Robert Gehrke: Five black leaders in Utah say this is where our community should go from here

Robert Gehrke

Our nation has been through a lot these past few weeks. We have been forced to answer for our sad history of racism and our lingering reality of injustice.

Where do we go from here? Honestly, I don’t have the answers to that. More importantly, it doesn’t matter what I think. Our job right now is to listen to those who live this reality day in and day out and to stand with them and demand that things change.

So, I’m going to shut up and listen and let you consider the views of five thoughtful Utahns — all of whom are black — who I asked to share their views on a couple core issues: Where do we go from here? How do we get to someplace better? And will the killing of George Floyd bring results, when previous violence against black Americans has not? (Our conversations have been edited for length.)

(Photo courtesy of Adrienne Andrews) Adrienne Andrews is the assistant vice president for diversity and chief diversity officer at Weber State University.

Adrienne Andrews, chief diversity officer, Weber State University

Right now people are saying a lot of positive things [in public dialogues] but I hope what would come from that is the on-the-ground resources to make that happen. … Words alone will not do it. We’ve tried that tactic for 400 years and sadly are still not successful. We need to put our money where our mouths are.

It also means having to hear some things we’re maybe not wanting to hear — whether it’s about institutional racism, structural racism, policies that are exclusionary — because we like to think we’re better than that. It’s June 2020 and we like to think we’re beyond redlining [the practice of not lending to black customers] but we’re not. Because the reality is even once we remove things from being in play we have to deal with the repercussions of them having been in play. So when we talk about generational wealth and you hear about black people not saving money and they spend it on frivolous things … if you’ve never been able to buy a home because you can’t get a loan, that’s a structural issue. That’s an institutional issue.

So what I think people should think about doing next is some self-reflection. It’s really easy to say, “We want structures and institutions to change,” … but people make the structures and the policies. … We have to be able to internalize that on an individual level and figure out at our core what makes us think we’re better than other people. What makes us engage in practices that oppress and exclude and harm other people and what are we willing to do to change those very things, because the institutions and structures don’t change until we change.

[People are horrified by George Floyd’s killing]. At the same time, I’m horrified at the level of shock that people are engaging in, because it’s my everyday lived experience and it’s other people’s lived experience and it was George Floyd’s lived experience and it resulted in his death.

Q. Will things be different this time?

Yes. Because I’m seeing more people actually doing that self-reflection and then engaging in the difficult conversations that come next, asking why, asking for explanations. … I’m seeing a greater willingness for individuals to recognize that racism is alive and well in this country and willingness for people to recognize that the humanity I have does not decrease the humanity someone else has.

Meligha Garfield, director of the Black Cultural Center, University of Utah

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Meligha Garfield, director of the Black Cultural Center at the University of Utah, and Joan Gregory look over an interactive exhibit highlighting six figures in African American history at the U.'s Eccles Health Sciences Library in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020.

I think the best thing that could come of this, on a national level, is more police reform. … The conversation, especially in Utah, should be: How do we formulate the idea that people should not be made to feel invisible? So the perspective of just myself, being a black male, I’m made to feel invisible here in Utah until a crisis or something brings it national attention. So I think the overall thing is: How do we further a conversation, but also action? How do we make people not feel invisible in the state and in Salt Lake City? And reframing the narrative that we’re not invisible, that we’re here, we’re doing positive things.

A lot of my job is community relations, but one of the biggest things is: How do we connect people who are supposedly the people who protect and serve us with the community? … What is good police work? What makes a good police officer? A lot of that is how you build relationships in the community. … Make sure they’re connected with the community they serve and not just the community where they live.

Q. But will things be different this time?

[Long sigh] I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful. But we’ve been having this conversation for the last couple hundred years, so, like, what will change it now? My father and his father and his father’s father have been having this same discussion. So I’m pretty sure my kids will be having the same discussion in the future.

Q. What kind of conversations are you having with students?

As far as black students, the population that I serve, the biggest message I push out for them is: Look, we know these incidents are not isolated. So my biggest concern for you all as students is your mental health. How are you dealing with what is going on? How are you processing things? What are your feelings and thoughts? How do you move forward positively but also with your emotions? … It happens so much, how do you not feel overwhelmed? How do you not feel pent up anger? How do you control these emotions, but also know it’s OK to not be OK. … It’s OK to not be OK with what’s going on.

James Evans, former chairman of the Utah Republican Party

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) James Evans, former chair of the Utah Republican Party, uses a megaphone to excite chanting as two competing rallies spar near Rep. Ben McAdams' office in West Jordan, one seeking to support McAdams and one to criticize him for supporting the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump on Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019.

I think that first the outcome in the immediate future should be justice for George Floyd and his family. That’s No. 1.

