How Black Lives Matter Utah is tackling police reform

Story and infographics by TAESHA GOODE

Lex Scott is no stranger to a challenge.

“The movement is about hard, backbreaking work, and pain, and trauma, and death, and injustice every day of your life. That’s what the movement is about, and now the crowds have dispersed, but the work is still here,” said Scott, founder of Black Lives Matter Utah, in a Zoom interview.

As she was talking, she was driving through downtown Salt Lake City in a caravan demanding justice for the murder of George Floyd.

For activists like Scott, Black Lives Matter didn’t end after last year’s nationwide protests. In fact, it began long before. As always, she’s facing the fight head on.

The death of George Floyd in May 2020 spurred a sudden national wave of support for Black victims of police brutality. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, injustice against African Americans took center stage, as people of every race, religion and gender gathered to speak the names of victims like Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and Elijah McClain.

Hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter and #ACAB (All Cops Are Bad) gripped social media, dashcam videos of racial profiling and violence flooded the internet and protests rocked the streets of both conservative and liberal states. It seemed a turning point for activists who had been fighting for this sort of publicity for so long. Scott was thankful for the awareness it brought, but she knew the momentum would be short-lived.

“The thing about the movement is people come and go. When there’s a high-profile officer shooting, you get a big crowd of people and then that crowd goes away, and then when there’s another shooting, they come back, and then go away,” Scott said. “Last year, thousands upon thousands of people came out, and I didn’t get excited ‘cause I’ve been here for seven years. I was like, I don’t care about you!” she said, laughing, “I care about police reform.”

For Black Lives Matter Utah, the most important initiative right now is changing the way police operate on a systemic level. Since the chapter’s founding in 2017, independent of the national Black Lives Matter movement, volunteers have been speaking out against police violence in Utah and around the country. Their current plan to tackle police brutality: take it to the capitol.

“We picked up two senate seats, we have several police reform bills passed in Utah, and the Justice in Policing Act passed the house,” Scott said.

The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021 is a national police reform bill directed to increase accountability and transparency in law enforcement, as well as implement specialized sensitivity training.

“The Justice in Policing Act gives us independent oversight of police, it gives us data collection, [a] police misconduct database, it gives us qualified immunity reform, it regulates dash cams in police cars,” Scott said. “[It] is the most important thing I’ve ever seen. It is on the same level as the civil rights act [and] it is just as powerful.”

To Rae Duckworth, vice president of Black Lives Matter Utah, that power does not go unnoticed. “I want the change more than anybody.”

According to Mapping Police Violence, in 2020, U.S. police killed 1,127 people.

Bobby Duckworth became one of those victims in 2019.

The loss of her cousin in an officer-involved shooting in Wellington, Utah, spurred Rae Duckworth’s involvement with Black Lives Matter Utah. “The pain of losing someone from a police officer — it’s a different type of pain,” she said in a Zoom interview. “Ever since then, I just dived into actively trying to make changes.”

In 2020, the Salt Lake Tribune reported, Utah Police fired at 30 people — 17 of those incidents being fatal.

The disproportionate policing of People of Color in Utah reaches much deeper, as highlighted by Amber McFee, a lawyer volunteering with the chapter. Although McFee got involved with Black Lives Matter Utah shortly after the nationwide protests in 2020, the discrepancies in charges shocked her.

“It depends on if you’re Black or white. If you’re white, you’re getting disturbing the peace, disorderly conduct,” McFee said in a Zoom interview. “If you’re Black, you’re getting inciting a riot, you’re getting charged with felonies.”

The Justice in Policing Act targets all this and more. And although the national movement has lost momentum since Summer of 2020, Black Lives Matter Utah makes it a point to showcase the power that comes from speaking up in your local government.

“The movement is losing its trendiness,” Duckworth said. “People can stay active by participating in their local committees and their local agendas with their representatives. Because speaking on behalf of your community members, those are protests in themselves, and people need to realize that.”

Although Black Lives Matter Utah knows the power in local government, creating a nationwide change is Scott’s biggest priority. “People don’t get it, we are this close,” she said. “You want to come out and protest all day, well how about you pick up the phone and call a senator.”

The end of the legislative session in Utah, however, means that, for now, the chapter can focus on other issues. Alongside gathering signatures for upcoming ballot initiatives, the chapter recently launched Utah’s first Black history museum.

Black Lives Matter Utah has also continued its work with the Salt Lake City Police Department’s Community Advocates Group (CAG), which holds biweekly public meetings on police transparency practices.

In addition, Duckworth said the chapter has become a great resource for stopping police abatements of unsheltered encampments during COVID-19.

“There are a lot of systemic issues that we can approach,” she said. “There is always growth or change to be implemented. I just think that, if people know what they want to change in their community, if they figure that out and they just go for it — that in itself is a protest.”

McFee, the lawyer volunteering with Black Lives Matter Utah, knows that dealing with systemic racism means first facing the facts. “You need to read and research things that you aren’t comfortable with,” McFee said. “Teach the truth, you’re not going to learn it in school so teach your kids the truth. I think that’s where we have to start to get to the big finish.”

For Lex Scott, who’s been active in the community for the past seven years, it’s about holding on and holding tight. At the start of this journey, “I didn’t know what I was doing,” she said.

But it wouldn’t be a challenge if it was easy. By pushing forward, she found a solid community of people who want to make real change.

She reminds us to stick to our values. “Be intersectional in your activism — make sure it includes all marginalized groups.  … Don’t expect the world to change overnight. You just gotta stick to your activism and change the world.”