Cottonwood Heights • When the Black Lives Matter protesters arrived Friday night for a protest outside the Cottonwood Heights police station, throngs of others were already there to meet them — most armed, many in white T-shirts, some holding U.S. flags.
At first, the two groups remained separate, with protesters on the east side of the streets and Utah Citizens’ Alarm members and supporters on the west. The latter group was larger at first. Then, Lex Scott brought the groups together.
“Come on over here everybody,” she called. “Let’s keep it peaceful.”
And for the most part, it was, despite a few confrontations between groups and one citizen journalist getting maced. For about two hours, the two groups stayed mostly separate. Black Lives Matter protesters gathered in the center of the plaza outside the police department, and Utah Citizens’ Alarm posted up on the perimeter.
Scott, the leader of Black Lives Matter Utah, said the protest was in response to Cottonwood Heights police recent treatment of protesters at a demonstration to honor Zane James, a 19-year-old suspected of armed robbery who was killed by an officer with the department in 2018.
At that protest, attendees danced to music and brought pinwheels and water guns. Police arrived to clear protesters from the streets, and at some point things escalated, with videos showing officers slamming a woman to the ground and using pepper spray on people.
Scott told people Friday night that they were there to show the local police that peaceful demonstrations are allowed.
Protesters went through a now-familiar series of chants: No justice, no peace; this is what democracy looks like; Black lives matter. Speakers took the megaphone to tell personal stories of racism and bias. One attendee, who is Black, said she got in a car wreck on the way to the protest, and was scared to talk to an officer about it. Another person who is Black recounted being followed in stores, people being suspicious of him.
Throughout the evening, protesters made mention of those dressed in white shirts or tactical gear standing just on the perimeter, looking on the demonstration but not participating.
Malik Dayo, president of advocacy group El Comité Social Justice Movement, addressed the onlookers, telling them they don’t have to choose between supporting police and wanting police reform.
“Somebody told you you have to pick a side,” he said. “They were lying to you.”
Throughout the event, Scott cautioned attendees not to engage with people from the other group. She said that’s what they want — for protesters to take the bait and for something to happen that hurts the movement.
Casey Robertson, founder of Utah Citizens’ Alarm, told The Salt Lake Tribune that his group only showed up at this event after they didn’t go to the first one and it turned violent. The group also arrived at another protest in Cottonwood Heights earlier this week.
He pushed back at claims some attendees made that his group was made up of white supremacists.
“We just don’t want violence. We don’t want our cities being destroyed, and that’s really all it is for us. It’s as simple as that,” Robertson said. “You know, a lot of you people in the media want to make it about race, or say that we’re some kind of white militia...it has nothing to do with that. This is about violence and keeping our community safe. That’s it.”
He said, despite the few scuffles, the night turned out just as he and his group wanted it. When asked if Utah Citizens’ Alarm members showing up armed and in tactical gear was intimidating for some protesters, Robertson said it could be, but didn’t back down.
“Sorry, but it’s our right,” he said, adding that he wanted to be an intimidating force for outsiders who want to come to Utah and destroy communities. He said the group wasn’t aimed at the Black Lives Matter protesters tonight.
The protest officially ended around 8 p.m., but some stayed to talk with other protesters or engage with Utah Citizens’ Alarm supporters. There were some tense moments, where others intervened to pull people out of heated discussions.
At one point, a citizen reporter with Salt City News, Kay Jay, was maced. It was not clear who sprayed the man or if police were investigating. The Cottonwood Heights police didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment late Friday.