Protesters against police violence shut down Salt Lake City streets with dancing

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Protesters dance in the street on Foothill Drive during a march for Justice on Sunday, July 12, 2020.

Protesters against police brutality for weeks have been filling Salt Lake City’s streets with anguished and sometimes violent cries for justice.

On Sunday, demonstrators took a different approach. Marchers danced under showers of water from squirt guns carried by fellow demonstrators. They passed out doughnuts, Popsicles and water. And they turned street intersections into makeshift dance floors where they joined together in the Electric Slide and Cupid Shuffle.

But while the mood was celebratory, the message was serious: The demonstrators want change. A stop to police violence. An end to systemic racism.

Rachelle Geary, one of the demonstrators, didn’t dismiss the value of recent protests that express outrage or pain and said police are to blame for instigating the violence that has at times erupted. But she believes Sunday’s joyful march also serves a purpose.

“I definitely think that this one has a community feel to it, and I’ve seen so many walks of life and people come out of their homes to celebrate,” the Salt Lake City resident said. “I think that this resonates with people.”

The group zigzagged through Salt Lake City neighborhoods for several hours, starting at Sunnyside Park and following a route through affluent neighborhoods that surrounded it. Organizers said they mapped out the march that way because they doubted that many residents on these streets had witnessed recent protests firsthand.

The marchers handed out Black Lives Matter posters to residents as the group coursed by, cheering when onlookers would wave or give a thumbs-up. One resident pulled out a hose and misted water into the air to refresh the marchers passing his home.

Another resident, Salt Lake City Councilman Dan Dugan, walked out and spoke to the demonstrators in front of his home.

“Salt Lake City does have a lot of work on its hands. We need your voice,” Dugan said, as demonstrators yelled, “What are you going to do?”

Several of them booed Dugan when he said officials had to work with the police, but an organizer assured the group that the councilman was an ally and would enact systemic changes right away if he had the power to do so.

One of the march’s organizers, who declined to give his name, said the event was designed to be fun. To prevent people from burning out and encouraging them to continue speaking up about police violence.

“Instead of screaming all night, we’ll just play music, stop on a couple blocks and have a little block party there,” he said. “Just get awareness to the neighborhoods.”

Organizers told the group of a couple hundred to meet any anger or disrespect with kindness as they walked and discouraged them from confronting a line of police that blocked off their route at one point. The marchers later discovered the officers — who were helmeted and carrying sticks — were protecting the home of Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, who lives in the community where they were marching.

In recent weeks, protesters have been gathering in front of Gill’s downtown office after vowing to demonstrate every evening until prosecutors released their investigation report into the death of Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal.

On Thursday, Gill announced his finding that Salt Lake City police officers were legally justified in shooting Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal as he fled from them in March. The office would not be filing criminal charges against the two officers, he explained.

That evening, protesters flocked to Gill’s headquarters, spreading red paint on the road in front of his office and streaking the pigment on the building’s walkway and glass facade. Some smashed the office’s windows while others confronted Salt Lake City police who showed up in riot gear. Officers responded by pushing some protesters to the ground and hitting them with clubs.

The unrest left one police officer and at least two demonstrators seriously injured and resulted in four arrests.

Gill has argued that the evidence supports the officers’ claims that they opened fire on Palacios-Carbajal because they were afraid for their lives. Palacios-Carbajal was a suspect in a violent crime, he had a gun and he did eventually point the weapon at officers, the prosecutor told reporters Thursday.

However, Palacios-Carbajal’s family rejects these findings, saying that the officers didn’t have to shoot a fleeing suspect or fire a combined 34 rounds at the 22-year-old man. Attorneys for Palacios-Carbajal’s relatives say they plan to file a civil lawsuit against the police department.

Jamie Astor, a Salt Lake City resident who joined in Sunday’s protest, brought a sketch of Palacios-Carbajal drawn by local artist Leila Lunt. As an Indigenous woman, she said she’s experienced mistreatment from police and worries for her teenage son.

Astor said she believes unrest and violence in other recent protests might have distracted from the message of demonstrators. But she doesn’t believe the focus should be on property damage when lives are being lost.

“You got your windows broken. You can fix that,” she said. “But you can’t fix a life that’s been lost.”