SALT LAKE CITY — It was a small gesture.
As police lined up in riot gear, more than 1,000 protesters crowded onto the plaza in front of the Salt Lake City Public Safety Building and eventually began asking police to join them on their knees.
Salt Lake police officer Metui Tautuaa didn’t plan on taking a knee with the passionate crowd Monday night.
But when the group loudly chanted, “Kneel with us! Kneel with us!” he said he was moved to join them.
“They asked. They want to see us participating with them. I’ll give them what they want. As long as it makes them so they stay peaceful, so we don’t have to take any action, that’s what I want. I don’t want anybody being hurt today,” Tautuaa told the Deseret News.
The crowd had chanted outside police headquarters for about 15 minutes before the officer took the knee, which led to a number of protesters thanking or shaking hands with other officers.
Tautuaa said lining up for a showdown with protesters Monday after working Saturday night was difficult.
“Absolutely hard,” he said, adding that the killing of Ogden police officer Nate Lyday last week has made the past few days very emotional.
“Extremely. For those Ogden guys to come down on Saturday, that’s huge,” he said, referring to some Ogden police officers who drove to Salt Lake City to help during the riots. “I can’t thank everybody, all the other departments that came down, I can’t thank them enough. I may not have gone home Saturday night without them.”
The organizers of Monday night’s rally wanted to make sure city and police leadership understood that they still feel passionately about advocating for change, even if they respected the weekend curfew.
“We decided that we wanted to keep the ball rolling, in terms of letting the government know here locally and nationally that we’re not going to stand back and fear,” said Moira Turner of the protest that was organized on Sunday night. “We want to keep the energy ongoing throughout the nation, and really let people know that we’re not going to settle for a little bit of a concession ... when the nation is locked down and brutalized.”
Deja Gaston led the protest, introducing different speakers, including one man who lost his brother to an officer-involved shooting. In a moving moment, he read the names of at least a half dozen people who’d been killed in confrontations with Utah police officers. After the speakers, the crowd chanted almost continuously.
Those chants included the call-response of “No justice, no peace, no racist police,” “Stand up, fight back”, “Whose streets, our streets” and “When people of color are under attack what do we do? Fight back!”
Salaam Muhammad, 24, was emotional as she left with two friends, and explained that she is protesting the same things her mother protested 40 years ago.
“Just to peacefully protest,” said Muhammad, who is African American. “I wanted unity and everything. I see that both sides are angry, both sides are scared. You know they say you got two sides fighting, thinking they’re fighting for the right reasons. They’re not going to stop.”
She was among those chanting for officers to join them on their knees, a sign of solidarity with those like George Floyd, who died at the hands of police officers.
“That man, he knelt down for us,” she said of the officer. “However, we’re angry and some feel that’s not enough.”
She said she understands that he won’t leave the officers he sees as “brothers” to join them, but she still feels some comfort in the fact that he would take a moment to show them he empathizes with them.
The protesters, most wearing masks, first gathered at Washington Square Monday night and then began walking toward the Salt Lake City Public Safety Building, where Saturday’s protests began, and to other downtown areas. After the officer knelt with protesters, many took a moment to shake the hand of officers or thank them, while others remained agitated. Most people left or headed back to Washington Square, but some moved to 400 South and 300 East where three National Guard Humvees were parked.
Some protesters confronted soldiers, and eventually police in riot gear and carrying shields, came and stood with the soldiers. While organizers begged people to return to Washington Square, about 100 people stayed, some talking, some being confrontational and insulting to officers and soldiers.
U. student Seth Gardner came to Monday’s protest with a group of friends and said he was worried about attending after what he saw on TV from Saturday’s protests, but wanted to make his voice heard.
“We’re not here to riot or cause trouble,” Gardner said. “We want things to change. ... The cops are out of hand and people are dying.”
Gardner said he did not see the officer who took a knee with protesters in front of police headquarters Monday night but said, “Every one of those cops should have done it.”
After a weekend protest brought chaos and violence to the streets of Utah’s capital amid nationwide outrage over the death of George Floyd, Salt Lake City’s mayor issued a citywide curfew beginning Monday night to last the entire week.
The curfew, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and Police Chief Mike Brown announced Monday evening, begins at 8 p.m. each night and will end at 6 a.m. each morning until June 8.
Some protesters left after the 8 p.m. curfew, but most remained and many continued to protest by walking to the state Capitol, where they were met with dozens of state troopers.
Gaston, of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, said she didn’t expect to see so many people show up. She and others worried that many people would be scared to protest after Saturday’s violence.
