Story and photos by FAYE BARNHURST
SALT LAKE CITY – On Aug. 27 of this year, nearly 400 Utahns gathered on the University of Utah’s campus to protest a speech by conservative commentator Ben Shapiro. Protesters marched from the Park Building to the Behavioral Sciences Building, shouting phrases such as “Hate speech is not welcome here” and “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Ben Shapiro has got to go.” The protest was organized by Black Lives Matter Utah (BLM), an activist organization that has been making waves in the community and doesn’t plan on stopping any time soon.
“We’ve been here for years,” says Black Lives Matter Utah founder Lex Scott, “but we just didn’t have any people or press. But now Utah has discovered that we’re here, so it looks like we’ll actually get some things done.”
After the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in 2012, “#BlackLivesMatter” began to circulate on the internet. The hashtag sparked a national movement that altered the political climate of the nation and made Americans reevaluate race-relations in the United States. Since its inception, Black Lives Matter has utilized social media and direct action to raise awareness of issues facing African-Americans.
The organization has over 40 independent chapters across the country that each focus on their own regional issues. Earlier this year, the FBI categorized Black Lives Matter as a “Black Identity Extremist organization.” Local activist, Lex Scott, who was just named Utah’s “best tireless advocate” by Salt Lake City Weekly, decided to start the Utah chapter after seeing footage of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, being choked to death by a Staten Island police officer. “I saw the video and thought ‘Okay, that’s enough. We’re going to stop this. We’re going to do something,’” says Scott.
In collaboration with Utah Against Police Brutality, Black Lives Matter Utah has held several rallies and protests calling for justice for victims of police brutality, such as Abdullahi “Abdi” Mohamed and Darrien Hunt.
“The necessity for a Black Lives Matter chapter in Utah unveils itself in the mere fact that it garners death threats to families of their organizers for the same sort of work that UAPB has been doing for years without any of the same hostility,” says Jacob Jensen, an organizer for Utah Against Police Brutality.
Both activist groups have been pressuring local legislators to change police body camera policies. After Salt Lake issued an executive order last month that stipulates a 10-day delay on the release of police body camera footage where an officer injures or kills someone, both groups held a protest and sit-in at the Salt Lake City and Council Building to demand that the footage be released within 24 hours of the incident.
Along with working to end police brutality, Black Lives Matter Utah also addresses other forms of racism.
“Black Lives Matter is all about inclusivity,” says TK Flory, one of the first BLM activists in Los Angeles. “Thinking about systemic oppression, economic oppression, political oppression, systems that uphold white supremacy – these affect everybody in some way, especially black people.”
One of Black Lives Matter Utah’s biggest successes in combating systemic racism is getting Steve Smith, a former Sandy City Council Member, voted out of office for making racist comments about African-Americans. The group canvassed, created a call bank, and even went on the news to get Smith removed.
The organization is also promoting its fourth annual Black Friday Black Out Boycott, to counter systemic barriers that limit black entrepreneurs. Members of Black Lives Matter will boycott all major Black Friday sales, and instead only shop at black-owned businesses. This action is intended to be a rejection of the economic racism facing black people in the United States.
In addition Black Lives Matter Utah opposes mass incarceration, the “school-to-prison pipeline,” and housing and wage discrimination. They advocate for fair and impartial juries, transparency between police and citizens, and adequate political representation for all marginalized groups of the community.
To encourage students to join and lead the movement, they have recently started working with Students for a Democratic Society, a radically progressive student-activist group on the U’s campus.
The group already has more than 1,500 members on Facebook and is currently setting up new chapters all over the state to draw in support and gain influence in Utah.
“Black Lives Matter Utah is important because Utah is only two percent black, which means there is just a tiny percent of black representation here, so there’s not a lot of black leadership here,” says Lex Scott. “Most perceptions of the black community come from the media and television where we are painted as unintelligent, ignorant thugs. If there’s a place that needs a Black Lives Matter chapter, Utah is the place.”
With the goal of bringing attention to the issues facing black people in Utah and pursuing equal rights for all, Black Lives Matter is a growing voice in the community.