Sebastian Stewart-Johnson had just started recording his latest video when he heard a woman shouting behind him.
As he turned around, he saw she was stomping toward him, pointing at him.
“You can’t record on campus,” yelled the woman, according to Stewart-Johnson. “I’m going to call the cops.”
Stewart-Johnson said initially he was shocked. He is a student at Brigham Young University and has become well-known for the videos he and his friends have filmed there under the name the Black Menaces.
They interview students at the private Provo school that is sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Their questions are meant to expose the attitudes on campus and in the dominant Utah faith about race and start conversations about the inequities for individuals of color.
They have been doing it for almost two years now and have nearly a million followers on TikTok. In creating their hundreds of widely shared videos, they have never been yelled at or threatened by a school staffer. Until last week.
It did not end there: A student from a conservative campus publication later tailed Stewart-Johnson for at least 15 minutes, saying the staff member had told him to stop Stewart-Johnson from any further filming.
Stewart-Johnson recounted to The Salt Lake Tribune that it started when he was outside the student center on Sept. 19, just after noon. The other student who later followed him was just watching him film at first.
Then, the woman, who is a BYU staff member, confronted Stewart-Johnson. In a video he later posted of the interaction, the woman can be seen approaching him, wearing a shirt with the school’s logo. Stewart-Johnson said she shouted at him that she is on staff and planned to report him to police for allegedly violating campus policies on filming.
“This white woman, who works at BYU, starts yelling at me,” Stewart-Johnson said in a video about the interaction. “She tells me she’s going to call the cops on me because I’m recording TikToks, which she would not do to a white TikToker.”
Based on profiles of employees at the school, it appears the woman is an administrative secretary there, Stewart-Johnson said. She did not respond to a request for comment, and a BYU police spokesperson said he is “not aware” that she actually called law enforcement. The school did not confirm her employment in its statement to The Tribune.
A spokesperson for the school said she didn’t “have a lot of information about this report from Sebastian.”
The school also did not comment about its filming policy and who is responsible for enforcing it; as a private school, it can limit videos and photos taken on its campus.
There are tens of social media accounts, largely run by white students and alumni, that regularly film and post videos from the university’s campus. There have not been reports that they have been told to stop filming. Some continued to post new content Monday, for instance.
Stewart-Johnson said he feels he was targeted because of his skin color. And he said he is not violating the policy.
The confrontation, he said, has made him feel unsafe on campus, and he doesn’t want to go back — though he acknowledges he will need to in order to graduate in December. The interaction, he said, proves to him why he has been filming the videos in the first place.
Stewart-Johnson later added: “BYU needs to be held accountable for never having a safe campus for its Black students.”
BYU’s policy on filming
The school’s rules on filming, which are posted online and last updated in April 2021, ban commercial photography and videography, as well as “political, documentary and advocacy work.”
The prohibition includes individuals whose work is “aimed at generating income” or whose work is not consistent with the school’s “Political Neutrality Policy,” which is focused on avoiding partisan statements being connected to the university.
The policy then states: “Individuals, including visitors to campus, may take video and photographs for personal use that are unobtrusive, are in keeping with other campus policies, and do not interrupt campus programs, classes, or activities.”
Stewart-Johnson posted several videos to TikTok and Instagram following the confrontation last week to explain what happened. He said what he and the Black Menaces do abides by those guidelines.
“I don’t break any rules,” he said, noting that his interviews are not political advocacy and he doesn’t make money off of them.
The group has repeated that since they started making videos in February 2022, first spurred by the viral comments white Latter-day Saint leader Brad Wilcox made about Black members of the faith.
In a recording, Wilcox said he gets questions from members who wonder why Black men didn’t get the priesthood until 1978, when church leaders lifted their ban. Wilcox suggested, “Maybe instead of asking why the Blacks had to wait until 1978 to get the priesthood, we should be asking why did the whites and other races have to wait until 1829.”
Wilcox later apologized, but the comments caused pain to many who are Black in the faith.
The Black Menaces started their account by asking other Black students — who make up less than 1% of BYU’s enrollment — about their experiences at the church school to show what it’s like. Then, they began asking white students questions in person-on-the-street style interviews to show the difference. The two-minute videos they post of the responses are meant to document the answers without comment.
They ask white students what they learned during Black History Month. “Nothing,” one admits. They ask white students if they have any Black friends. “I don’t,” a girl says, starting to apologize.
The video Stewart-Johnson was filming the day of the confrontation was focused on asking BYU students about incarceration rates in America. The point was to see if those attending the university knew that Black men are sentenced to prison at far higher and disproportionate rates than white men.
He plainly states the statistics, not adding his own opinion.
‘Why are you following me around campus?’
As he was trying to ask those questions, another student followed Stewart-Johnson around campus after he left the student center. Stewart-Johnson has posted the video of that.
