Like many of us, I had deep concerns when, three weeks ago, we saw a peaceful protest in downtown Salt Lake City turn violent. Since that time, day after day, we have witnessed a scene of peaceful protesters voicing their concerns about police brutality and the racial injustice experienced by black, indigenous and people of color in our community and throughout the nation.
These protests, and the raw exposure of an unfathomable pain that has been borne for 400 years, have ignited in many of us an awareness of collective, civic wrongs and, perhaps, a punishing recognition of our own biases and ignorance. Our community is suffering at a level I have not seen in my lifetime.
The very public, open demonstrations and dialogues of the past three weeks happen to have preceded this weekend’s annual celebration of a significant date in history. June 19 — Juneteenth — commemorates the date in 1865 when the last slaves in America learned of their freedom. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, on that date to issue General Order No. 3, proclaiming “from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” This proclamation came nearly five months after Congress passed the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery, and almost 21⁄2 years after the Emancipation Proclamation became official.
Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day, was first celebrated more than 150 years ago and is the oldest African American holiday observance in our country. In 2016, the Utah Legislature declared the third Saturday in June as Juneteenth Freedom Day, an annual statewide observance.
As the commemoration of Juneteenth has come to symbolize freedom, the timeliness of this year’s events compels us to honestly and thoroughly examine and correct the current policies, processes and institutions that quell the full freedom of African Americans and other populations in our community. Our nation, our county and our state are still a long way from achieving equal opportunity for all our residents. Our biases remain deep.
As Salt Lake County mayor, recent events have motivated me to engage even more directly with constituents. I have heard two things: We need to listen, and we need to act. I’ve realized that institutional discrimination is not just a challenge for the county or for our capital city or the state to address. This is a challenge all of us must address.
We need to ask questions and not be afraid to engage. We need to acknowledge the continuing struggle of many in a society that is still rife with racism, social and criminal injustice, and inequality. We need to actively do our part in our own circles of influence — in our governments, in our workplaces, in our neighborhoods, in our schools — to eliminate the racial inequities and disparities that prevent many from knowing freedom and justice. Our community must commit to a sustained engagement on these difficult issues and must remain committed long after the protests diminish. And it is essential we check our own biases at the door and enter into conversations with open hearts and open minds.
I have been meeting with community members, listening to their input and asking about their experiences as they struggle for equality, inclusion, acceptance and representation. I will be taking this input and pairing county staff with community based committees to identify systemic failures, define priorities, provide policy recommendations and focus on measurable action toward realizing equity, access, institutional reform and racial justice. I commit to this work as a priority within my administration. Not a moment but an ongoing effort throughout my time in office.
Juneteenth Freedom Day celebrations are known to be a time for joyful gathering, listening and praying for liberty and peace. This Juneteenth, with the images of George Floyd and protesters in our cities still fresh, perhaps we can all commit to listen and act. We live in a place where we have engaged residents, a strong community spirit, a sense of problem solving and a desire for peace. Let us resolve to march forward together for freedom, liberty, justice and peace for all.
Jenny Wilson is the mayor of Salt Lake County.