These are the Utahns making sure protesters are safe — and not spreading coronavirus

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Shandra Benito, a member of the Salt Lake Mutual Aid group provides aid to demonstrators gathered at City Hall in Salt Lake City for Bernardo Palacios Rally, on Thursday, June 18, 2020.

On most recent evenings, those passing through downtown Salt Lake City are likely to see hundreds marching against police brutality. Those who don’t see them might hear the group’s chants bouncing off the buildings.

For those who get a glance, outside the tightly packed group of demonstrators are some who stand out. These people wear yellow or orange safety vests.

They ask protesters, walking and yelling in the summer heat, if they need water. Or snacks.

And in this moment — when a movement against police brutality coincides with a pandemic, and when both issues disproportionately affect communities of color — they are making sure every person who wants a face mask at these demonstrations gets one.

“Both of these issues, COVID-19 and racial injustice, they’re not going away,” said volunteer Mary Giles, with the Salt Lake Valley COVID-19 Mutual Aid program.

On one of those fronts, the efforts may be working: Salt Lake County health officials have linked just two cases of coronavirus to the ongoing demonstrations.

Salt Lake County Health Department spokesman Nicholas Rupp said getting masks to those who need them at these protests is a “very good idea.”

“We are grateful in public health that they are doing this,” he said, “because it’s proven that face masks can help.”

How mutual aid started

These sort of networks have been around for centuries, but the principle of “mutual aid” was first defined by Russian activist and philosopher Peter Kropotkin in his 1902 essay titled “Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution."

He argued against the survival-of-the-fittest premise that defined so-called social Darwinism, theorizing that societies are better off when members took care of one another and redistributed resources to those who needed them.

Essentially, said Madalena McNeil, an organizer with Salt Lake Valley COVID-19 Mutual Aid, it’s “some people have some things, and some people need some things.”

Mutual Aid fills that gap.

This group started in mid-March as Utah began to lock down because of COVID-19. Organizers knew people would lose their jobs, or find themselves unable to shop for necessities, like groceries, because they’re in quarantine.

At first, McNeil said, hundreds signed up to volunteer. All of them had to complete training to learn how to keep themselves and others safe from the virus and how to protect people’s privacy.

Then, on May 25, a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd. Protests erupted across the country, including in Salt Lake City.

“We were like, ‘If our mission is to serve marginalized communities in Utah, this is a perfect intersection of that’,” McNeil said.

Wear a mask

On a recent Wednesday, as demonstrators trekked up State Street to the Utah Capitol, a woman who saw the marchers decided to join. She passed the sidewalk to merge with the crowd.

A volunteer, walking out to the side of the group, called out, “Do you want a mask?”

The woman did and was supplied a medical-grade blue, polypropylene face covering. Then joined the ranks again.

That’s exactly how volunteers have been trained, McNeil said.

This is a role that has evolved as the street demonstrations evolved.

Mutual Aid volunteer Cristina Chirvasa said she participated in Salt Lake City’s protest May 30, when thousands showed up, some graffitied the Capitol and a group flipped a police car and then burned it.

She remembers walking up the hill to the Capitol in the heat, wishing she had some water and worrying about all the people she saw without masks.

That’s part of why Chirvasa said she joined Mutual Aid. As a white person, she said she wants to be the best ally she can be to the movement, and this is a good way to do it.

Now a whole team of vested volunteers show up at protests with hand sanitizer, water, snacks and, of course, masks. They typically enlist a truck or SUV to drive along marchers to carry the supplies.

Giles said that recently she’s been struck by just how many people come to protests already wearing face protection. She said it makes her proud of demonstrators.

And since, as Giles said, “the communities that have been most impacted by COVID-19 are the communities that are also fighting for their lives in these protests,” the extra precaution makes sense.

The Salt Lake County Health Department continues to recommend that all people wear face protection at mass gatherings, wash their hands or use hand sanitizer frequently, and try to stay 6 feet apart.

“Community transmission of COVID is still a significant threat in Salt Lake County,” Rupp said, “and successfully controlling the spread of illness will require everyone in our community doing their part.”