In the larger context, it is my hope that white society can truly understand when racial minorities say that they’re not treated the same by law enforcement, they need to understand that that is indeed true. Personally, I have done this for most of my adult life. I’m very aware of where I go and when I go because part of my thought process is about the police and that is just a survival strategy, and that is just ingrained in me.

I’ve chosen not to go to places depending on where it is located and the time and I do that. I do that to this day. And my thought is not the criminal element. My thought is the police element. If that’s how I see the police, then there is something that we really need to have a serious discussion about.

And where do we go from here? It has to be first an acknowledgment that policing for whatever reason is not done in an evenhanded way, for whatever reason. And I support a process by which all police departments can be graded, A through F, so the politicians of those cities can answer to their constituents about their police departments.

[Looking at data on police violence], it hasn’t escaped me that the overwhelming number of cities are Democrat-controlled cities and that’s worth taking note of, because this is beyond a Republican-Democrat issue. This is truly a white-black discussion.

And I think finally, it hasn’t escaped me that for the most part, white society sees police as their protectors and in black society we see police as our oppressors. I think we can move beyond it by starting with just honest discussion. That doesn’t require blame to be assigned. I’m saying that change will not happen until white society recognizes that we want law enforcement to work for everyone in society. Until that happens we’re not going to see much change.

Jeanetta Williams, president of the NAACP Salt Lake

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Trooper Ruben Correa of the Utah Highway Patrol is presented with a First Responder Award by Battalion Chief Jeffrey Thomas and Jeanetta Williams, President of the NAACP Salt Lake Chapter during the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Luncheon at Little America Hotel on Monday, Jan. 20, 2020. Trooper Correa conducted a traffic stop on Oct. 19, 2019, where he pulled an unconscious driver from a vehicle moments before it was struck by a Frontrunner train.

I would just like for people to realize that there are people in the community that feel unsafe — especially African American boys and men — who feel unsafe going out in the community for jobs or walks or even going shopping or to a grocery store, for fear that someone may attack them in any way, fear of being shot by the police, fear of someone accusing them while they’re just walking or jogging while being black. … [We] want people to stop and think before they make that cellphone call that an African American male is harassing them when they know it’s not true … that they need to take a closer look at themselves and say, ‘Am I doing this or thinking this because that person doesn’t look like me?”

The way we make sure progress happens is we need to put some concrete things in place about the do’s and don’t’s and set up some legislation. … We need to make sure we talk about the civil rights and civil rights issues going on and hopefully people will stop and think about their lives or their loved ones lives and they wouldn’t want their lives put in jeopardy every time they walk out the door … We want people to be more aware. I think more awareness is going to be crucial if we’re going to make any changes.

Q. Will things be different this time?

I really think so. It seems like people have seen the Eric Garners, they have seen the Ahmaud Arberys, and people are alarmed at the time and then go back to the same thing. But with more people looking at it and saying, “This man didn’t have to die for that. Why did that police officer have to hold his knee on that man’s throat for eight minutes and 46 seconds? Why didn’t the other three officers say, “Look, I think you can take your knee off his throat”?

I think people [not just] in Utah but across the country are saying, “This is enough. … We need to do something. We need to say something. What can we do to help?”

Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake, says a few words in conjunction with the 400th anniversary of the arrival of African slaves in the United States, as Salt Lake City dedicates the first grave marker for Tom, an enslaved Black pioneer who was buried in the Salt Lake City Cemetery in 1862. The placement and dedication of the marker on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019, is the result of research initially conducted by Mark Smith, the former sexton of the Cemetery.

From this point forward I would love to see, as a Legislature, us listening, actually listening to our constituents and particularly listening to those individuals in the minority community who are affected by this, who experience racism and have to deal with it on a daily basis. There has to be some listening and understanding of our perspectives and where we’re coming from.

For a lot of people in the state this is new to them. This is absolutely new to them, but for us it’s not. This is something we experience constantly. Constantly.

Out of these conversations I would like to see us actually address equity, equality and the barriers that we face every day, the systematic racism. I would love to see things set in place to hopefully start addressing those issues, whether that’s education, the job market, housing.

The first thing I think people need to do is understand their privilege. When we say “privilege,” a lot of people shy away and become defensive. Having privilege is not a bad thing. I understand that I have privilege as a state legislator and a woman with a master’s degree. The question is: How do you use your privilege to disrupt the system that is in place? The No. 2 thing is to be an ally. We know what needs to be done. … Stand behind us and support us. Support the policies we’re pushing to start addressing these issues.

I am confident that we are going to move forward and there is going to be some good from this. I think the … video has opened a lot of Americans’ eyes to what is happening in our community and the protesters have brought attention to what is happening. I am an optimist, so I have faith.

I have faith.