‘We’re bringing about change today’: Utahns gather to celebrate Juneteenth, protest racism in policing

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Demonstrators march the streets of downtown Salt Lake City for a rally as part of a series of Juneteenth celebrations on Friday, June 19, 2020.

When enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, got the news on June 19, 1865, that they were free, it was a day of celebration, a day for jubilee to mark the end of a life spent in servitude.

Molly Farrell was there, and she and her mom left as soon as they heard. “Most everybody else go with us. We all walk down the road singing and shouting to the beat of the band,” she said in the book “A Black Women’s History of the United States.”

On Friday in Salt Lake City — 155 years later — hundreds came together and did much of the same, pausing their ongoing marches and protest chants for an evening to listen to music, eat good food, dance, sing, and, most of all, revel in how far Black people have come before they get back to doing the activism that will, organizers say, finally and truly liberate them all these years later.

The rally was just one of multiple celebrations and discussions organized Friday in Utah to mark the June 19th holiday — contracted to “Juneteenth” — which marks the end of slavery in the Confederate states, more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

The holiday commemorates the day when Union Gen. Gordon Granger and his troops arrived in Galveston to free the enslaved people there, the last in the nation. In 2016, the Utah Legislature declared the third Saturday in June as Juneteenth Freedom Day; it’s one of 47 states to make it an official observance.

Before the Salt Lake City block party Friday, where signs stayed mostly lowered and protest chants were fewer, demonstrators did take to the streets, where they’ve been nearly everyday since May 30 calling for an end to racism in policing.

It started around 1:30 p.m., when hundreds gathered on the lawn of Washington Square Park with signs and flags to protest police brutality. Trey Barnes, an organizer, told the crowd, “We’re going to be demanding change starting right here in our Capitol.”

Then, he reminded the crowd that it was also a day of celebration.

”Happy Juneteenth!” he said to cheers.

Marchers clapped along to music as they followed Barnes and organizers through downtown Salt Lake City. They walked north on State Street and stopped at the intersection with South Temple.

There, Barnes asked the crowd to shout as loud as they could so that people on Capitol Hill could hear them.

”Remember, this is about change. … We’re bringing about change today,” he said.

The group continued marching, and made their way to the Salt Lake City Police Department, where marchers kneeled and laid down on the pavement in honor of the Black men, women and children killed by law enforcement.

The crowd was silent as organizers read off names: Tamir Rice. Sandra Bland. Laquan McDonald. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd.

”There’s too many,” Barnes said. Someone on the ground yelled back, “No more!”

People cheered when Barnes called for elected officials to slash police departments’ budgets and “reinvest in our communities.” He said the time to do that is now.

At one point, the leaders of the march lifted a boy onto the truck they were standing on and handed him the microphone.

“Black lives matter!” the boy said to cheers. Barnes said that’s why people are demonstrating — for kids like him.

Diane Bahati, another organizer, added, “If you believe all lives matter, our lives should be included, too.”

After leaving the police department, the crowd returned to the Salt Lake City Hall, where a Juneteenth flag was displayed, for a block party to continue celebrations into the evening.

Before the march, James Evans, a former Utah Republican Party chairman, said that if protesters wanted to create lasting change, they needed to get registered to vote and cast their ballot. And there were plenty of volunteers at the event aiming to do just that.

“Politicians listen to one thing. … They listen to the ballot box,” he said.

There were also Black-owned businesses selling merchandise and food trucks catering Haitian, Senegalese and Louisianan cuisine. A stage, set up in front of the doors of City Hall, hosted performers over the course of the evening. Throughout the party it attracted a mass of people who stayed in the front and swayed and jumped in rhythm as the music played.

Utah-based rapper Ferrari Smoke told the crowd before he performed that they were beautiful, very colorful. And there were so many of them.

“It’s like enough is enough, and we aren’t going to take this s--- anymore,” he said.

Standing in line for a snow cone, Jamaica Moton reflected on what the day’s celebration meant to her.

“I want to see my Black community. In Utah, I have one Black friend. So seeing other Black people who look like me and have the same cultures and ideas, it’s really amazing to me,” she said.

That friend, Jayda Jackson, happened to be standing next to her.

“I think especially with all the [protests] that have been happening, this is a nice time that we can think about that, but also celebrate the things we have accomplished,” Jackson said.

Despite the party atmosphere, reminders of the movement were all over the park. A drawing of Breonna Taylor wrapped around a tree. A “Justice for Bernardo” sign — referencing the 22-year-old killed by Salt Lake City police on May 23 — taped to a park bench, with a “Defund the police” sign next to it. Protest signs also covered the south entrance to City Hall, and people would stop as they passed to pose for pictures.

Emma Shekina, took some of those photos for people who asked.

She said she’d been watching the protests over the past weeks, trying to understand the historic and systemic racial strife in this country — and her place in it as a Black woman in the U.S. who is from Africa.

Coming to this country, Shekina said she expected the U.S. “to have tranquility and peace and freedom,” and that it was initially hard for her to believe that there were still systems that needed to be fixed. She said she felt so privileged to live here that the systemic issues were easy to ignore.

But she did her homework and learned more about the history of the country, and Friday, she took her first step to be active in the movement.

“I think this experience, it has given me feelings, and the feelings I had have been overwhelming feelings, but also strength,” she said.

She pointed to the signs covering the doors to City Hall. The people who made them and placed them there, she said, they’re tired, but they’re doing everything they can to have their voices heard.

“That site,” she said, “has brought the feeling of I have to try harder.”

Correction • June 20, 2020, 12:20 p.m.: An early version of this story misstated the origins of the Juneteenth holiday.