Black Lives Matter Utah leader says ‘it’s go time’ for police reform

Lex Scott was ready to give up. After years of protests and fighting for reform after police shootings, the leader of Black Lives Matter Utah felt like she didn’t have much to show for it.

For a week in May, she spent her time tinkering and relaxing with an inflatable swimming pool she’d bought. She wasn’t making her regular posts on social media. She turned away from conversations about civil rights. She felt like nobody cared.

Then everything changed.

“It’s like if you wrote a newspaper every day of your life for seven years, and then no one read it. … And then one day you woke up,” Scott said, “and every single person in the entire world read your newspaper. It’s like you finally are heard.”

Protests broke out across the country and in Utah after the May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed in Minnesota by a white officer who knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes. It sparked change, such as the Utah Legislature banning police from using knee-on-neck chokeholds.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall formed a Commission on Racial Equity and Policing, and she’s working with Scott and others on a Black Lives Matter mural outside City Hall.

“I’ve known of Lex’s work for years now and am impressed by her continued commitment,” Mendenhall said in a statement Thursday. “... The consistency of this priority that she’s raised puts our city and state in a better position for the seismic shifts we’re working to make, and we’re not only ready for that change but are further ahead in the work toward that progress because of Lex.”

The recent momentum has sent Scott into overdrive. Her phone starts ringing first thing in the morning. She’s in meetings and responding to media requests. On July 22, she was interviewed on national Fox News about police reform with Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, after the two had an in-person meeting. A couple of weeks earlier, she met with Gov. Gary Herbert for the first time.

“Hey, guys, I just got back with meeting Governor Herbert. That was cool,” Scott said in a video posted July 7 on the Black Lives Matter Utah Facebook page, which has more than 4,400 members.

Scott prepared “a list of requests a mile long” to give him. She wants independent civilian oversight of police, data collection from departments about the race of people pulled over and arrested, and for officers to have less-than-lethal weapons, such as beanbag and rubber bullet guns, in squad cars.

Scott started to cry as she recounted their discussion in the video.

“He said my requests were not unreasonable,” she said, patting her hand on her chest and holding her fist up in triumph.

“For seven years, people have been telling me that … Black Lives Matter is too controversial. And no one would say those words. And doors were slammed in our face,” Scott said in an interview. So when the governor said her requests weren’t unreasonable — something Scott has believed all along — “it was powerful,” she said.

While people are focused now, Scott knows that eventually many will move on, and it’s possible that “we will be left here with no police reform.” But during this window, she sees an opportunity.

“It’s go time,” Scott said.

Fight for lasting change

Scott has protested in Ferguson, Mo., and Minneapolis. She was involved in Utah protests years ago, when only a handful of people showed up, as well as one last year after a Woods Cross police officer pointed a gun at a 10-year-old Black child.

But as thousands of people took to the streets in Salt Lake City over the past two months, Scott and Black Lives Matter Utah have been formally associated with only a couple of these demonstrations.

“I’m not trying to put down other protesters,” she said. “Every form of protest is valid.”

But right now, Scott said, she’s focused on changing laws. One of her priorities is repealing HB415, a law passed by state lawmakers last year that blocks municipalities from granting more power to civilian review boards, such as the ability to discipline police officers or veto policies of a department’s chief.

Come January, Scott said, she’ll be on Capitol Hill in her classic red baseball cap to make that happen next session.

“Without these boards, police will continue to investigate their own crimes and find themselves innocent,” Scott said. Independent oversight enhances accountability and transparency, she argues.

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Activist Lex Scott at a meeting of the Community Activist Group, Wednesday January 18, 2017. The CAG meets with police and city representatives every other week. At rear is Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown.

Scott meets with Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown every couple of weeks, and they have “hard discussions,” Brown said in a virtual town hall hosted by The Salt Lake Tribune in June about police reform in Utah. Brown and Scott were both on the panel.

“Policing is a difficult job,” Brown said, and “there’s always been in scrutiny.”

He added, “We need to reform, and reform starts with agencies and leaders that are willing to sit down to and listen, learn, and then act to affect change in this country.”

Scott responded that she gets “a lot of flak in the activist community” for working with Brown. “They say I’m over here making out with Chief Brown because I don’t bash the chief of police,” she said during the town hall. “But to me, when you say, ‘I’m going to fight police brutality, and I’m going to hold my officers to a higher standard,’ I appreciate that.”

Three police officers in Utah have been charged after shooting at someone while on duty in the past decade — and none has been convicted. Most recently, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill announced that officers won’t face criminal charges after fatally shooting 22-year-old Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal on May 23 in Salt Lake City.

Though Gill ruled that the two officers’ actions were justified under Utah law, he said the laws involving police use of force should be changed, and he recently released a list of 22 recommendations about how to do that.

