OGDEN — On a day when rioting marred a protest in Salt Lake City, 40 miles to the north protesters successfully held a peaceful — and quite large — rally in downtown Ogden.
Hundreds of people gathered near the front steps of the Ogden City Municipal Building on Saturday afternoon for “Take a Knee,” an event to honor the memory of George Floyd and to call for nationwide police reform. Floyd’s recent death sparked protests across the country after video showed a white Minneapolis Police officer kneeling on the black man’s neck as he begged that he couldn’t breathe. Floyd eventually became unresponsive and later died.
“I wanna set the tone,” Ogden activist and rally organizer Malik Dayo told the crowd at the beginning of Saturday’s event. “This is a peaceful protest. ... This is not an anti-cop rally. This is a solidarity rally. This is a rally for police reform.”
On the hottest day of the year so far, organizers and many in the crowd declared “Take a Knee” the largest such event they’d ever seen in Ogden. Dayo called it “the biggest protest in the history of Ogden.
“I expected 30 to 40 people — that’s what I usually get at my protests,” he said afterward. “But we had close to 1,000 people here today.”
Dayo, who has organized “dozens of protests” over the years, said the shock and outrage he witnessed in the black community over the footage of Floyd’s death was the catalyst for this latest gathering.
“This pushed everybody over the edge,” he said.
After the protest, Betty Sawyer, president of the Ogden Chapter of the NAACP, was hard-pressed to come up with a reason this particular protest struck a chord with so many, other than to say she believes “this is the time.”
“People are sick and tired of being sick and tired,” Sawyer said. “Everybody was shocked by what they saw on that video.”
And apparently, that shock translated into a peaceful but resolute crowd.
At the rally, Dayo admitted he almost postponed the event several times after Thursday’s shooting death of Ogden Police Officer Nate Lyday. In a post on Facebook in advance of Saturday’s protest, Dayo wrote that it was to “demonstrate unity and peaceful solidarity in memory of #GeorgeFloyd as well as the call for national police reform.”
Sawyer said she, too, was leaning toward postponing the protest after Lyday’s death.
“A member of our community lost his life, we grieve together,” she said.
In the end, the protest went on.
“Does justice get a day off?” Sawyer asked after the protest Saturday afternoon.
“No,” responded Dayo, who was standing nearby.
Although protests in Minneapolis and elsewhere around the country have become violent at times — including in Salt Lake City on Saturday — the Ogden Police Department conducted an advance threat assessment of the Ogden event and didn’t find it worrisome, according to public information officer Lt. Brian Eynon. The police were estimating between 70 and 200 people would show up to the Ogden protest.
“We are aware of it and recognize the right to protest and hold peaceful protests like this,” Eynon said Friday on the eve of the “Take a Knee” protest. “But we’re focusing our attention on other things right now. Still, if it did become violent, we’d be ready to respond and protect the public.”
Saturday’s protest in Ogden began by Dayo asking everyone in the crowd to take a knee as “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played over loudspeakers.
Some audio issues early on forced organizers to swap out public-address systems, and while the technical difficulties were being addressed, the crowd began spontaneous chants of “Black lives matter,” “No justice, no peace,” “We’re done dying” and “I can’t breathe” — the last a reference to some of Floyd’s final words.
Throughout the afternoon, protesters held signs with sayings like “Racism isn’t born, it is taught” and “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
A number of people of color took the microphone on the steps of the city building to offer their thoughts on Floyd, police reform, racism and other topics.
Terri Hughes, who works with the NAACP and lives in Ogden, told the crowd she was hopeful from the turnout.
“Looking out at this crowd, I see that more than just black people care,” she said to the cheers of the crowd. “And y’all are putting yourselves beside us, not ahead of us.”
Hughes told the crowd that “Joy cometh in the morning,” and said that while things would not be perfect, she believed they will get better.
Speaking after the protest, Hughes expounded on that thought, saying she might not see that equality in her lifetime.
“We’ve had 400-plus years of oppression,” she said. “Four hundred years can’t be undone in just 30 years, or 60 years.”
But the 20-year-old Hughes said she’s excited to see the young people of her generation getting involved in the struggle for racial equality.
“I believe this is the civil rights movement, uncovered,” she said.
Sawyer, who also addressed the crowd, admitted: “I’m tired.”
She said the week had been extremely challenging and emotional for her, and she just wanted to go out on her front porch and swear at somebody.
