SALT LAKE CITY — For nearly three weeks, people like 20-year-old Abena Bakenra marched, protested and held vigils.
In the weeks since George Floyd died in Minneapolis after a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, they’ve called for changes to policing policies, lobbied for new laws, registered people to vote, and talked — unrelentingly — about systemic racism that is costing Black Americans their freedom and their lives.
So when it came to one of the most sacred anniversaries the Black community observes, she was among those who saw an opportunity to celebrate, which is why she signed up to be part of the organizing committee of Salt Lake City’s first Juneteenth Block Party/Protest.
“We felt like as Black people, it was our duty to celebrate the liberation of our people,” Bakenra said of why those who’ve organized protests nearly everyday for weeks also organized a block party to celebrate Juneteenth on Friday night. “We wanted Salt Lake City to see that it’s not just this 1% of Black people, like we have a culture here. We are beautiful. And we wanted people to celebrate that with us, which is why we wanted to put on more of a celebration than a protest.”
They didn’t abandon the advocacy efforts that have dominated their lives since Floyd’s death became a catalyst for change. Before the block party, thousands gathered in Salt Lake City Friday afternoon to protest injustice and celebrate Black culture, marching across the city to celebrate Juneteenth and commemorate the nation’s emancipation of slaves.
The rally, organized by Solidarity for Justice, kicked off at Washington Square Park around 1:30 p.m., with protesters marching around the city and circling back to the park to participate in the party around 4 p.m.
While gathering to begin the march, the crowd spread out across the grass at the foot of the Salt Lake City-County Building, largely keeping a few feet of separation between one another. Event organizers told protesters to wear masks and socially distance where possible. Some demonstrators kneeled in the grass making signs as the group prepared to start its march toward the state Capitol.
“This isn’t just a protest where you just get out here and we are going to be chanting,” Trey Barnes, with Solidarity for Justice, told the crowd. “We are going to be demanding change in Utah starting right here in Salt Lake City, right here in our capital. I need everyone here today. I need you to take action.”
James Evans, former Utah Republican Party chairman, pointed to individuals in the crowd registering people to vote and reminded the demonstrators to participate in the upcoming June 30 primary. The deadline to register was 5 p.m. Friday.
“I look forward to seeing you march. I look forward to every march that’s happened over the last two weeks. If you want prolonged systemic change you have to take this outrage, this anger, and put it into action,” James said. “The politicians listen to one thing — they listen to the ballot box.”
He urged demonstrators to get involved politically, saying Juneteenth is important to both himself as a Black man and for all Americans collectively.
“This is not just for me, this is for everyone here. For everyone of color,” Barnes said. “This is not a civil rights movement going on in the nation. Do not let them tell you it’s a civil rights movement. This is a human rights movement.”
Juneteenth commemorates the official end of slavery in the U.S., marking June 19, 1865, when Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to announce the Civil War was over and enslaved people in Texas — the last in the country — were free.
Utah’s Legislature recognized the day as Juneteenth Freedom Day in 2016, making it one of 47 states to officially mark the holiday. Utah’s only Black legislator, Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, sponsored the bill making the distinction. During Thursday’s legislative special session, Hollins’ bill barring police from using a “knee-on-the-neck” restraint sailed through both the House and Senate. The restraint was used by a Minneapolis police officer, killing Floyd and setting off weeks of protests across the country over police tactics on minorities.
A roar rose from the crowd as people cheered Hollins’ accomplishment, thanking her for sponsoring the legislation and helping to get it passed.
Demonstrators marched for more than two hours before the block party, which was a concert combined with a farmer’s market and festival, all punctuated with activism. Signs that marchers carried during the protest plastered many of the first-floor windows and doors of the Salt Lake City-County Building.
Vendors sold food, clothing and jewelry. On 500 South, a truck sold haircuts next to a truck peddling shaved ice.
Ben and Josh Chamberlain volunteered to help with the event. It was Ben Chamberlain’s idea, and he hoped to get his older brother on the program, as he’s been sharing stories of incidents of prejudice and racism that he experienced growing up Black in Utah.
“This is a celebration of Black culture, Black people, here in Salt Lake, specifically, but anywhere,” Josh Chamberlain said. “There are a lot of sobering things about Black history, and especially with America and Black history. He described the celebration, albeit belated, that enslaved people in Texas must have experienced after realizing “We’re actually free.”
Ben Chamberlain agreed that there seems to be a real shift in the wider community, that all of those involved hope will translate into substantial systemic changes.
“It’s almost like it took all this Black violence to be like, ‘Oh, there is a holiday that celebrates Black people being free,’” he said. “People are starting to know because of all of the Black lives matter stuff coming from violence.”
Josh Chamberlain said the fact that some protests turned violent may have also played a role in helping a movement that’s been working for reform for years to gain traction.
“I think what’s different is ... there were riots,” he said. “People got mad that there were things going the way they didn’t want them to. White people got mad and said, ‘Oh my gosh, they’re breaking things.’ And everyone is like, ‘It’s distracting from the real meaning of what’s going on.’ Yet, in the same breath, they were talking about why the riots were going on. So it wasn’t distracting. It directed exactly toward what people wanted to be heard, which is there is a disparity and an unfairness, really a desperation, to be like, ‘We’re here. And we’re going to make changes so this doesn’t happen again.’”
He said the protests, even when they’ve devolved into violence, have helped raise awareness about issues that Black Americans have wanted addressed for decades.
Organizers of the march piled into the back of a truck leading the protestors up toward the state Capitol. Cheers and chants rose from the crowd as they marched saying, “Prosecute killer cops,” “No justice, no peace” and “Black lives matter.”
The procession halted several times throughout the march, once to invite all of the Black demonstrators and other people of color who’ve been profiled by the police up to the front of the crowd, and again outside of the Salt Lake City Public Safety Building to remember Black Americans killed as a result of racism.
Protesters kneeled and laid down in the street without speaking as organizers read the names of those killed due to the actions of police officers and other acts of violence.
“We lay down in silence and solidarity to condemn the killing of all those named, as well as for all the other names known and unknown that represent human beings. We demand justice for any and all racial killings, whether by police or civilians,” Barnes said, standing in the back of the truck. “Enough is enough and it’s our time as citizens to rise up and vote out those who do not seek to protect us, who rather over-police us, over-incarcerate us.”
Barnes said the time for silence and waiting has passed.
“You are either for or against progress. There is no gray area.” He called for elected officials to slash police departments’ budgets, investing instead in community concerns like education and health care.
Those who came to the block party to celebrate and those who came to protest agreed on one thing. They will not quit advocating for change, in whatever way necessary, until they feel there is real commitment to rectifying these issues.
“We’re really excited about this turnout,” Bakenra said. “I’ve organized some of those marches that have been going on the past couple of weeks. So it’s really encouraging to see those same faces that have been marching and protesting with us for all these weeks, to come out today and to have a little bit more of a chill vibe and celebrate Black culture and Black liberation for what it is.”