More than 1,000 demonstrators hold vigil for George Floyd on balmy night in Provo
A new group called United Allies 4 Change organized the event with help from Provo Police Chief Rich Ferguson
PROVO — A peaceful candlelight vigil on Friday honoring George Floyd and other victims of police brutality drew more than 1,000 people to downtown Provo, the second straight night a crowd that large gathered in the city to listen to black voices.
The size of the crowd in predominantly white Provo led at least one longtime black resident to cry with joy, and the supportive police presence set a precedent for other police departments to follow, said another.
The vigil took place in the street in front of the city’s police station between Center Street and 100 South.
The young, first-time organizers were clear about their purpose — solidarity with those who have suffered police brutality.
“This is not a protest,” said Izzie Herring, 24, a Utah Valley University student and one of the founders of United Allies 4 Change, which sprung to life 10 days ago. “We are honoring and venerating those people who have died at the hands of police.”
A handful of the crowd said they were grateful the vigil was peaceful but disappointed there was no protest component.
The four black founders of United Allies 4 Change pitched the vigil in their mission statement and objective to Provo Police Chief Rich Ferguson and city leaders, who helped clear the way for the event.
“It was fantastic to work with them,” said Cole Stewart-Johnson, 24, a Brigham Young University student and a founder of the group along with his brothers Alex and Sebastian. “They’ve been nothing but helpful. They also helped us with logistics, since we’re a new group. They’ve listened to our voices very clearly.”
Stewart-Johnson, a pre-business major, said the purpose of United Allies 4 Change is to share the needs of all groups who need a voice. For example, the organizers of the Provo Women’s March helped the new group stage a caravan protest last weekend.
Blacks account for 0.8% of Utah County’s population. Multiple races were represented Friday night, but the vigil was largely white. The organizers encouraged social distancing and handed out masks and had volunteers walk through the crowd to squirt hand sanitizer on the hands of those who wanted it.
Impressed by Herring and the Stewart-Johnson brothers, Ferguson recruited at least 10 other police chiefs or sheriffs from around Utah County to attend the vigil.
“That’s pretty unique,” the Provo police chief said. “I told them what the mission statement and objective was and that I thought we should get behind it. We’re here because we want to listen.”
The organizers repeatedly said the vigil was intended to honor those who died by police brutality and shooting, like Breonna Taylor, who died March 13. Today would have been her 27th birthday.
“I’m not for (police brutality), either,” Ferguson said. “I don’t feel threatened. I think this crowd is here for all the right reasons. I took an oath to protect and serve everybody, so I need to be willing to step into the arena and support a group like this.”
During his speech Ferguson said, “There’s nothing that makes good cops madder than bad cops.” He also said Provo is in good hands if everyone is like the three brothers and Herring.
Sebastian Stewart-Johnson asked the crowd to applaud Ferguson “for being an amazing man.”
“I firmly disagree with the statement that all cops are bad,” Stewart-Johnson said.
His brother Alex said the police chiefs told them, referring to the Minneapolis officers charged with Floyd’s death, “We are not them.”
“It’s a great first step,” said Jonathan Mathurin, a Provo resident who works as a counselor to at-risk kids. “I’m happy because there were so many people.”
Mathurin said the vigil could have gone farther.
“But you have to keep applying pressure constantly, and Provo, where there is a good relationship with the cops, can be where change can start. This set a precedent that gives other police departments no excuse not to follow suit.”
BYU student Elle Ibrahim was visibly frustrated.
“I’ve never been more disappointed,” she said. “You’re supposed to say the names of the victims and what happened to them. I want to see a list of changes. I want numbers I can call. But this is Provo. The activism is more like passivism here. We came together and rallied, but I came to learn and I learned nothing.”
She acknowledged joy in seeing a block filled with allies. Hundreds spilled into a parking lot across the street from the front steps of the police building. Some sat on top of trucks in the back on the overcast, warm summer night.
Many wore black T-shirts with the words “I am an ally” in white on the front and a white hand on the back, the thumb extended, forefinger and pinkie raised and the other two fingers folded down. Before the start of the vigil, police leaders and the organizers posed for photos and made the hand sign together.
Cole Stewart Johnson said the hand signal is a sign of love in his family.
Others held signs: “Old fat white men for social justice.” “Happy birthday, Breonna Taylor.”
The outrage and concern over Floyd’s death, called a “murder” by Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, has sparked daily, peaceful protests and demonstrations in Provo for more than a week.
Performer Alex Boyé sang at the vigil. First, he said a Provo Police officer assigned to protect him had told him, “We’ve got your back.”
“I think that’s something every black man would like to hear,” Boyé said.
Black community leaders met Monday with Provo Police Department officials. On Tuesday, dozens of passersby stopped to join the ranks of a peaceful honk-and-wave protest near the University Place Mall on the corner of State Street and University Parkway in Orem.
Meanwhile, black Brigham Young University students met Thursday with school president Kevin Worthen and University Police Chief Chris Autry this week to seek meaningful dialogue to help with the daily racism they say they experience in Utah, according to KSL.com.
The chief and one of the black students who spearheaded the meeting grabbed hands and raised them in a unified fist on Thursday night in front of more than 1,000 people who gathered a rally for unity in Provo’s Kiwanis Park, KSL reported. They also hugged, as seen in a Daily Universe photo.
Worthen posted a series of tweets on Monday saying “that BYU stands firmly against racism and violence in any form and is committed to promoting a culture of safety, kindness, respect and love.”
“We know there is work to do, on campus and throughout the nation,” BYU’s president wrote, “for us to better come together, to address injustice and to truly love one another. It will take sustained effort from all of us to make things better. We remain committed to doing that.”