Black Lives Matter protests spread to southern Utah communities of Moab, Kanab, St. George

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sixteen-year-old organizer Ash Howe speaks through a megaphone at the Moab protest against racism and police brutality on Friday, June 5, 2020.

Moab • Sixteen-year-old Ash Howe stood in front of hundreds of protesters Friday evening in Moab, talking through a megaphone.

“I’m not a public speaker, and I didn’t plan to be up here” he said, before launching into a passionate speech about racism and police violence that drew cheers from his fellow protesters.

“I am here alongside my brothers and sisters who were killed,” he told the crowd, “and I will not stop standing until they stop being killed for their skin color. I believe it's important for all of us to take that stand now and always.”

Howe, who started a Moab chapter of Black Lives Matter earlier this week, told The Salt Lake Tribune he was impressed with the more than 400 people who showed up in the 5,300-person desert town to march against police brutality, despite bouts of rain, lightning and lashing wind.

“It’s really good to see the awareness that’s coming about in our community,” Howe said. “I may be white, but I’m a gay trans man, and I think it’s important to stand with other minorities, especially in a time like this.”

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Joshua Zarate, who said he fears for his friends of color who live in American cities, holds a sign at the protest in Moab on Friday, June 5, 2020.

While thousands of protesters have continued to flood the streets of Salt Lake City each night this week, prompting Gov. Gary Herbert to activate the National Guard, smaller marches have also spread through communities in the southern part of the state.

Dozens of protesters gathered on the campus of Southern Utah University in Cedar City Sunday.

In the 4,800-person town of Kanab, around 100 people marched down the sidewalks Thursday morning holding signs and chanting, “No justice, no peace!”

Over 800 protestes lay down in the streets of St. George on Thursday evening for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the amount of time Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into the neck of George Floyd, whose killing on Memorial Day has sparked protests worldwide. A similar vigil was held in Moab on Friday.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Protesters lay down on Center Street in Moab for nearly nine minutes on Friday, June 5, 2020, to commemorate the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers in May.

Like Howe, organizers at all of these events expressed surprise at the size of the turnout in southern Utah towns known more for their nearby national parks than for their anti-racist activism.

“This new growth, new blood in the movement, is amazing,” Troy Anderson, the head of the southern Utah chapter of Black Lives Matter, told St. George News during Thursday’s protest. “I’m very happy with the turnout.”

Ed Moss, a photographer who organized the Kanab event, said he texted a few friends earlier in the week and expected maybe ten people would show up to have a conversation about racism and police violence.

“I was blown away,” Moss said. “It was ten times what I expected.”

(Courtesy of Ed Moss) Protesters line the streets of Kanab on Thursday, June 4, 2020.

According to the 2010 census, Kanab is more than 96% white and Moss, a white man, noted the protest mostly matched the town’s demographics.

“This town is not diverse at all,” Moss said, adding he believes it is important for people of European descent to have conversations “about the deeply rooted racism issues in this country and how they run back before its founding and how things must change.”

Moss spoke about those issues at the rally, quoting the South African anti-apartheid activist Desmond Tutu: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, then you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Moab resident Desarie Miller looks on as other organizers ask protesters to peacefully stop blocking Main Street in Moab on Friday, June 5, 2020.

The Moab crowd was predominantly young and white but more diverse than the Kanab protest. Desarie Miller, a young woman of color, spoke briefly alongside Howe and others before the march.

“This is not a space for non-people of color to express how they're affected by the way black people find their liberation,” she said. “White allies who have listened to the oppressed, who have held space for the most marginalized and echoed their voices: we see all of you, we stand with you hand-in-hand while we dismantle this system.”

The Moab protest built in numbers throughout the evening as protesters marched through city blocks, chanting slogans used in protests across the country, including the names of black people slain by police, and carrying Black Lives Matter signs and banners.

Many people had signs noting that Friday would have been the 27th birthday of Breona Taylor, a black emergency room technician who was shot eight times by police inside her own home in March in Louisville, Ky.

Even after the wind picked up, snapping large tree limbs, blowing down road barricades and filling protesters’ eyes with dust, the crowd continued marching, at one point stretching out over three city blocks.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) A police officer looks on as protesters block Main Street in Moab on Friday, June 5, 2020, while protesting racism and police brutality across the country.

As dusk fell, protesters completely blocked Main Street for 30 minutes before voluntarily moving to a side road. Moab City Police and Utah Highway Patrol diverted traffic around the march but did not confront protesters.

John, a Nicaraguan man living in Moab who declined to give his last name, said he came out to the protest because he’d experienced racial profiling by police in other cities in the past.

“Police brutality is real,” he said.

Humjune Geo, a 26-year-old Moab resident who helped carry a giant Black Lives Matter banner throughout the event, said, “This isn't about politics. This is just basic human rights.”

A black woman passing the protest got out of her car to thank those who were marching down Main Street.

In St. George and Kanab, protesters reported being met with honks of solidarity from passing vehicles, but also opposition, with diesel pickup trucks “rolling coal” — intentionally spewing thick exhaust — near the crowd and shouting words of support for President Donald Trump.

All three events were mostly peaceful, though a 41-year-old woman in St. George was arrested after allegedly pulling a gun on a juvenile protester Thursday night and was released on $5,000 bail Friday. Initial social media reports that the woman was wearing a swastika symbol and that the protester was a person of color could not be confirmed.

Another protest is planned Saturday in St. George.

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.