Sixteen-year-old Moabite Ash Howe felt called to speak out after seeing footage of the death of George Floyd, whose death sparked nationwide protests for racial justice. [Maggie McGuire / Moab Sun News]

Over 100 people showed up at Swanny City Park on Tuesday evening to share their thoughts and ideas on what Moab can do to fight racism locally and across the country, and also to share moments of silence for people of color who have been killed by police using excessive force.

Community members took turns speaking impromptu for over an hour before organizers distributed candles and asked participants to observe a few minutes of quiet to honor the dead.

National headlines this week have highlighted demonstrations in cities across the country protesting police brutality towards black Americans and people of color. The rallies were sparked by the May 25 death of George Floyd, a black man who widely-viewed video footage shows died while a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Though this is not the first time footage of police violence against black civilians has gained national attention, Floyd’s death has prompted a significant surge in protests.

From teenagers to community elders, activists in Moab are joining the movement by creating art, posting statements on social media, and organizing to reject racism and police violence.

Downtown Demonstration

Sixteen-year-old Moabite Ash Howe felt it was imperative to take action after seeing video footage of Floyd’s death. While he said he was nervous and uncertain, he was also passionate.

“I think it’s important for us to gather together at this time, and show that we care, and that we are the future and that we are the change that America needs,” he said.

Howe joined Facebook specifically to create a Black Lives Matter Moab page and invited the community to stand with him in front of the Moab Information Center each day this past week to support the fight for racial justice. Participants held “Black Lives Matter” signs up to passing traffic and used chalk to write the names of people of color killed by police on the sidewalk outside the MIC.

“I think it’s really important for us to encourage those that we know to come to these things, no matter our color, no matter where we come from, no matter what we do in our lives,” Howe said. Howe also called the Grand County Sheriff’s Office and the Moab Police Department and invited them to join the demonstration.

“I’ve never talked on the phone to a police officer before, so that was really big for me,” said Howe. The Sheriff’s Office declined to participate in an event in city jurisdiction, but Moab Police Chief Bret Edge attended in his uniform to support the cause.

“Ash called and invited us, and I said, ‘Heck yeah, we’ll come down,’” said Edge.

Moab City Councilmember Rani Derasary also came to show her support, grabbing a piece of orange chalk and adding to the list of names.

Some passersby honked or waved in solidarity, while others gave a thumbs-down or shouted a common retort to the Black Lives Matter motto, insisting, “All lives matter.”

One adult man confronted Howe face-to-face on the street while the Moab Sun News was there. Although clearly rattled, Howe stood his ground.

“All lives can’t matter until black lives matter,” Howe said in response.

Political art

Moab artist Samantha Zim usually creates colorful images inspired by desert scenery and her love of the outdoors and rock climbing. However, after reading about Floyd’s death and responses around the country, she felt compelled to do something. She knew that art would be the most effective way she could contribute.

“The biggest megaphone I have is my artwork,” she said.

Emotionally charged, Zim spent what she described as a “marathon” session creating a black and white, pen and ink poster that shows hands tugging roots out of the ground.

“I sat down and drew for like, 24 hours straight,” Zim said.

The imagery was partly inspired by Zim’s garden, where she had been battling weeds earlier that week. She saw an apt metaphor for subversive racism. Like with weeds, there are obvious, above-ground manifestations of racism, but they are rooted in systems that often go unnoticed. The tenacious roots in Zim’s illustration are labeled with things like “racist jokes,” “opting out of politics” and “white silence,” representing habits white Americans must address to combat racism. The grasping hands pointed downward suggest a mirror image of the raised fist symbol of the black power movement.

“I’ve never made anything like this before that has this kind of message… I’ve never made anything that was quite this intense,” Zim said.

Zim focused her message toward white people, calling on them to look at ways they are complicit in a racist paradigm. Zim felt like this was the most appropriate message for her to present.

“My audience is white, the community I’m part of is mostly white. I have close friends who are not white, and I have family members who are black, but I don’t see them that often.”

Zim posted her work on social media and encouraged others to share it and use it in protests and demonstrations. The image had been reposted dozens of times within the first day.

“I’m glad that it’s resonating with people,” Zim said. She wants to dispel the idea that police violence and racism are “black people issues.”

“This is our work,” Zim said. “We shouldn’t be waiting for black people to do it. So yes, a bunch of white kids in Moab should be having a protest.”

Other Moab artists are selling their pieces and donating the proceeds to nonprofits in response to the protests.

Vigil at Swanny

Moab Pride, a local nonprofit devoted to raising queer visibility and safe spaces, organized the candlelight vigil at Swanny Park on June 2. Members of Pride reminded attendees that the Pride movement started in the 1960s alongside activism for racial equality.

“Pride started and continues to go because of black trans people,” said one speaker, referencing the Stonewall riots, a landmark event in the history of LGBTQ activism, which were largely led by queer people of color.

Vigil participants included Moab natives and recent arrivals in town, ranging in age from teenagers to seniors. They proposed ideas and committed to positive actions like getting involved in politics, donating to organizations that alleviate poverty, and standing up against racist remarks and views. They described feelings of sadness, anger, guilt, and shame, but also of hope, belonging, and pride in the Moab community.

A recent graduate from Grand County High School shared a poem denouncing police brutality. A white Utah native shared stories of police encounters in his own past that did not end with violence, saying it’s “embarrassing” that he experienced almost no reprimand, while people of color have been confronted by police for less serious transgressions and been killed.

One 72-year old speaker described growing up in the south in the 1950s and having Dr. Martin Luther King stay in his home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina for a few days while organizing a march.

“I had a chance to listen to him talk,” the speaker told the crowd. “And one of the things that I remember that he talked about in the evenings, in my living room, was that racism is insidious, and it’s within each one of us, even those of us who think we’re not racist… You may very well have unexpected feelings that reflect the way you’ve been raised. So, although I truly believe that there need to be demonstrations and protests and systemic changes, I think we need to start with ourselves.”

Other speakers encouraged the crowd to support the Police Accountability and Transparency Act, a national bill being promoted by the Utah chapter of Black Lives Matter. The law would require police departments to be investigated by civilian review boards, rather than allowing them to internally investigate allegations of misconduct. The bill would also require de-escalation and implicit bias training for police officers, a revision of body camera footage release policies, and that police officers carry less-lethal weapons.

Desirae Miller, one of the Pride organizers, cautioned the crowd that the moment should not be used as a publicity stunt by police officers offering sympathy or small change.

“We’re not here to make cops comfortable. We’re here to make cops really uncomfortable, actually,” Miller said. “Because the system they’re in, it’s uncomfortable for all of us.”

To end the silent acknowledgment of George Floyd’s death, organizers sang a protest song and participants gradually joined in:

We’re going to rise up, rise up til it’s won.

When the people rise up, then the powers come down.

They try to stop us, but we keep coming back.

Organizers from Pride and the nascent Moab Black Lives Matter group are collaborating to hold a demonstration on downtown Main Street on Friday at 6 pm.

Moab shows up for racial justice

“We are the change that America needs.”

– Ash Howe

“Racism is insidious, and it’s within each one of us, even those of us who think we’re not racist.”

– Moab resident at vigil

Local artist Samantha Zim branched out from her usual style to create this political art inspired by nationwide protests against racial injustice. “This is our work,” Zim said. “We shouldn’t be waiting for black people to do it. So yes, a bunch of white kids in Moab should be having a protest.” [courtesy Samantha Zim]