Protestors marching through Moab on Friday, June 5 asserted that Black lives matter, that color should not be a crime, that police should be defunded, that Moab needs a citizen review board over local police, that systemic issues require systemic change, and many other messages.
Not every idea in the crowd made it into large print on a cardboard sign or into a call-and-respond chant. Diving into the online and sometimes in-person discussions locals are having about the changes they want to see in Moab reveals tension between those who want only to reform the local police department and sheriff’s office and those who want a total rebuilding of Moab’s public safety system. Outside the movement, there are those who want neither.
The national discussion over defunding or disbanding the police and a promise to do so from the Minneapolis Police Department demonstrates an underlying distrust and tension between law enforcement and the communities they police. In Minneapolis, the city council heard comments expressing such distrust as the reason public safety in the city needs a rethinking.
“No one feels safe calling the police, period,” Kenza Hadj-Moussa, a spokeswoman for advocacy group TakeAction Minnesota, told The New York Times. “They’re not doing their basic function of public safety.”
In Moab, the sentiment that police are the enemy is nowhere near as strong, but some protestors see defunding the police as a broader mandate that could be applied in all American cities, including Moab.
While it wasn’t the idea of the initial organizers of Friday’s Black Lives Matter protest in Moab to directly involve the Moab Police Department — that was an initiative by Andy Lewis, a professional performer and stuntman in Moab from whom organizers and some protestors distanced themselves due to his preexisting, divisive standing amid locals — Ash Howe, a 16-year-old Grand County high schooler, who organizers cited as the key person to put the demonstration together, said he “felt better having them there.”
Howe said that having Grand County and Moab law enforcement officers present for the protest helped ensure Center Street stayed blocked off to traffic, thereby creating space for the demonstration to happen; ensured traffic rerouted when protestors marched on and blocked Main Street; and, in some cases, gave officers an opportunity to stand with the protestors, behind the messages affirming the value of black lives and against the use of excessive force.
According to Desirae Miller, a 23-year-old Moab activist who helped Howe organize Friday’s demonstration, the event confronted a truth she and other people of color at the rally experience themselves: “Racism exists in Moab,” as Miller put it.
Miller, a black woman, said that living in a city where about 0.5% of the population is black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, is “ostracizing” and at times “wildly uncomfortable,” making her feel some combination of “overly seen” and ignored.
At Friday’s protest, though, she felt like she found balance. She said the protestors — primarily white — who showed up June 5 were willing to acknowledge problems connected to racism that exist in Moab and fight for change. “More people are having those conversations,” Miller said.
Of the Moab Police Department, Miller said she had “respect” for them, never having experienced an issue with local police. But, she still wants to see change, as do others.
One of the specific policy prescriptions being proposed in recent days has been put forward by the #8CANTWAIT project, which calls for eight specific changes police departments can make that, according to research they cite, “can reduce killings by police and save lives.” But even Campaign Zero, which created and promotes the campaign, implores supporters to seek more transformative change.
“If you are from a place where #8CANTWAIT is being considered, demand steps towards defunding and abolition,” the project website reads. “If you are a legislator who has adopted these policies or are considering it, please know that it will take many strategies to move beyond policing and use this time to learn more and listen to the needs of your community.”
The idea of seeing Moab “move beyond policing” resonates with Miller and Howe, both of whom endorsed a total rethinking of law enforcement and public safety in Moab, as Minneapolis promised to do.
Howe called Minneapolis’ decision to abolish its police department “amazing” and a “huge step” that would be “useful anywhere,” including in Moab. Miller said she also supported the move and would like to see such a change in Moab but that she feels “scared of saying that publicly” because of the scrutiny such an idea — one that has only recently hit the mainstream discussion — could bring to a person of color in a place where roughly seven in eight people are white.
Howe, in a statement he shared with protestors June 5, responded to that fear.
“I know a lot of people of color are really scared to step up right now,” Howe said. “That’s why I took the chance to step up when I could, because I know some of you are scared, and I understand that. I’m scared. It’s a scary situation. But it’s time for us to stand up against scary situations and have these difficult conversations in these small towns.”