“Then I’d hear my mother saying, ‘Turn the other cheek,’” Sawyer recalled.
Sawyer called on protesters to get involved and call on the mayor to support police reform.
“There are no bystanders in the civil rights movement,” she said.
Sawyer said trust has been eroded in law enforcement, and police departments will have to work hard to regain that trust.
“Karma is real. Karma is real. Let’s get it together, let’s work together. No justice ...” Sawyer told the crowd.
“No peace,” they responded.
Some speakers at the protest struck a slightly more defiant tone. Annette Mifflin began her remarks with the Malcolm X quote: “That is not a chip on my shoulder, that is your foot on my neck.”
Mifflin told the crowd they needed to lobby elected officials for police reform.
“They work for us,” she said of politicians.
Repeatedly, speakers talked about the need to stand up for what’s right, but to do it peacefully.
Eynon said he was glad organizers had planned on a peaceful rally that wasn’t intended to be anti-police.
“I appreciate that, and there’s no reason to not believe that to be the case,” he said. “But history shows us that sometimes these things are not peaceful.”
What if people who have opposite views of the protesters happened to be walking down the street and came across the event, and it turned into a conflict, Eynon asked.
The Ogden lieutenant says he worked as a peace officer in south-central Los Angeles, and the vibe there was completely different from the one in Ogden. He believes OPD has a good relationship with the local community and referenced a town hall meeting from a couple of months ago that provided the criminal statistics data to back that up.
“There isn’t disproportionate contact numbers between minorities and police here,” Eynon said. “If you look at the data, the numbers aren’t overwhelming.”
Eynon said roughly 40% of the population of Ogden is Hispanic, and encounters with that group are roughly 40% of all police contacts.
“The numbers don’t say that 76% of the people we contact are Hispanic,” he said. “It’s about 40%. It matches the population.”
Based on the success of the department’s town hall meetings, and seeing the community’s heartfelt reaction to Lyday’s death, Eynon believes “we have a great relationship with the entire community.”
Speaking to the crowd, August Akada told protesters he appreciated the officers there to protect them at the rally, but he also admitted he’d grown weary of seeing black men being killed by police officers and being expected to endure it peacefully.
“To be honest, I’m tired of being the bigger man,” he said.
Akada was hopeful this latest death might lead to change, but he also warned that it might not happen as quickly as those in the crowd would like.
“The world is tired,” he concluded. “We need to do better.”
Saturday’s crowd was large enough that it spilled out into Washington Boulevard, perhaps prompting the police to block off the street to traffic at 25th and 26th streets.
Dayo also thinks the street closure may have been to keep agitating elements from disturbing the event by revving motorcycle engines or honking horns as they went by.
During one of the most powerful moments at the rally, JaKai Kelley, leader of the Northern Utah Chapter of Black Lives Matter, asked all the young black men in the audience to come up and stand behind her on the steps of the municipal building. She then played an excerpt from a poetry slam piece that asked the difficult question, “With liberty and justice for who?”
Following that moment, Kelley turned her attention to the men standing on the steps behind her.
“All these black men are my sons, and I will protect them,” she vowed.
The rally ended with protesters repeatedly chanting “Black lives matter” and then all saying in unison, “Rest in peace, George Floyd.”
Calls for police reform was a big part of Saturday’s “Take a Knee” rally. Among the police reforms Dayo and other protesters are seeking:
A greater emphasis on — and training in — nonlethal methods of force.
Officers who both resemble and live in the communities they’re serving.
Implicit bias training for all law enforcement personnel, “because we all have biases,” Dayo said.
More community policing — foot patrols that get officers out of their vehicles and onto the streets of a neighborhood to better get to know the residents.
Greater accountability for officers’ actions.
Following the protest, Dayo gave fist bumps to a handful of police officers standing at the doors to the municipal building.
“I gave them my condolences for their fallen officer — our fallen officer, because we’re all part of the community — and thanked them for allowing us to gather today,” Dayo explained.
He hopes this will become a moment of solidarity for both the local police and the community as a whole.
“This is a time of healing,” Dayo said after the protest. “They’re sad that they lost somebody, we’re sad that we lost somebody.”
“But, until we have real police reform, there will be no peace,” he added, saying that thus far the push for police reform “seems to fall on deaf ears with the City Council and Mayor (Mike) Caldwell.”