These Utahns protested police violence by dancing through neighborhoods. Was it a success?

The processions were ‘celebrating resilience and centering Black joy and centering dance as protest,’ one protester said.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) (Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Protesters dance through the neighborhood in Rose Park, during the Dance Dance for Revolution protest for racial equality, on Sunday, Aug. 23, 2020. The protest was in memory of Jovany Mercardo who was shot last August by Ogden police by four officers, hitting his body sixteen times.

Rania Ahmed was at home in Sugar House one Sunday in June when she heard what sounded like a block party moving through her neighborhood.

What she found outside was a protest, one of many organized this summer in Utah and across the nation by people rallying against police violence after George Floyd was killed by an officer in Minneapolis.

But this demonstration was set to music, with dancers and roller skaters moving with an exuberance Ahmed said she hadn’t seen all summer.

Dance Dance 4 Revolution, a procession led by the group Our Streets, swayed through Salt Lake Valley neighborhoods on most summer weekends in 2020 with three goals: to resist violence by police, to advocate for Black lives and to heal communities, organizers said.

The rallies brought the movement for Black lives into predominantly white and more affluent neighborhoods, expanding beyond traditional public protest spaces, said Ahmed, who began to help with planning after seeing the dancers on her street.

The group drew headlines for two encounters with police — an uneventful rerouting by officers in Salt Lake City, and arrests of protesters in Cottonwood Heights, where officers and demonstrators accused each other of becoming violent. All other processions were peaceful.

Why protest through dance? “Community healing is joy and art and creative expression,” Ahmed said. “And the resistance of our group is to not allow that to be taken from us.”

What follows is an oral history of Dance Dance 4 Revolution, as told by four early organizers, and what they feel it accomplished.

How it started

Hundreds gathered at a May 30 protest in downtown Salt Lake City that drew national media coverage after some demonstrators flipped a city police car and set it on fire, doing the same to the car of a man who threatened people with a bow and arrow. City crews spent days repairing broken windows and cleaning vandalism off buildings and sidewalks.

Natalie Blanton, an activist who often roller skated at Dance Dance protests: When the May 30th protest happened, all of us … who have been involved in activism or any sort of social change before, we were also struck by like, OK, this is Salt Lake City’s first protest, baby’s first protest, you know? And like, let’s take that momentum forward and maybe shift gears a little differently than the May 30th one turned out.

Zachary Taylor, an activist, organizer and frequent skater: At the beginning, it was just very word of mouth, and I happened to work at the bar where a key organizer group was working … so that we could get our voice out there. And so it was coincidence and passion, because we would just be out there skating. … We didn’t know it was going to become a thing. It was just a way to get around fast and support the people who came out to the movement.

The first gathering was in June. A white truck led the processions, carrying a sound system that blasted music — Beyonce’s “Black Parade” and “Party,” Janella Monae’s “Make Me Feel,” and James Brown’s “Black and Proud” — and serving as a stage for speakers.

Blanton: [The COVID-19 pandemic] provided barriers, but also a lot of availability for people. When people were out of work or working from home, they could show up and come out of the protests. So it was this weird kind of like toxic cocktail of things and factors to get people out into the streets.

Why dance?

Organizers switched from Saturdays to Sundays after a few weeks to accommodate the schedules of more participants — and offer an end-of-the-week respite for activists who spent weekdays in the streets protesting.

Blanton: [It was] celebrating resilience and centering Black joy and centering dance as protest and community as protest. Oftentimes, we would try to not only mix in dancing, but mix in different types of speaking, the spoken word poetry. Sometimes we have Indigenous dancers.

Ahmed: So, If they’re our streets, they’re our streets where we can communicate our frustration but also communicate our beauty and our ability to be so much more than victims. ... We play the violin. We sing, you know, we dance, we like speak multiple languages, we salsa. We paint; like we’re so much more than the story, you know? … When you think of the media, even just general television and movies, like the depiction of marginalized people is always as victims.

