Provo • At the intersection of Center Street and 300 West, a group gathered before the Provo Police Department to demand racial equity and an end to police brutality. Wearing black shirts and carrying signs that said “Black Lives Matter” and “Jail Killer Cops,” the group chanted “I can’t breathe” and “No one’s safe in a racist system.”
Another group occupied the remaining three corners of the intersection, some carrying American flags and pro-Trump signs, many armed with rifles and handguns. Members of that crowd said that they gathered to defend the city’s streets, in reaction to a Monday protest where an SUV driver was shot.
Pellie Burrows, of Lehi, did not attend that protest, but she showed up Wednesday because she is tired of the discrimination she feels because she’s Black.
“We get followed around in stores,” Burrows said, who has lived in Utah all of her life. “If we get pulled over, we get treated differently.”
Wednesday’s “March for Racial Equality” in Provo was organized by the group Insurgence as well as the Party for Socialism and Liberation, Northern Utah Black Lives Matter and Salt Lake City Antifascist Coalition, according to a Facebook event post.
“I think it’s important even in the face of armed opposition — we still have a right to protest, we still have a right to make our opinions heard,” said Anthony Franks, a Brigham Young University student from Maryland, referring to the counterprotesting groups across the street. “As much as you might say a counterprotest that’s armed is violence-free … there’s very clearly an implicit threat of violence when you show up with a gun.”
The counterprotest was also organized on social media by the newly formed group Utah County Citizens Alarm. Organizer Casey Robertson posted a Facebook video shortly before the gathering began, urging supporters to join.
“These freaking antifa idiots harassed a car and ended up shooting a guy in downtown Provo … I’m not going to freaking stand for it,” Robertson said in the video, adding “We’re not going to put up with violence. We’ll come strapped and ready to rock.”
Rick Shoell, of Spanish Fork, said he grew up in Provo and joined the counterprotests to protect businesses.
“It’s peaceful enough and if it stays that way, fantastic,” he said.
The counterprotesters occasionally jeered at the group gathered in front of police headquarters, who yelled back anti-Trump chants. But John Sullivan, the founder of Insurgence, encouraged those gathered in support of racial equity to ignore and turn their backs on the taunters.
“They want you to do something. They want you to start the violence, don’t do it. That’s not what we’re here for,” Sullivan said.
In a probable cause statement released earlier Wednesday, police allege that Monday night’s accused shooter — Jesse Keller Taggart, 33, of Salt Lake City — brandished a firearm and shot several rounds into an SUV. Police also alleged that Taggart broke the window of another car and blocked and intimidated other drivers that night.
At about 8:45, according to police, the SUV driver was “blocked by protesters”. Videos show the man, whose name has not been released, then drove his SUV through the crowd and some were pushed forcefully aside.
“The first shot struck the victim as he attempted to flee the intersection in his vehicle,” according to the probable cause statement; Taggart “chased after the vehicle and fired a second round that was found lodged in the steering wheel.”
The driver, in his 60s, suffered a non-life-threatening gunshot wound to the arm and shrapnel wounds to his eye and stomach. He drove himself to Utah Valley Hospital.
“The innocent person getting shot the other day, we as a community want those guys to know we don’t put up with that. We’ll back the police,” said a counterprotester who only gave his first name, Weston. “The road is for people to drive their vehicles on and we have a right to travel freely.”
“They can have a different opinion, I can respect that,” Weston added, saying he supports protests as long as no one gets hurt.
Police officers estimated the crowd Wednesday grew to between 200 and 300 people, with about two-thirds of the group there in support of racial equity and Black Lives Matter.
Officers blocked off the roads so protesters could march down Center Street to the steps of the Historic Utah County Courthouse. They were flanked by the counterprotesters. A man on a terrace near the top of the Nu Skin Enterprises building pointed a rifle at the crowd, but the movement otherwise remained peaceful.
Taggart was arrested on Tuesday night and booked into the Utah County jail for investigation of attempted aggravated murder, aggravated assault, rioting and other charges. Also arrested was Samantha Darling, 27, of Ogden, who was booked into the jail for investigation of obstruction of justice and rioting.
Police said Taggart was “positively identified through video footage recorded at the scene, witness accounts, and physical evidence recovered at his place of residence.”