A white poster board with red letters, proclaiming, ”Don’t shoot,” is stuck to the top of a “Road Closed” sign. Another — with “Justice for Bernardo” written in a clean sans serif font — is taped to the back of a park bench. Or a bus stop. Or a building.
Wherever protesters march, the signs follow, and some are purposely left behind, reminders of the moment and the movement hours, days and sometimes weeks after demonstrators return home for the night.
A volunteer group called Local Propagandists screenprints many of these signs, sometimes as many as 4,000 a night, by hand. It’s labor intensive, both physically and mentally, as they use their body weight to force ink evenly through a stencil for each sign. It imprints similarly on their minds, which take in and reflect on the inherently disturbing images and phrases. Over and over, for hours.
“Seeing them and printing them is just the same as saying them out loud,” group member Taylar Jackson said.
More recently, demonstrators have wallpapered these signs on public buildings. It’s a statement, protesters say, that prosecutors and other public servants are just that. They work for the people — and many of these people want charges filed against the Salt Lake City officers responsible for 22-year-old Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal’s death in May.
Palacios-Carbajal was shot as he ran from officers investigating an armed robbery. On Thursday, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill announced his decision that the officers acted within the law, noting Palacios-Carbajal repeatedly dropped a gun and paused to pick it up as he ran.
‘In your face’
Jackson, a member of the mostly anonymous Local Propagandist group, described it as a queer-led, nonprofit direct action print shop that works on community-focused education and amplifying diverse voices.
It’s tiring but important work, work that Jackson said she wishes there wasn’t a need for.
“Something that wracks my brain is, I don’t understand why we have to print off like 30,000 signs to say that somebody’s life matters,” Jackson said.
The movement has inspired other pieces of protest art in Utah. An anonymous collective of artists has painted 11 portraits of people killed in Utah by police on the facade of a Salt Lake City building used to store city vehicles in the Granary District.
Last weekend, artists followed a national trend by painting “Black Lives Matter” on one of Park City’s streets; they also included images of people killed by police in Utah. Gallons of red paint were recently slathered onto the street in front of the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office, and on Thursday red was splashed onto the office building, a metaphor for the blood of the dozens killed by police in the state over the past several years.
These so-called guerrilla art tactics are effective “because they make the messages of these causes visible to many who would not see them otherwise,” said Jorge Rojas, learning and engagement director with the Utah Museum of Fine Arts.
“They are meant to be ‘in your face’ and to provoke thought and action,” he said. ”As the world of advertising would show us, repetition of imagery and message is highly effective.”
Artists today are following a long line of activists who used imagery to drive social change by promoting voices of the marginalized. It’s a blueprint established, in part, by a 1930s Mexican movement called Taller de Gráfica Popular, said Beth Krensky, an art history professor at the University of Utah.
The group, known as the TGP, was a community hub that boosted perspectives and messages from people who had traditionally gone unheard, via relatively cheaply made prints, wrote Ilona Katzew for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Local Propagandists also operates that way, Jackson said. They aim to “amplify more voices” and do it for not a lot of money. Around $50 makes 500 posters.
The message is “not coming from me, but it’s everyone in our community, if they need to be heard,” Jackson said. The posters are distributed for free. The group also makes T-shirts. Those are free, too.
The process of protest art
Local Propagandists started May 30, when Jackson and other artists showed up at one of Salt Lake City’s first protests against police violence in the wake of George Floyd’s death in the custody of Minneapolis police.
Jackson said she and her friends had signs, but a lot of people didn’t, and that group of artists had the resources to change that.
They left the protest to get to work, and by that evening, they were handing out bundles of white signs, screen-printed in an angular, red font that read, “Don’t shoot.” From there, the signs proliferated: the sans serif “Justice For Bernardo,” the same phrase but in script and adorned with a rose, a fist with “Black Lives Matter” on the palm.
More than 20 people pitch in to get the posters and T-shirts made, at times spending 18 hours a day printing, on top of researching and making new pieces of art to screenprint.
The work isn’t easy. It requires keen attention to detail and a fair amount of pressure to make sure the signs come out uniform and readable. First, artists tape a screen, a kind of stencil, into place. They put a glob of ink onto the screen, and use a long squeegee to spread the paint. Too little pressure, and the ink won’t transfer.
“All of these hours that we do, and the tens of thousands signs that we make, and we feel like our fingers are broken and our hands are bloody,” Jackson said. “But the thing is, we still have our hands, and that’s why we’re pushing for Bernardo so hard.”
From there, the signs end up with protesters. When they post them in a thick layer on the district attorney’s office’s glass facade, the signs contrast with another art piece the building features: a biophotonic glass word cloud, espousing the office’s commitment to equality, truth and justice.
Sometimes activists show up to protest at the office or at City Hall and find the signs there from the day before. Sometimes, someone has removed them, discarding them in nearby garbage cans. On those days, protesters remove them from the trash and place them back on the wall.
Jackson said the group had two thoughts when they heard their posters were taken down. “Our first thought,” Jackson said, “was, like, we hope they recycle.”
Second was feeling slighted, when they realized the posters were so easily retrieved and reused. As one member, who asked to be anonymous because police are investigating a potential crime committed against him, said, “It’s almost insulting. It’s like you can’t even reject us with effort.”
Someday, some of these signs will end up in a museum, alongside items from past movements. Perhaps at the University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriott Library, which holds ephemera from protests at Utah’s Japanese internment camps during World War II and the Industrial Workers of the World movement in the 1910s. Influential IWW songwriter Joe Hill was convicted of murder and executed in Utah in 1915, his guilt debated then and a century later.
And, Liz Rogers, museum manuscript curator, points out, the library has mementos from “virtually every protest, or every march, or every gathering that has happened in Salt Lake in the last four or five years.” The library collects not just protest signs, but also photographs, correspondence and personal “zines.”
“We look at ourselves as probably the recipient of the idea of Salt Lake,” Rogers said. “It’s really important that we get this stuff.”
Before the pandemic, the library set out drop-off boxes for protest signs, or would send someone to demonstrations to collect items, said Todd Samuelson, assistant head of Special Collections for the library. Now, library staff are asking people with signs or other items reflective of this movement to hang on to them — and donate when the library can begin accepting them.
Rogers warned, though, even though protests signs are being made in the thousands, only single copies of each sign may be accepted, just because there’s not much space. The sheer amount of signs this group is creating seems to be unlike anything Salt Lake City has seen before, she said.
Art as a mirror
Jackson said she believes within any movement, propaganda is necessary. Ever since the printing press was invented, printing has been used to spread messages.
Sometimes propaganda is a loaded term, but Rojas, with UMFA, said it doesn’t have to carry a negative connotation.
He said all protest art and signs are propaganda. But as his colleague, Alana Wolf, said, not all propaganda is art, which “tells us something about our humanity.”
”Art can be wonderful but also terrifying because it often acts as a mirror: It reflects back to us who we are as a people and tells us about who and what we value,” Wolf said. “This also tells us a great deal about why our responses to it are so very strong: Sometimes, the image that we see tells us that we need to make a change.”
At the end of a long day, Jackson said, when she’s getting ready for bed, her body sore from the day’s work, that’s what she thinks about: how the artwork she and others are distributing has contributed toward enacting change.
”My biggest wish,” Jackson said, “is that people would just read [the signs], and hopefully there is a message, or a six-word poem, or a design that ends up touching everyone in our community, to let them … understand that [police violence] happens here.”