“I definitely think that we were heard. It doesn’t change anything if nothing has changed within our political structure within the state locally or nationally,” she said.
“The main thing is the media is going to take away from the point of why people are dying. The media is going to focus on why property was damaged and I know personally that property of the state was damaged, but guess what? That’s replaceable. What’s not replaceable are the people that were killed,” Gaston said.
“We are trying to yell, scream, so we had to break stuff,” she said. “But today, I didn’t want that to be the message. I didn’t want another reason for the media or the cops to incite more violence on our people. I know that happened on Saturday, but oppression has happened for 400 years every single day.”
Brown said he felt the crowds were more respectful Monday and commended the leaders of the protest.
“They seem to be very strong in trying to advocate for everybody to be peaceful, to obey the law and to disperse and go home,” he said. “I think the temperature, the tone, what we are seeing tonight is much different from Saturday night.”
The chief said he wants to develop relationships that build trust. He said he and Mendenhall invited more than a dozen African Americans to meet with them Tuesday to discuss police policies, use of force and other topics.
“I honestly believe that if we are going to make change — if we are going to change the culture, we need to start sitting down and talking face to face. It’s easy to hate from afar. You can sit at home on your couch and scream and yell and hate, but when you bring people together, all that goes away and we start seeing each other as people and we build those relationships and trust. That’s what we need right now in this country,” he said.
Mendenhall justified the weeklong curfew — which allows exceptions — by pointing to what other states have experienced amid the civil unrest following Floyd’s death in the hands of Minneapolis police.
“The decision to continue a curfew here in Salt Lake City was not made lightly,” Mendenhall said in a statement. “But as we’ve seen throughout the country, the valid frustration many people feel continues to exhibit itself beyond the bounds of peaceful discourse. While Salt Lake City respects and understands the anger people legitimately feel, and welcomes the presence of peaceful protests, the safety of our city, our public safety officers, and our residents must come first.”
Unfortunately, it was as curfew approached that trouble erupted Monday. Several dozen protesters who’d stayed to talk with or confront the officers and soldiers at 400 South and 300 East began arguing with each other. Some were begging protesters to leave, while a few wanted a confrontation with police.
“I just came out an hour ago when I saw they were out after curfew,” said Lex Scott, the leader of Black Lives Matter, who had nothing to do with organizing Monday’s protest. She said the violence is often blamed on Black Lives Matter, and “they don’t care that we’re working peacefully for police reform, and they’re messing up our work.”
Scott has been working with others to draft and pass a police reform bill. She worries that these rogue violent incidents will derail their hard-fought efforts to work with police and lawmakers to create real change in the criminal justice system.
The decision to establish the new curfew was made in consultation with Gov. Gary Herbert, who issued a state of emergency Monday evening “due to civil unrest.” His order temporarily closes the state Capitol to the public through midnight Saturday evening. Official state business will continue at the Capitol, however.
Throughout the curfew’s duration, Mendenhall is asking people to stay off of public streets and sidewalks and out of parks and other public spaces. She outlined exceptions for all law enforcement, fire paramedics or other medical personnel, Utah National Guard, and any other emergency response personnel authorized by Salt Lake City, as well as credentialed members of the media.
The curfew also allows people traveling directly to and from work; attending religious services, obtaining food, caring for a family member, friend or animal; traveling directly to and from the Salt Lake City International Airport; patronizing private businesses including but not limited to merchants and restaurants; seeking medical care, fleeing dangerous circumstances, or experiencing homelessness. An exception is also allowed to anyone who is given permission by city officials, according to the city’s statement.
After much of the crowd at the Salt Lake City-County Building began disbursing just before 8 p.m., dozens headed to the Capitol where a line of Utah Highway Patrol officers were already lining the sidewalk to keep people off the grounds and away from the buildings that house state government leaders and legislators.
Protesters gathered at the Utah visitors center across the street from the Capitol grounds and the street separating them from law enforcement became a protest cruise zone with numerous cars driving by with horns blaring and passengers holding up protest signs.
Officers eventually began moving the group back down State Street and the final standoff of the evening took place on the 100 block of South Temple. A group there was briefly boxed in by law enforcement officers in front and behind them. After some chanting, one member of the protest group asked, through a bullhorn, if police would let them out and, after a talk with what appeared to be a supervising officer, police allowed the group to disburse just after 9:30 p.m.
There were at least a handful of arrests made throughout the evening, but specific details weren’t available late Monday.
Contributing: Katie McKellar, Sahalie Donaldson