Local Voices: A Q&A With Protest Organizers

On May 25, 2020 a 46-year-old Black man named George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota while under arrest for supposedly using a counterfeit bill to purchase cigarettes. Video evidence revealed former officer Derek Chauvin pinning Floyd to the ground, keeping his knee pressed on Floyd’s neck and leaving him unconscious. Floyd was pronounced dead shortly after this incident. This abuse of power led to nationwide outrage, only thanks to the brutality being captured on camera. Protests across the nation demanded racial justice and an end to police brutality, shining a light on hundreds of cases across the United States of Black and minority people killed by police.

Photo credit: Max Smith

Starting on May 30th, protests began in Salt Lake City over the murder of George Floyd, calling to end police brutality and qualified immunity, which was a huge factor in Sim Gill’s July 9th decision to claim the shooting and death of 22 year old Bernardo Palacios as justified.

In the last few months there has been a lot of hearsay and rumors lingering on news-outlets about these protests and those involved. Old protest footage has been used to mislead and inflict fear in viewers. Terms like rioters, looters, anarchists and antifa (aka: anti fascists) have been used to describe groups of people protesting in opposition to police brutality. Because of this, a lot of people are scared and unsure about what’s actually happening in our city. So instead of name-calling and finger-pointing, we decided to listen, and get answers straight from the mouths of the protest organizers themselves.

Below is Q & A with protest organizers Angela Johnson and Rania Ahmed.

Angela Johnson, Photo Credit IG: @_r_w_m

Rania Ahmed, Credit IG: @riverflowsthroughit

(*Angela and Rania would like it made clear that there are a lot of organizers to recognize who aren’t comfortable coming out to the media.)

Q: What are the goals of these protests & what do you want people who oppose these protests to know?

I think police brutality is something that everyone should learn about, I think there’s a misconception that it’s a black issue, but no—this is for all of us. – Rania Ahmed

A: The brutal murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officers was the lighter fluid that ignited this fire across the country but it wasn’t the first, nor will it be the last police murder without consequence. Now we’re here in Utah, where the majority of  police brutality is against white people. I don’t think people realize that police shootings are the second most common homicide in Utah. In fact, killings by Utah police outpace gang, drug, child abuse and homicides. If that doesn’t anger you, then I don’t know what will. So when we get up and we stand up and protest, it is against police brutality against all people. There is this misconception that when we are out protesting it’s only about Black lives. Actually, the protest that was met with the most aggression, aside from the July 9th Justice For Bernardo one, was one that was organized specifically for Zane James, a white 19-year-old who was killed by officers. We were there as Black organizers in solidarity standing up for white lives. If you were to say, “what is your message?” it’s to end police brutality and specifically qualified immunity because that’s what allows them to get away with this, against all lives.

Q: What do you have to say to those who call protestors “rioters”?

A: To be accused of being “rioters” is intentionally wrong. It’s a term used to provoke fear and to make retaliation against us by the state or by locally organized supremacist groups easy. We’d like to make it very clear that not only are we not rioting, we have not rioted and we will never riot. I think ultimately it’s really important to shift the narrative about who is causing all of the death, who is creating all the fear—it’s the people in power. It’s not us. Changing that narrative is critical in a country that cares more about stories than fact. And I think that’s a huge part of what we do.

Q: How does going into residential neighborhoods help the cause? 

A: Going into residential neighborhoods has been an interesting experience because for a lot of these people, their expectations of protestors are people coming in and burning down houses, but really, we’re just walking past their yards with music on. The news intentionally stokes fear for better ratings. I think humanizing it for them gives them a “wait a minute, what I’m reading in the media doesn’t look like the group that just walked by” moment. I think going out into these residential neighborhoods is a really important conception of what it’s like to protest.

Q: What is your advice for someone who wants to be a part of this movement but doesn’t know where to start?

A: Join us at our Sunday protests! It’s every week, it’s family friendly, educational and joyful. There’s music, dancing, food trucks, water guns, performers, medics, you name it. We provide masks, snacks and water for anyone in need, thanks to COVID Mutual Aid. There’s a lot of different ways to protest, but we make this one extremely fun while also effective. And at the same time you get to learn a lot and meet community members. For many of us that is how we got to know each other. 

I work really hard to make sure it’s not just “going out”—I started finding and organizing speakers because we definitely want more education. We don’t want people to go just to dance, we want people to be educated and aware of everything that’s going on. The statistics that come out of the speakers series are so jarring. For instance, the average lifespan of a black transgendered woman is 35. These are things that many of us don’t talk about or know about. And if you’re not into protests, this is an election year, I think this is the year of all years to really learn about who is on the ballot locally for you. 

Photo credit: Max Smith

Q: How do you feel about recent efforts from city officials such as Mayor Mendenhall? 

A: The performative stuff means nothing to us. Nobody cares about murals, nobody cares about empty quotes, we don’t need any of that. We want qualified immunity to end for the police. Period. If you’re going to do programs, then invest in all the programs that create jobs. Jobs that reduce the need for police to be in many of these neighborhoods in the first place. This is about police brutality, this is about ending qualified immunity. What’s also profoundly disturbing about all of this is seeing their resistance towards our truth, we are literally just going out and talking about the facts. The resistance towards it has been as telling as the negligence of the elected officials. Until all Black people can experience the ability to live free from police violence and other manifestations of systemic racism, we will keep shouting, “Black Lives Matter.”

Q: What keeps you going? 

A: I think about the fact that change in this country has resulted from people protesting, and they’ve been unpopular in their protests, but from the Vietnam war to the anti-segregation movement, those protests helped yield change. When I get down, I think about abolitionists, those who fought to abolish the institution of chattel slavery in the United States of America, how they must’ve thought that what they wanted was crazy. But they didn’t give up, and the amount of violence targeted towards them didn’t make them stop. We have to have faith. 

In order to get what we want, what we are demanding, we have to apply pressure. And as I always say, “the power of the people is always stronger than the people in power.” -Angela Johnson

Q: What are some action items all of us can start doing?

A: Research locally what’s going on. Educate yourself on who has spoken up and who hasn’t, play your part. Help us create safe places online to communicate. Everyone can do something. Show up at the protests, bring your kids. Understand that black lives matter because all lives matter. Join us, we want you there. And donate if you can! 

Q: Anything else you’d like to mention?

A: We’re not going anywhere, we’ll keep being peaceful and we’ll continue to protest. We will continue to educate people about the unjust laws in place. We the people have to pressure local officials to change those laws and then we will finally see real change. It starts with us. Protect Black women, protect Black trans women and Black lives matter. And remember, we’re in a pandemic that disproportionately impacts people of color, so you cannot come to a protest without a mask.

Where to donate?

Petitions to sign?

Protect Civil Liberties – Demand The D​.​A. Drop All Charges Against Peaceful Protestors

Upcoming movements? 

Dance Dance for Revolution- Sunday, August 16th @ 5:00 PM. Reservoir Park 1352 University ST E

For more city life, click here.

Kaitlyn Christy
Kaitlyn Christyhttps://www.saltlakemagazine.com/
Salt Lake magazine readers enjoy six issues a year of Utah’s premiere magazine. Subscribe or pick up a copy to find the best of life in Utah.

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