Taylor: Full disclosure: we would get criticism, sometimes. People would say this [is a] sad thing that happened, obviously. It looks like you guys are just partying in spite of it. But I think what we were trying to show people was the celebration that can come with difference, the celebration that can come out of heartbreak. You know, what are we trying to get to on the other side if there is no celebration, there is no joy to it?

Joining the dance

The movement gained momentum from Salt Lake City’s downtown Juneteenth rally. Dance Dance moved through visited the Avenues and Sugar House neighborhoods. Police often blocked roads for them.

Angela Johnson, activist: The dance protest ... brought people together, and in an emotional sense, because it just feels good to be around people where you can completely be yourself, you can really let go. You don’t have to worry about someone judging you ... you can just take your time, walk as fast or slow as you want.

Ahmed: To me, in Salt Lake City, seeing people run out and grab their signs from us and dance and support was honestly, I would say it was delusionally, making me think that everybody was on our team. Because in the end, when you look at the election results and look at what the city ultimately votes on, nothing changes. Temporarily, it feels good, you know.

A July diversion

On Sunday, July 12, police responded in riot gear when dancers drew close to the home of Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, who had decided three days earlier not to file charges in the fatal police shooting of Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal. Organizers said that some knew where Gill lived, but they had no plans to protest there.

Johnson: At Sim Gill’s house, the riot cops, they were like blocking his street and they didn’t mess with us or anything. We just, like, went another way; we just went around and that was fine.

The clash in Cottonwood Heights

Nine protesters were arrested Aug. 2 in Cottonwood Heights after officers ordered the group off the streets. Chief Robby Russo said he believed many protesters “were there looking to create havoc,” not support the goals of the march. “When you take to the streets, stop the flow of traffic, intimidate people, scare people in their homes,” he said, “you’re no longer a protester to me.” Officers and demonstrators were injured during the arrests; no injuries were life-threatening.

Blanton: It was such a jarring moment when we were like, we’re really just trying to have a nice Sunday afternoon and dance in these streets, which are our streets. And I don’t know why we’re meeting 200 cops on the street just for trying to celebrate.

Ahmed: The Cottonwood Heights [police response] broke my heart because I know what we were doing. I know how people were behaving.

Blanton: I think it was such a galvanizing moment for us ... Our goal was to dance in the street and bring this protest to the people, and make sure the voices were heard in a way that is celebratory and accessible. And then when it was met with such sheer violence and such nonsensical violence … we were totally baffled.

Ballet on the street

Organizers said they decided to respond with “grace” — they planned an Aug. 9 performance by Ballet West dancers Chelsea Keefer and Jazz Bynum.

Blanton: That was a really powerful moment to see ... a really graceful ballet on what is typically, you know, gritty asphalt and our beloved State Street in Salt Lake City.

Johnson: That was the weekend after the Cottonwood protest… We were just like telling people that now was the time to come out and support everything that’s going on. We had a lot of people there, and that was really fun.

The end

The marches continued through September, but as the number of coronavirus cases grew and the weather got colder, the protests became less frequent. Organizers planned the last one, a March to the Polls, for Nov. 1, but canceled it and held an an online gathering instead.

Ahmed: When the [coronavirus] state of emergency was called, I’m not going to lie, I cried. … A lot of us don’t see each other outside of protests. Some of us don’t know each other’s names, but we know that we would die for each other. That’s a lot to lose, you know?

Taylor: The COVID cases were skyrocketing. So, we had to take care of the community, because we truly are community-based and minded. It was too bad that we couldn’t do a “March to the Ballots,” but the online event was pretty fun, I think.

Ahmed: It is so critical that we came with so much joy into these neighborhoods, because many of these people had never been exposed to anything.

Blanton: [The dancing made protesting about police violence] something that is approachable, because I think people think of activism this summer — and we know that our lawmakers think that — it’s just this riot all the time. Right? And we wanted to really change that narrative. And I think we did.

Ahmed: The success of this, obviously, is not going to be ending police brutality. … You don’t know how to measure that. … But I will say this, the thing that I know we did with 100% certainty is the families [of Utahns killed by police] have felt seen, the families have felt like there are people out there who care, and that is enough.