Meet the new leader of Black Lives Matter Utah

Rae Duckworth, 30, was chosen by Lex Scott to take over the group.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rae Duckworth has been named the new leader of Black Lives Matter Utah after Lex Scott stepped down and left the state, as she speaks about her new role on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021, alongside a mural of her cousin Bobby Duckworth who was killed by police.

Rae Duckworth pulled up alongside Salt Lake City building where artists have painted portraits of people, mostly Utahns, killed by police. She got out of her car and stood in front of a big pink and purple face of a man giving a toothy smile.

“So, I’m Rae,” she said and gestured to the face, “That’s Bobby. I do everything for him first, and my daughter. Those are my main focuses.”

She sees Bobby Duckworth, her cousin who was killed by Utah police nearly two years ago, as the past, an unchangeable and terrible thing that happened. And her daughter is her future.

“So,” she said, “I have to figure out how to prevent this from happening for my future.”

The 30-year-old is the new leader of Utah’s most prominent Black Lives Matter chapter, taking over when Lex Scott stepped down and moved out of state after a spate of death threats. Scott started the chapter three years ago, but has been protesting as part of Black Lives Matter since 2014.

Those who know Scott say she exudes passion. Duckworth does, too, but Bobby Duckworth’s death adds a personal dimension to the group’s fight for police reform.

Scott said Duckworth was uniquely qualified to take over because she has a “major stake in this game.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rae Duckworth embraces a friend as she joins a vigil for those killed by police, including her cousin Bobby Duckworth at the murals of those people killed by police near 800 South and 300 West in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, August 11, 2020. Multiple families who’s loved one’s are depicted on the walls joined the vigil as they moved from portrait to portrait to remember them.

Duckworth considers Scott her hero and a close friend, and she said the organization’s goals will remain similar going forward. Like Scott, she wants to reform policing so civilians have control over policies and discipline. She also wants to lobby for laws that would reduce police shootings and write ballot initiatives.

She’s adding her own items to that agenda, too, like making mental health a focus and encouraging Black Lives Matter members to take breaks so they aren’t depleted by the enormity of their cause. She also wants more resources outside of law enforcement for people who are struggling with mental health and need help.

Cousin Bobby was having a mental health crisis when he was fatally shot by police nearly two years ago. She said her cousin was crying when he was shot. ”I’m crying right now,” she said, as tears slid slowly down her face. “Am I a threat to you?”

Duckworth, who prefers the title operating chairperson over president or leader, also wants Black Lives Matter to serve as a “healthy reminder” that “Black people are here, people of color are here, and we’ve been here, and we thrive here, and we are a big part of this community just like everybody else.”

The rise of Black Lives Matter Utah

Under Scott’s leadership, Black Lives Matter Utah made strides. At times, hundreds would show up at their protests. Scott knew what questions to ask after someone was fatally shot by police and helped families who sought her advice. When police officials wouldn’t give her or the family the information she wanted, she’d stage protests there.

Scott also met with law enforcement and was a part of the Salt Lake City Police Department’s Community Advocates Group, which makes recommendations for the department to consider. That group is part of the reason why the department places use of force data on its website, or why the button to submit a complaint is easier to find.

Scott also created a Black History Museum — the first in Utah — inside a school bus and ran a summer camp called Camp Melanin to help Black kids in majority-white Utah feel less isolated.

About two weeks ago, Scott announced she was leaving her role as Black Lives Matter Utah president and had moved out of state. She said death threats had increased after she said on the Fourth of July that the American flag was a “symbol of hatred” and anyone who flies it “a racist.”

Scott stood by her statements, saying they were meant to make people uncomfortable and to question why hate groups like the racist white supremacist group Patriot Front would carry the flags during marches like they did in Philadelphia that day.

Critics piled on, Scott said, and so did the death threats. She knew she was going to leave Utah eventually, and this seemed like the time to do it. She announced her departure Aug. 8, handing the reins to Duckworth.

Duckworth’s motivation

Duckworth has lived in the Salt Lake Valley her whole life. She works here, goes to school here, raises her child here and advocates for people here, but in a lot of ways her activism started because of what happened about 130 miles away in Wellington, a town in Carbon County with a population of less than 2,000 people.

Bobby Ray Duckworth, 26, was at a fishing pond when Wellington Police Officer Garrett Safely found him. Someone had called to report that the man was suicidal. Rae Duckworth said her cousin often went to that pond to get some space and think on bad days.

Safely arrived and thought Bobby Duckworth had two knives. He told him to put them down, video shows.

“I’m not going to shoot you, if that’s what you want. That’s the last thing we want to do, brother,” Safely said. “We want to help you.”

