ST. GEORGE — Crowds gathered along St. George Boulevard just a couple blocks south of the St. George Police Department on Saturday to demonstrate in solidarity with national protesters airing their grievances in the death of George Floyd.
Update May 31, 1 p.m. Additional context and corrections added to quotes.
The protest is one of a handful held throughout the day around the downtown area that drew large crowds, including one at St. George City Hall earlier in the day billed as the “Take a Knee” demonstration under the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
St. George Police estimated 200 people were at the Boulevard protest Saturday evening. The earlier protest at City Hall had between 50 to 60 participants.
Protesters held signs saying, “No Justice, No Peace” and “He Couldn’t Breathe,” in reference to Floyd, who died Monday after an officer pressed his knee into his neck for several minutes even after he stopped moving and pleading for air in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
St. George News reporters on scene at both the evening and morning protests observed a peaceful, if passionate, assembly. Some police officers were stationed in the area. A handful of counter-protesters, expressing support for the St. George Police and that “All Lives Matter” also gathered nearby.
A majority of the protest, which began around 5 p.m., dispersed for the most part around 9 p.m. with a few dozen remaining until about 10 p.m.
Unlike the protests in Salt Lake City to the north and countless other cities nationwide, the only violent incident in St. George came when a passing motorist threw a firecracker in the middle of the street protesters interpreted as an attack. Other than some loud yelling back from protesters, the incident didn’t escalate further.
St. George Police were on standby nearby but didn’t make a visual presence beyond a pair of bicycle officers. Officers also accompanied St. George Mayor Jon Pike as he arrived and spoke with some of the protesters.
The racial and age makeup of the protest was multicultural and millenial, whith young white men holding “Black Lives Matter” signs and older African American women yelling “I can’t breathe.”
Protesters alternated between yelling “Say his name, George Floyd,” “black lives matter” and “no justice, no peace.” A majority of passing motorists honked their approval, while others either yelled out “All lives matter” or obscenities at the protesters.
Diamond Sluka, a St. George nursing assistant, came to the protest because of what she said were personal experiences with harassment by police officers in St. George.
“I’m tired. I just want to feel safe,” Sluka, an African American, said. “That I have to feel that way is ridiculously stupid.”
She said while she was doing her nursing job one day, after a person called in and “told the police that someone who was black was in their neighborhood and did not look like she belonged.”
“And the police came out and after I explained I was there for work, the neighbors were aware I would be there for work, the police said if they got another call they would still harass me about it,” Sluka said.
Sluka recounted another incident during a cold January morning where she was using a knife to scrape ice off the windshield of her car in front of her home because she did not have an ice pick.
“A person who knew I lived here decided I did not belong because I’m black and called police and told them I was trying to break into my home, even though they knew I lived there,” Sluka said.
“When the officer saw I had a knife, he acted as if he was scared of me. After seeing what I was doing with the knife and laughing at the irony of me needing to scrape off my windows in St. George where it is almost always way too hot, he decided to call back-up on me even though I wasn’t being violent in any shape or form. And when they showed up they had their hands on their guns, ready to draw on me at any point in time.”
She said all three of the officers saw texts from her then-boyfriend and acknowledged she showed proof she lived in the home. However, she added one officer left and the two remaining officers parked on the two sides of her complex and remained and “stared at me for 45 minutes.”
While hundreds gathered on the boulevard, a few blocks away in front of City Hall, four demonstrators stood in what they said was in support of police officers. The four said they were remaining about three blocks from the boulevard because of fears of violence from the protesters.
Among the counter-protesters was Kimberlee Davis, who said her son is with the St. George Police.
“We want our police department to know they have our support. We have no interest in confronting anyone,” Davis said, adding with the officer in Minneapolis facing third-degree murder charges, the protesters should have just stayed home. “There are so many good cops. This officer in Minnesota is facing charges. We’re getting justice. I would say if you want peace, go home and be at peace. They’re hurting the memory being left of George Floyd.”
Back on the boulevard, 16-year-old Spencer Wilde was holding up a “Black Lives Matter” sign. The white native of Minneapolis now living in St. George said he had friends back in Minnesota who faced harassment from officers there. He said the problem are the good officers not speaking out against the bad ones.
“Reach out to your community and help them. One of the biggest things are how police are trained,” said Wilde, who added the third-degree murder charge against Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin is not sending a strong enough message. “That’s the same thing as accidentally hitting someone with a car.”
Saturday’s protest was described as follows by organizers on social media:
This is to stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter chapters around the country as we call for justice for George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Bernard Palacio (SLC) – and all the other POC (people of color) that were unjustly killed at the hands of police.
This event will discuss a ‘call to action’ about what we can do beyond this. This is not to protest or give a moment of silence only to ‘feel like you’ve done something’ and get back to your daily lives. YOU WANT TO SEE CHANGE – SHOW UP AND FIND OUT HOW!!
Sarah Serrano was not just protesting, she was celebrating her 19th birthday. The Latina said she was spending her birthday at the protest because she was tired of those who she said have used racial epitaphs at her and the “n-word” she said she has heard hurled at her African American friends.
“There’s a reason why we say black lives matter,” Serrano said. “Of course all lives should matter, but we wouldn’t be arguing about black lives needing to matter if we didn’t need to.”
Serrano’s assertion was echoed by protesters yelling, “No lives matter if black lives don’t matter.”
Prentiss Miller, 25, grew up in St. George as a person of color in a town that is 88.48% white according to the most recent Census. But the Pine View High grad said seeing the predominantly Caucasian make-up of the crowd brought a smile to his face.
“This is everything,” Miller said. “I’m glad there’s awareness.”
Salt Lake City in curfew after violence
In Northern Utah, thousands of people converged on downtown Salt Lake City on Saturday to protest, but those protests turned violent and resulted in a curfew being imposed on the city .
Police officers broadcast announcements that the 8 p.m. curfew had taken effect in hopes that demonstrators would voluntarily leave the downtown area, Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown said. Police were prepared to give people time to leave, but they planned to arrest people who refused to comply, Brown said.
“It is time to go home,” he said in a news conference after the curfew took effect.
The curfew by Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall was scheduled to last until 6 a.m. Monday.
Police officers from across Utah and up to 200 National Guard troops were deployed to rein in what Gov. Gary Herbert called an “escalating situation.”
“We condemn violence and looting,” Herbert wrote, adding, “I once again call on all who are protesting to do so peacefully.”
Six people had been arrested by Saturday night, Brown said. One police officer was injured after a protester struck the officer on the back of the head with a baseball bat, and two other officers have been hospitalized because of heat exhaustion, he said.
What was billed as a “car caravan for justice” began with people in vehicles circling the Salt Lake City Police Department with signs that said “Black Lives Matter” and “Justice for George Floyd.”
People on foot smashed eggs against the windows of the police station. Messages were written on the building that said, “We can’t breathe” along with expletives directed at police.
Graffiti was also written on the state Capitol.
St. George News writers Joseph Witham and Mori Kessler contributed to this report. The Associated Press contributed from Salt Lake City.
Editor’s note: Quotes from Diamond Sluka were corrected to include additional context.
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