When Salt Lake City police shot and killed 34-year-old Andrew Jacob Preece last weekend, Scott posted another video on the Black Lives Matter Utah page.

“Welcome to ‘Groundhog Day,’” she said, referring to the 1993 film in which the main character repeatedly relives the same day.

Scott went on: “You can put up a million Black Lives Matter signs. You can hold a million protests. You can throw paint on the District Attorney’s Office. You can beg and plead with the police in person. You can protest the police to their face, and they will continue to pull the trigger and shoot and kill us, until we pass a bill that stops them from doing this.”

Continuing the movement

Scott imagines that people probably want to hear that “love” motivates her activism. But really, she said, it’s rage.

“I have this anger that will never be quenched until we pass police reform,” Scott said. “It’s an obsession that will never go away until we have justice.”

Scott moved to Utah with her family when she was a year old and grew up in Holladay and East Millcreek. She attended Olympus High School and has studied at colleges in Utah and in other states, most recently at the University of Utah. For the past eight years, she has worked as a corporate recruiter.

She became an activist in full force seven years ago after the death of Eric Garner, a Black man killed by police in New York City after an officer put him in a chokehold. The officer, Daniel Pantaleo, was fired but did not face charges. Garner’s death was followed by a series of police killings of Black people across the country, resulting in public outcry.

“I just thought, how are we to swallow this injustice forever?” Scott said.

Scott started United Front, a national civil rights organization, in 2014. About three years ago, she formed Black Lives Matter Utah, which is independent of the national Black Lives Matter network.

When people ask why it remains independent, Scott responds, “Would you ask MLK if he was an ‘official chapter of the civil rights movement’?” As an independent group, she added, it can set its own rules and goals.

Her focus, she said, is on the message of the movement. According to the “Ten Commandments” of Black Lives Matter Utah that Scott posted online, that includes loving “your Black skin and the Black skin of others,” and working every day “to end police brutality” and “the system of mass incarceration.”

Jacarri Kelley, president of Northern Utah Black Lives Matter, said it also chose an independent path, and is not affiliated with the national organization or Scott’s group.

Its focus is on bringing businesses and residents together for community conversations about diversity and reform, she said. Earlier this month, it hosted an “Our Voices Matter Youth Rally” at a Riverdale park, inviting young activists to “talk about their experiences and solutions to help stop racism in today’s climate.”

Her leadership team also has seen an increased number of calls and messages in recent weeks, Kelley said. While there are a lot of people jumping on the Black Lives Matter bandwagon right now, she said, for them to be effective, they need to be educated about the issues and join the movement for the right reasons.

Saluting Scott’s appearance on Fox News, Kelley said in a Facebook post that she and Scott have had their differences in approach, but “at the end of the day, we have the same common goal.”

“We have learned to work together and embrace each other and lift each other up when we are down,” she wrote, and “it’s my honor to get awards with her and to put in this work with her.”

Through the years, Scott and members of Black Lives Matter Utah have registered inmates to vote in local jails, helped families of people killed by police, spoken on panels, held “white ally” and “know your rights” trainings, done “cop watches” during traffic stops, established a Black History Museum bus, worked with schools, and held a summer camp for Black kids, among other activities.

Rae Duckworth met Scott at a Black Lives Matter Utah presentation in February 2019, and she became more involved with the movement after her cousin, Bobby Ray Duckworth Jr., was fatally shot by a Wellington police officer in September.

Duckworth, 28, described herself as multiethnic, and said Scott helped her mend relationships with her white family members after her cousin died.

“I just appreciate her for opening that door,” Duckworth said. “I put her on a pedestal, and I will probably always put her on a pedestal — and I know she hates that.”

Scott is an inspirational leader, one who “plays chess while the world plays checkers,” Duckworth said, and a “powerful, loud Black woman who says this is right and this is wrong and this is why.”

But Scott also “knows she’s human. She can recognize her mistakes. … She’s open about trying to do it better the next time.”

Duckworth said she is now raising a 4-year-old daughter, and Scott sets an example she wants her daughter to see.

“If I knew she was doing this when I was in elementary school or middle school,” Duckworth said, “I think I would have been a braver Black girl growing up in Utah.”

At the end of July, Scott quit her job for many reasons, but partly to work on civil rights issues full time, she said. With all that’s happened the past couple of months, it became “impossible to do civil rights full time, and be a recruiter full time, and have a family, and take care of myself,” she said. Scott is married and has two children.

Scott, now in her 40s, has often said lately that she feels burned out. But she’s not giving up now.

“You can’t work this long on police reform and not get it,” Scott said. “... So, what drives me is the only way we get justice for people [killed by police in Utah] like Darrien Hunt and Patrick Harmon and Elijah Smith and Bobby Duckworth is by changing the whole system. That’s it. And so I have to do that.”

Reporter Courtney Tanner contributed to this story.

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.