Hundreds of Moabites convened Friday, June 5 to participate in a nonviolent demonstration at the center of town. In attendance: Local elected officials, public employees, doctors, emergency medical responders, and hundreds of citizens from across the valley, all to express one, unified message: Black lives matter.
Moab City Police, the Grand County Sheriff’s Office and law enforcement from Price City and Carbon County were also present at the demonstration, at which protestors displayed signs with messages from “Zero tolerance for racist police” to the less subtle “Defund the police.”
In the end, neither protestors nor police instigated any violence. No property was damaged. No weapons were drawn. No business was looted. No arrests were made. More than 600 people, according to aerial photographs taken by The Times-Independent, showed up for the protest.
The most disruptive part of it all — besides perhaps the messages about police brutality in the United States and the racism that pervades the country’s institutions — was the traffic jams.
Twice, protestors marched from Center Street, between the Moab Information Center and the businesses across the street both times taking a different path back to where they started and creating a long trail of people walking through the city’s busiest intersections and roads as Moab City Police and the Grand County Sheriff’s Office directed cars and semis to stop for minutes at a time.
After the second march, protestors kneeled together in the middle of Main Street, blocking traffic on the busy Highway 191 and forcing law enforcement to set up a temporary bypass.
After roughly 20 minutes, Moab City Police Chief Bret Edge told protest organizers that he did not want people in the middle of the normally busy road and that, if they moved, police would continue to block off the less-busy Center Street to allow the demonstration to continue there.
The protestors assented. After co-organizer Cali Bulmash communicated in the language of the event (a call-and-response chant) that the group needed to move, everyone walked back onto Center Street, continuing to hold their signs up for drivers to see. Some began using the pedestrian push-to-cross buttons to intermittently cause red lights for Main Street traffic, gathering a captive audience of drivers at the intersection in the process.
Drivers saw the messages, and some honked their approval, just as they had the four nights prior. Ash Howe, a 16-year-old local activist who initiated planning of Friday’s protest, had been at that same street corner every night since June 1 with a group of roughly 20 others (depending on the night), holding signs with various messages about social justice and police reform.
Some of the most common signs read “Black Lives Matter,” the primary slogan of activists fighting police brutality and systemic racism and a message that, according to the Black Lives Matter Global Network, “shifted culture with an eye toward the dangerous impacts of anti-blackness.”
Another common phrase was “I can’t breathe,” the last words of Eric Garner, who died in 2014 when a New York City Police Department officer held him in a chokehold despite his pleas. Chokeholds are one of the police tactics many protestors are now targeting in their calls to reform departments — that is, those who are not calling to altogether disband them.
George Floyd, who died by asphyxiation at the knee of a Minneapolis Police Department officer, uttered the same words Garner did six years later. Video of the killing circulated after his May 25 death set off the most recent set of protests against police brutality and racism that have now reached Moab — protests that have been fueled by a legacy of American slavery, black disenfranchisement, racial wealth gaps, disproportionate prison sentences on the basis of race, and racial health disparities, among other inequities, according to multiple sources.
In one of the latest such examples of racial inequity in the U.S., black people have been dying of COVID-19 at nearly twice the rate their share of the population would suggest they would. That is, black people account for 13% of the U.S. population but 24% of COVID-19 deaths where race of the deceased is known, according to The COVID Tracking Project by news outlet The Atlantic.
So far, the protests — most that have been peaceful — have in some cases yielded more violence between armed officers and mostly unarmed protestors. In Washington, D.C., President Donald Trump ordered the gassing of protestors to make way for a photo opportunity of him holding a copy of the Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church.
Despite — or, according to some, because of — the high profile that violence, destruction and looting has brought a minority of the recent protests, some changes are now in the works.
In the city where the most recent bout of protests began, the Minneapolis City Council voted to disband its police department, saying it could not be merely reformed but rather required a complete rethinking of public safety in the city. In New York City, Mayor Bill De Blasio promised to cut the city’s police budget to spend more on social services in the city. The same has occurred in Los Angeles, where more than $1 billion is proposed for reallocation elsewhere.
And at home in Moab, Edge and Mayor Emily Niehaus promised to establish regular reviews of the police department’s use of force policies and to gather community feedback on locals’ interactions with Moab police, also promising to report the findings back to the community.
For now, the changes remain only as promises, but mere days into the latest movement, many at the protests are convinced that this time really is different, according to stories from The New York Times, The Washington Post, Buzzfeed News and other national news outlets.
And it is all happening only 401 years after the first enslaved Africans landed in the English colony of Virginia; 155 years after the Confederate States of America lost their fight to keep blacks as property; 52 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 amid riots over the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; and after the many generations black people spent building their own institutions and slowly but persistently fighting to gain equal rights, opportunities and treatment.