- Max Smith
There are basically two things to do on these hot summer pandemic evenings of 2020: head out to a bar, or head to a protest. One of the organizers (who prefers to remain anonymous) of the community-led group Our Streets SLC, understands if both of those options are scary for some people. They just know that if you can only choose one of those options, you should choose wisely.
"If you're nervous to go to protests: stay at home, don't go out of the door," they say. "I get it, if you can't come out and protest, if you're afraid or you have a family member that you're worried about. I just better not see you at one of the bars that I go to."
Our Streets SLC provides an option that mixes the energy of going out on the town with the good of working for a cause—an easygoing, social-minded weekly answer to the intensity of other protests. Filled out by music, dancing and food trucks, these protests are welcoming to all, especially families. Basically, if you've got time to party elsewhere, you'd better at least be making time to hang with Our Streets.
"We've been going out every single day," the anonymous organizer says of their personal protest attendance record, but also that of their fellow organizers. "I did 38 days straight before I took a break."
During those times, they went to gatherings both big and small, from spring into summer, singing "Happy Birthday" to Breonna Taylor at one march. Some organizers only took breaks to get back to personal work, as many are local business-owners. "We love the city and we're trying to make a change and do it for the better," they emphasize, also sharing that their group meets with Mayor Erin Mendenhall and Chief Mike Brown every other week. "We decided that we saw a lot of anger, a lot of antagonizing at a lot of the protests we were at all this time and things were not [changing much]. So we decided to do one that lets people be quiet for the day, have a little fun, save your voice—because I can tell you, I lost my voice a couple times.
"We're fighting to make the changes we wanna make, but we just can't stop. 'Cause as long as we disturb the streets they're gonna get tired of it, and they're gonna say 'What do we have to do to make this change?'"
Despite the serious nature of most marches, anyone who's been to one knows it feels damn good to be around people again. Our Streets digs further into the communal elements of protests with the help of local visual artists and musicians, and the Salt Lake COVID-19 Mutual Aid Group. The latter hands out masks, snacks, water, sunscreen and hand sanitizer, while from the truck that always leads the way, organizers play '70s tunes like Earth, Wind & Fire and Marvin Gaye, or make room for performers like recent California transplant DJ Lucky I Am.
"We told people, if you last with us, you will be rewarded, you're gonna have some fun while you're here," says this organizer, referencing recent Sunday marches that have ended with food trucks and performances by the likes of Joshy Soul and the Cool. "You get dinner, you get a show."
Groups spontaneously break out into dance, and some folks even roll along on skates. Free shirts and posters are provided via local propaganda artists who, at press time, had printed off 500,000 posters on top of working their full-time jobs. "When people come out of their homes clapping and cheering we're like, 'Here's signs, put it in your window so people understand what side you're on,'" they say, showing that Our Streets is still spreading awareness about Black Lives Matter and police brutality even with the more easygoing nature of the marches. Distributing signs, taking donations for propaganda shirts that go towards groups like the Covid-19 Mutual Aid Group, and simply making space for folks who can't go to more traditional protests helps keep the movement accessible and visible. "We try to make it possible to bring kids out, because we wanna keep everybody on the same side. That can be you, your kids, your grandmother, whoever it is—everybody come out."
The music stays clean for the kids, who mist adult marchers with squirt guns in the summer heat, as they were doing on a recent route past Sim Gill's house. Despite the presence of strollers in the crowd, however, the group was met with police in riot gear. "We were gonna put a shield between his home and the protesters so that they could just keep walking by. We were never intending to do anything to his home or even put a sign up at all, nothing."
As they backtracked, they bumped the only explicit song they've ever played. "We turned around and played 'Fuck tha Police' by N.W.A. We had to. I apologized to the kids that were in the crowd, I said 'Parents, I apologize, you can cover their ears, but this is necessary.'"
Whether it was the kids' first time hearing the word "fuck" or seeing cops in riot gear, Our Streets SLC at least won't let them forget that these streets are theirs too. And as to whether Gill heard them? The anonymous organizer chuckles: "He heard us."