From left: Garrett Whiting, freshman communication major; Rian Watson-Davis, senior exercise science major; Dominique Erwin, senior psychology and criminal justice dual major.
As Black Lives Matter protests broke out across the country in the wake of the death of George Floyd, Cedar City residents gathered on two separate occasions to march in protest of police brutality this summer.
Dominique Erwin, who is Black and serves as president of Southern Utah University’s Black Student Union, said that the marches were an encouraging sign of progress. Still, she was unsettled by threatening Facebook posts she saw from people in town calling themselves “patriots.”
“Over the summer, a lot of posts were put up by — I’m going to say what they want to be called, the patriots — threatening to shoot us, to run us over with their cars, posting pictures of themselves on tops of buildings with actual guns at the Black Lives Matter walks and protests,” she said.
Those posts reflected an overall change in Cedar City’s atmosphere that she noticed as the fall semester approached. Now, with the presidential election fast approaching, Erwin said that the tension in town feels “very heavy.”
“For me, when I’m in Cedar City now, I don’t feel as safe as I did when I first got here,” Erwin said. “When I got here, I already didn’t feel safe, so that says a lot.”
“I’m always on my guard.”
Rian Watson-Davis, a Black senior exercise science major who helped organize one of the Black Lives Matter protests this summer, said that she saw, “Cedar progress into a more aggressive state” during the summer. After the marches, people started recognizing her at the small business she works at in town.
“I feel like I always got questions when I was at work, but now I feel like I get even more questions/microaggressions,” Watson-Davis said. On two separate occasions during the same week, Watson-Davis said she was “sexualized and touched by a man” while at work.
“It’s just hard for me to be fully comfortable in one space,” she said. “I’m always on my guard. I always have to look behind my back, make sure nothing crazy is going on. I really have to make sure that I’m careful in what I say and what I do.”
The extra attention she’s paying to her surroundings now has become mentally fatiguing for her. As the year has worn on, that feeling of fatigue has grown increasingly heavy.
First, Ahmaud Arbery was shot and killed while jogging by two white men in Georgia. Then, Floyd died after a police officer kneeled on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds in Minnesota. Then it was Breonna Taylor, who was shot and killed while she was asleep during a no-knock raid by Louisville police officers in Kentucky.
Taylor’s case particularly resonated with Waston-Davis.
“She was in the most innocent state that someone can be in,” Watson-Davis said. “She was asleep. It’s crazy because I feel like as a Black person there’s nothing you can do. You can’t walk down the street. You can’t sleep in your own house. It’s confusing because they say, ‘If you comply, you won’t die,’ but that’s all we’ve been doing this whole time.”
Watson-Davis has attempted to grieve and advocate for an end of police brutality, but she said that she is constantly reminded of the tension when she sees thin blue line flags and Trump 2020 flags flying in front of local businesses and on the backs of trucks in Cedar City.
The tension was present during the peaceful march Watson-Davis organized in July. During the event that was dedicated to grieving and advocating for change, she experienced opposition from people driving by with their flags, honking and shouting at the protestors. She felt that the opposition was unwarranted.
“When there are Back the Blue protests, do I go? No,” Watson-Davis said. “Do I drive past with a Black Lives Matter flag? Do I honk my horn? When they’re holding signs that say ‘All Lives Matter’ do I yell ‘Black Lives Matter’? No. But it is reciprocated when we march or when we protest. They call us rioters when I’m just walking.”
“These lives need to be accounted for.”
Victor Carvajal-Lopez, a Hispanic senior psychology major who serves as president of the Pride and Equality Club, thinks that those who oppose the Black Lives Matter movement may be fundamentally misunderstanding the purpose of the protests. BLM protests often call for defunding the police and police reform.
“When a lot of people say that they want to abolish the police department or defund it, it’s not to say that they just hate the police,” Carvajal-Lopez said. “It’s essentially to say that there’s no need for police officers to consistently become judge, jury and executioner… They’re meant for de-escalation, to address crimes and apprehend people, not murder them.”
Carvajal-Lopez, who works in SUU’s Center for Diversity and Inclusion, explained that many people recoil when they hear the phrase “defund the police” because they know police officers. However, they may fail to consider how police violence against people of color affects the families of those lost.
“We’re just trying to create a discussion so that people can understand that things need to get better,” he said. “We’re not saying we want to take your guns away or remove your loving cousin who is a police officer from his job. We’re just saying that these lives needed to be accounted for.”Erwin said she’s noticed that many white people may think they’re being attacked when they hear “Black Lives Matter,” but she emphasized that is not the point of the movement.
“When we say, ‘Black Lives Matter,’ we’re saying that we matter as well, in addition to everyone else’s lives,” Erwin said. “They seem to take that part out of context. They assume that we mean Black lives are superior to other lives, but really we’re just trying to get an even playing field.”
The deaths of Floyd, Arbery, and Taylor brought civil unrest and discussions about race on an unprecedented scale throughout the country, and even on the global stage. Many Americans began to reckon with racism in their own lives as Black Lives Matter marches took place around the world.
On Amazon’s list of 2020 best-selling books, Robin Diangelo’s “White Fragility” sits in seventh place, and Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to Be an Antiracist” isn’t far behind at No. 11.