“Why are you following me around campus? Don’t you think that’s a little strange?” Stewart-Johnson asks in one clip. The other student, who later identified himself online as Jacob Christensen, says he just wanted to be in the background of the videos Stewart-Johnson was filming.
But then Christensen told Stewart-Johnson that he is not a fan of the Black Menaces, calling them “the worst piece of journalism I’ve ever seen,” according to one clip. And Christensen can be seen trying to block the camera, stepping in front of it for each of the following interviews that Stewart-Johnson tries to conduct.
Stewart-Johnson asks him repeatedly to stop following him. The cameraman with Stewart-Johnson asked him at least once to not touch him. Christensen left after about 15 minutes.
The Cougar Chronicle, a conservative online publication that covers BYU but isn’t formally approved by the school, posted a lengthy statement on its website identifying Christensen as its editor-in-chief and saying he was following Stewart-Johnson because the staff member who yelled earlier in the day had told Christensen to do so.
It states, in part: “Jacob was encouraged by the faculty member to interrupt their videos to prevent the continuing harassment of BYU students.”
The statement accuses the Black Menaces of breaking the school’s video policy and “continuing to humiliate and exploit BYU students.” It says the staff of the Cougar Chronicle “find it necessary to push back against their activism.”
The Tribune reached out to the Cougar Chronicle for any further statement and did not initially receive a response back.
After someone shared the Cougar Chronicle’s statement with him, Stewart-Johnson later posted about Christensen on social media. He encouraged viewers: “Don’t threaten, stalk, or bully him either. We don’t want to be weirdos too.” The Black Menaces also posted about the staff member, asking for the same.
Stewart-Johnson said he always asks students for their permission before filming them. And the Black Menaces have a huge fan base — with students often asking to take a selfie with members when they see them on campus.
That’s why, Stewart-Johnson said, he wasn’t concerned when he saw Christensen was first watching him film, only after he started following him. Stewart-Johnson said he hopes this incident does not inspire copycats on campus.
Being followed by Christensen, Stewart-Johnson said, has triggered his anxiety and depression.
In a new video posted Monday, he said: “To be completely honest, my mental health took a sharp nose drive toward the ground. I feel so completely unsafe and uncomfortable at BYU. I don’t trust BYU faculty members, besides a handful, maybe. I don’t trust BYU students, besides maybe a handful.”
Stewart-Johnson said he left campus early on Sept. 19, not feeling comfortable enough to stay there.
What is BYU doing about this?
The videos about Stewart-Johnson’s confrontations with the staff member and student have garnered about 3 million combined views on his TikTok. And the comment sections have been flooded with people sharing their support for the Black Menaces.
One of the students Stewart-Johnson had been interviewing that day responded. He wrote: “Thank you for the interview and for teaching me something important. I love what you guys do. Frustrated it got cut short by someone who thinks he was saving me from being ‘harassed’ by politely being asked to answer some questions.”
Other students of color have commented that the interactions show what BYU is really like. One wrote: “This is just a glimpse of why us minorities at BYU do NOT feel safe most of the time being ourselves.”
Stewart-Johnson said he feels BYU has “a pretty long ways to go” in its work to address racism.
The school is currently holding a weeklong “Belonging Begins with Us” series of events from its Office of Belonging. That office was created in 2021 to address discrimination on campus.
It came as part of the recommendations from a major report from BYU earlier that year that for the first time acknowledged widespread and significant concerns about the mistreatment of minority students on campus.
Spokesperson Carri Jenkins told The Tribune in response to questions about Stewart-Johnson’s experience that the Office of Belonging specifically reached out to him, “inviting Sebastian to come talk with them about his concerns.”
She said: “BYU has a process to formally file a report of discrimination on campus, which can be made through visiting the Office of Belonging on campus or on their website at belonging.byu.edu.”
And Jenkins said, “We want to help all BYU students feel a sense of belonging and community on our campus.”
Stewart-Johnson says BYU’s statements on prejudice and the Office of Belonging and events — none of the ones scheduled this week are about addressing racism — are good ideas but haven’t led to actual change.
“Regardless of any statements, BYU still enables racism and all other types of discrimination on campus,” he said.
He cited the school’s statement about rooting out racism, which encourages people to listen to its “beloved Black BYU community” when members bring up concerns.
“It’s almost like the TikTok that I helped create and the TikTok that I do every day allows them to understand how racism has frustrated and continues to frustrate our experience,” Stewart-Johnson said. “… Don’t make a statement that you’ll listen to the Black community at BYU, but then also feel the need to tone police and moderate how that information is delivered to you.”
The experience, he said, will not make him quit filming.
“It’s not going to stop me,” he told The Tribune, “but it’s definitely adding some fear.”