridge the gap and build these community partnerships.”

Lougy also noted that on July 21, police held an open forum for activists to attend. Both Salt Lake Police Chief Mike Brown and Salt Lake Mayor Jackie Biskupski, were present to answer questions, as well as Lex Scott and other activists.

One of the most prominent questions Utah’s group of Black Lives Matter protesters is has concerns the internal response from a police force when a shooting happens. Many of the activists are concerned that not enough of this nation’s good cops are speaking up to denounce the bad cops.

“I work in law enforcement, so I know officers and I know detectives,” said protest organizer Lala Montfleury-Andrews. “If you’re an officer and you don’t agree, why do you have to cover for your fellow officer that you know is a racist?”

As these activists seek answers to their questions, many of them have managed to maintain their respect for local law enforcement. The Salt Lake City protesters openly acknowledge that most police officers are good people who are working hard to make their communities safer. They, along with professor Rugh, openly condemned the actions of the shooters in Dallas, Kansas City and Baton Rouge, saying that violence is not the proper response to the deaths of Castile and Sterling.

“The great majority of (cops) came to the badge because they saw what was happening in their communities and they wanted to help, because there are bad guys out there,” Montfleury-Andrews said. “We need law enforcement.”

Instead of inciting violence, the activists are encouraging citizens to become informed about proper police deescalation practices, watch the videos of police shootings and involve themselves in peaceful political activism.

“It comes down to showing up and being ready to learn,” Cox said. “Change is inevitable, and it’s uncomfortable.”

However, as more politicians and respected figures present divergent opinions about Black Lives Matter, it can be hard for people to inform themselves about the movement, Cox said. Particularly on social media, the divisive rhetoric has left mixed signals about what Black Lives Matter truly stands for. As a result, a prominent group of supporters known as We the Protesters has released a 10-point manifesto to clarify its goals to resolve alleged racial prejudice in police forces.

According to Lougy, the Salt Lack City Police Department has taken a strong stance against discrimination and racial profiling. There is no data, he said, to support Black Lives Matter allegations that police officers in Salt Lake City are prejudiced against African Americans.

“As far as those who say white cops in Salt Lake City are racist, there’s just nothing to support that,” Lougy said. “We’re always trying to build partnerships and dialogue with the community members we serve. We know the police and the community need to be one.”

Lougy also said that the Salt Lack City Police Department is preventing racial discrimination by recruiting a diverse police force that is representative of the community. The force has also invested in the use of body cameras, with almost 300 first-response officers using cameras as of December 2014.

Rugh, who said he has studied the Black Lives Matter movement closely, said body cameras can help ensure that policing practices are fair, but will not be foolproof.

“Obviously technology is going to be part of it, but history teaches us that technology is not going to save us,” Rugh said.

At the protest, Williams suggested that Black Lives Matter will not achieve its goals unless the American people develop a renewed sense of right and wrong.

“There has to be a rebuilding and a reeducation in morality,” Williams said.

It is unclear what will become of Utah’s small band of Black Lives Matter activists, but the event organizers and Rugh agree that this year could be a major turning point for alleviating what they see as racial prejudice in law enforcement. Rugh has expressed confidence that if more citizens and community leaders can open a dialogue and find common ground, then the country will begin to see fewer acts of violence on both sides.

“Now people are talking about it. Now we have to address it as a systemic problem,” Rugh said. “There’s just so much common ground. This year, depending on our choices … could be the beginning of a positive step towards change.”

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