SALT LAKE CITY — A Friday protest at the Utah Capitol was in many ways an acknowledgment — both of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s landmark civil rights address made 57 years ago, and the long way the nation still has to go in achieving true racial equality.
The protest organized by Black Lives Matter Northern Utah, Utah Against Police Brutality and Salt Lake Equal Rights Movement was in commemoration of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which was delivered on Aug. 28, 1963, while also decrying the recent deaths of Black men and women killed by law enforcement in the United States. It coincided with a march of thousands in Washington, D.C.
A “coalition” of the three Utah groups bolstered by other demonstrators saw hundreds of people gathered in front of the Capitol building Friday morning.
The protest and march came after multiple days of unrest in the U.S. after Jacob Blake, a Black man, was shot multiple times by police in Wisconsin.
Jacarri Kulley, the leader of Black Lives Matter Northern Utah, said Blake’s shooting may have made people more aware of the movement but that they were planning to hold the event regardless of any outside circumstances.
“We have 400 years of history of not being able to get justice for our culture and our people,” she said.
Frustration over that long history reached a boiling point in May after a police officer in Minneapolis was recorded kneeling on a Black man’s neck for several minutes, even after the man cried out saying he couldn’t breathe. That man, George Floyd, died from the encounter, inciting worldwide protests.
In the time since, more protests have popped up across the nation after other incidents of police force against Black people, like Blake, have been reported.
“It’s traumatizing,” said Ryan Johnson, who is from Washington, D.C., but graduated from the University of Utah and is a member of the Utah chapter of Black Lives Matter. “As someone who’s a minority, it is very traumatizing and triggering, and it creates a cycle of anxiety and depression. And you shouldn’t have to live your life every day in fear.”
The crowd listened to a series of speakers from various organizations and participated in chants. Shouts of “Hands up, don’t shoot,” “Whose streets, our streets,” and others rang out across Utah’s Capitol Hill.
The speakers called for justice and changing a system they believe allows police to act violently against minority groups with impunity and no consequences.
“They’re getting killed for no reason, and their murderers are getting away with it,” Kulley said. “Most people get justice, but Black people do not get justice.”
Another popular chant was “No justice, no peace.”
The protestors believe words like democracy and freedom ring hollow until everyone is treated fairly.
“You can’t have any rights until everyone has rights,” Johnson said.
At about 10:30 a.m., the crowd began marching down the middle of State Street and arrived at Washington Square Park outside the Salt Lake City-County Building at 11 a.m., where a pavilion was set up and music was playing.
As they walked, the demonstrators chanted the names of Floyd and Breonna Taylor, who also died this year at the hands of police officers in the U.S. Once at the park, they danced, listened to live music and purchased food and clothing from several vendors.
The event called for justice and equity, while commemorating a historic civil rights speech. But it also felt like a celebration of community and culture.
“Black Lives Matter or any other group, especially if it is an African American group or Black group in the state of Utah, we are not hate groups,” Kulley emphasized. “We are about bringing everybody together.”
The crowd dispersed at around 1:45 p.m. after the organizers thanked everyone for coming.
The Salt Lake City event was tied to a rally for racial justice in Washington.
According to the Associated Press, thousands gathered Friday morning near the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where King delivered his historic address, a vision of racial equality that remains elusive for millions of Americans.
Later in the day, Martin Luther King III, a son of the late civil rights icon, and the Rev. Al Sharpton — whose civil rights organization, the National Action Network, planned Friday’s event — delivered keynote addresses that show the urgency for federal policing reforms, to decry racial violence and to demand voting rights protections ahead of the November general election.
That mission was also felt in Utah.
“We’re just trying to, like, restart the civil rights movement,” Johnson said.