Utah ‘cripplepunk’ activist Psarah Johnson, 45, remembered for ‘her power and her fire’

The 45-year-old woman died last week after suffering two strokes, according to family and friends.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Disabled rights advocate Psarah Johnson speaks at a protest of the Utah inland port in 2019. Johnson died at the age of 45 on Friday, April 29, 2022, after suffering two strokes, according to family and friends.

“Powerhouse,” “badass” and “rock star” were a few of the words people used to describe Psarah Johnson during a memorial for the community activist Monday on the Utah Capitol steps.

Johnson died early Friday at age 45 after suffering a stroke last week, according to social media posts from family members and friends. Several weeks ago she’d had an initial stroke, which was likely brought on by a heart condition, wrote Johnson’s sister-in-law. After the two strokes, “she started defying odds in the ways only she could do, but her body just didn’t cooperate.”

Self-identified “cripplepunk” Johnson was born with systemic juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, her online bio states. The autoimmune disorder usually causes painful, swollen joints and growth issues. From her electric wheelchair, Johnson advocated for all marginalized Utahns, her friend Jennifer Miller-Smith said, including disabled people, the LGBTQ community, people of color and women.

Those groups were well represented at Monday’s memorial for Johnson in downtown Salt Lake City, where about 100 people gathered to share stories and celebrate her life — as well as say the F-word (her favorite word, many said) loudly and often.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hundreds of friends and loved ones gather for a vigil at the Capitol on Monday, May 2, 2022, for Utah disabled rights activist Psarah Johnson, 45, who died after suffering two strokes.

Many attendees wore rainbow pride flags or transgender pride flags tied around their necks like capes. A man using a wheelchair had a sign hanging from the basket that said “Disabled lives matter.” They hugged one another and cried as the song “Rebel Girl” by the punk band Bikini Kill played in the background.

Many wore animal prints and other loud and colorful clothing, an homage to Johnson’s bold fashion sense.

Almost everyone wore orange, Johnson’s favorite color, and orange heart-shaped balloons were tied on the bannisters at the Capitol steps.

Emotional but determined, speakers called on the crowd to continue her advocacy work, which in past years included protesting the inland port and fighting for health care access, prison reform and visibility for disabled people.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Darlene McDonald gets a hug during a vigil at the Capitol on Monday, May 2, 2022, for Utah disabled rights activist Psarah Johnson, 45, who died after suffering two strokes.

In January 2017, Johnson was one of the Utahns who traveled to Washington, D.C., to protest the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump. “One thing that can be very effective for women,” she told The Salt Lake Tribune at the time, “is realizing that even with a disability we need to claim our independence.”

At the time of her death, Johnson had been serving as board chair for the Disabled Rights Action Committee (DRAC) since 2017, working to improve accessibility throughout Utah. She “knew that the world could be better than it is, and she insisted that we could all do better in making our communities more inclusive, safe, and welcoming,” said DRAC executive director Karolyn Campbell.

At the memorial on Monday, Salt Lake City real estate agent and community figure Babs de Lay said that “Psarah left for a reason — for us to take up the banners that she so proudly waved in front of everyone.”

(Note: The “P” in Johnson’s first name is silent. Miller-Smith believes her friend chose to add the “P” in order “to be different.”)

“We need to take her power and her fire, and we need to live by that and by her example,” said Ma Black, DJ for the KRCL show “Night Estéreo.” “She didn’t preach with words, she preached with actions. And every day, her existence was a resistance.”