But when Bobby Duckworth got close to him, Safely fired. Bobby Duckworth had a fixed-blade fishing knife on him and a plastic sheath. County prosecutors said the shooting was legally justified.

Rae Duckworth’s first call after learning of her cousin’s death was to Scott. Her friend helped the family navigate the aftermath of the shooting, including interacting with police. She also planned a protest for them in Wellington. Duckworth said about 15 people showed up. Even with that support, she felt alone.

That’s why another one of her goals is helping out the families like hers who have lost someone to police violence.

Supporting families

Earlier this month, Ruby Mercado was planning an event for the anniversary of her brother Jovany’s death. Jovany Mercado was killed by Ogden police at his home in August 2019. He was 26, like Bobby Duckworth, and was also carrying a knife and in a mental crisis. Weber County prosecutors ruled this shooting legally justified.

Mercado needed some signs for people to hold. She reached out to Duckworth. When the day arrived, Duckworth made the drive to Ogden to participate, hand out signs and give a speech, Mercado said.

Video shows Rae walking to the front of the group with her own megaphone. She called out, “Can we get justice for Jovany?” The crowd shouted it back.

”My name’s Rae,” she said, “I’m here for you guys. Whatever you need; let the chapter know.”

Mercado said Duckworth means it, and that Duckworth has made her feel less alone, like they’re family.

The first time they met was at a vigil for Dillon Taylor at the Salt Lake City mural last year. Taylor was fatally shot by Salt Lake City police in 2014. He was unarmed, and Salt Lake County prosecutors ruled the shooting legally justified.

Mercado said Duckworth gave her the most genuine hug. Later, she said, Duckworth told her the two women are bonded through trauma that’s forced them to be both “warrior queens and comrades for life.”

“A lot of the people that I do know here in Ogden, [I] never saw them,” Mercado said. “And she made sure she was present.”

Duckworth said she feels that kinship with all the families in Utah who have lost a loved one to police violence and feels a special affinity for those with loved ones represented on the mural in Salt Lake City. She wants people to understand how special that spot at 800 South and 300 West is to her and those families.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rae Duckworth gives an emotional speech, during a vigil marking the one year anniversary of the death of George Floyd, at the Murals in Salt Lake City, onTuesday, May 25, 2021.

Artists painted portraits of people killed by police on the walls of a city fleet building during the summer of 2020 after George Floyd was murdered by then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. It became a gathering place for protesters and a memorial ground.

Jovany Mercado’s face is there, alongside Bobby Duckworth, and 19 others. For those families, Duckworth said, the space is sacred.

She comes there when she’s feeling alone, and along the way she’s met others who do the same.

Like, she said, Cindreia Europe’s mom, LaToya Mack. And Cody Belgard’s family members, Penny Green and Marvin Oliveros. Bernardo Palacio-Carbajal’s brother Freddie and sister Karina and his mother, Lucy.

”It’s like refilling the cup in a way, and that’s the best thing that has happened to me since Bobby [died], is not only have I felt supported in my state and my city,” Duckworth said, “but I’m not alone anymore.”

A big job

Scott told her followers on Facebook that she’d been praying to find the right person to take over Black Lives Matter Utah when she left. She wanted someone who cared for Black people, who wasn’t driven by ego, who had a strong moral grounding and the passion and tenacity necessary to do this work.

“These people do not grow on trees,” Scott wrote.

She then met Duckworth and was inspired by her fiery speeches and enthusiasm.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rae Duckworth and Lex Scott embrace as people rally at the Public Safety Building in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, April 20, 2021 to mark the conviction of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd.

Where Duckworth describes herself as a “Sour Patch Kid” (some of her friends call her a “prickly pear”), Scott saw a driven, fearless woman with a “heart too big for this world” who “is afraid of nothing and no one.”

All that, Scott said, made Duckworth the woman for the job, someone able to lead and overcome problems.

Some of the challenges include that the group receives more civil rights complaints than members can sort through; there are tensions between this Black Lives Matter group and other chapters in the state; and there are people who oppose what Black Lives Matter stands for.

There are also the police shootings that continue to happen.

Jacarri Kelley, president of the northern Utah Black Lives Matter chapter, said she was hopeful the two groups could come together to fight for the Black community in Utah.

”I’m pleased,” Kelley said, “that a strong Black woman is ready to step up and lead this movement at such a critical time in the country.”

Duckworth said she’s been asked a lot if she’s scared to take on the role, or if she feels ready, considering Scott left amid threats of violence. Scott said that leading Black Lives Matter Utah is like “being thrown into a fire.”

But Duckworth said she is having fun so far and isn’t afraid of being the face of the organization.

“The fact of it is I can be Black and be in Utah and experience racism. I can experience being profiled by police. I’ve experienced that. I continue to experience that,” Duckworth said. “The only difference is they might know my name.”