“Black Lives Matter” was printed on the National Basketball Association’s bubble court in Florida. Countless businesses and other organizations posted statements in support of Black lives on their social media accounts. The nation was gripped, at least for a moment, by racial injustice.
Meanwhile tensions continued to bubble in southern Utah, where Black Lives Matter protests were met by counter protests from other groups. On June 5, All Lives Matter counter-protesters gathered on St. George Boulevard at a corner where Black Lives Matter protesters had demonstrated days earlier. Seven days later, around 100 people gathered in front of Cedar City’s city offices for a “Back the Blue” protest.
On Aug. 29, hundreds of people, some of whom were visibly armed, gathered in St. George in response to unfounded rumors posted on social media that busloads of BLM protesters were coming to start a riot. The anticipated mayhem did not occur as the busloads of rioters never materialized.
The pushback Black Lives Matter received came as no surprise to Garrett Whiting, a Black freshman communication major at SUU.
“I’ve grown up in Utah, and this isn’t really anything new,” Whiting said. “People just feel more comfortable being openly racist, not feeling like they need to censor anything.”
Whiting likened the tension that exists right now to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
“From what happened back then, not a lot has changed,” Whiting said. “Now, it’s just getting recorded more. Racism has always been there, the technology we have now just allows us to expose it to the country and to the world to show them what we really go through on a daily basis.”
“No one is going to do it but me.”
Erwin said that the parallels she sees between then and now “engulf her entire being.” Erwin and other members of BSU met with Carolyn McKinstry, a woman who survived the Sixteenth Street Baptist Bombing in Alabama in 1963, after an A.P.E.X. event earlier this year.
McKinstry pointed out the similarities to Erwin– the marches, the lynchings, the tension — saying that what she sees now is “frighteningly reminiscent” of what she saw in the ‘60s.
Erwin said that the last six months have been “exhausting” because, “None of this is new. It’s been happening for as long as I can remember and for generations way before me. The repetitive and graphic nature of it all is really hard and takes a big mental toll.”
The pain and outrage she’s felt also motivates her to do more to stop racial injustice, she said.
“I feel like no one is going to do it but me,” Erwin said. “No one is going to do it but my community, so I don’t have the time to sit back and be hurt about it. I can feel the pain that I feel, but I ultimately have to separate my feelings from myself and think about the generations after me.”
Erwin has nine nieces and nephews, and when she feels down about her surroundings, she focuses on making the world a better place for them. She tries to “sprinkle in a little bit of knowledge” in her conversations with other students and meetings.
She expressed gratitude for allies she’s met during her time on campus, and said that she wants more people to take accountability for the racist things they’ve said, done, heard or seen in the past, and to take stock of how the people that surround them are behaving.
“If your boss says something you don’t like, and you as a white person have the privilege of speaking up against it, then you need to do so,” Erwin said. “You cannot call yourself an ally if you’re not willing to be alone in these spaces and speak up for the communities that aren’t allowed to speak up for themselves.”
Sometimes Erwin sees people walk past the CDI, somewhat performatively poke their head in to see what’s going on, and then walk back out. In other instances, people have wanted to almost exclusively ask her about the Black experience, instead of approaching her as they would any other person.
“Just come talk to us,” Erwin said. “Try to make friends with us. Maybe don’t ask us 101 questions about what it’s like to be Black, but come talk to us and see us as another person. The Center for Diversity and Inclusion is open to everyone. It’s not just for the marginalized groups on campus. We’re friendly people.”
Whiting said that it’s frustrating when people “make everything about my skin color.” He encourages people to be open-minded by engaging with people outside of their usual social circle.
“Just come in and have casual conversations with us,” Whiting said. “There’s this misconception that whenever you’re in the CDI, it’s all a discussion about race and how we’re oppressed, when really we’re just in here hanging out most of the time… Feel free to stop by and say, ‘What’s up?’ Don’t hesitate.”
Watson-Davis said that she wants to see more effort and understanding from allies on campus. She said some of her interactions on campus have made her feel like she’s always on the defensive, explaining why she feels the way she does, instead of exchanging ideas with a new person.
“It’s hard for me to explain why I’m upset about a certain situation if you don’t even want to hear me out,” Watson-Davis said. “You already have your ideas stuck in your brain. I want a civil conversation. I just think that we should listen to your neighbors and how they might live a completely different life from you and not invalidate their experiences.”
Even as the grief and tension continue to pile on, Watson-Davis, Whiting, Erwin and the rest of the Black community on campus and throughout the world have no choice but to keep pushing in the fight to end racial inequality. Watson-Davis said that she chooses to focus on what she can control to cope with the grief she’s felt and the hate she’s experienced.
“What it really boils down to is: haters gonna hate,” Watson-Davis said. “Wherever I go, I know I’m going to be hated just because of the way I look. They don’t even know me; they’re just going to hate me. But, are they going to get this degree? Are they going to make this money? No. It’s really me for myself. I’m going to keep going because no one is going to tell me where I need to be. No one’s going to tell me how I should live, how I should act around certain people. I keep going because I know the person I’m trying to be, and I’m trying to create.”
Story by: Connor Sanders
Photos by: Christopher Dimond