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How Can I Help? One Activist At Saturday's SLC Protest Finds Beauty In Reaching Across the Line

Photo of a group of protesters facing a line of police.
Elaine Clark
Protesters face a line of police officers at a rally against police brutality and racial injustice in downtown Salt Lake City Saturday night.

Photo of two people speaking in front of a line of law enforcement officers in riot gear.
Credit Elaine Clark / KUER
Musician and activist Shea Freedom speaks with KUER's Jon Reed at the protest against police brutality in downtown Salt Lake City Saturday night.

People flooded the streets of Salt Lake City Saturday to protest the in-custody death of George Floyd. One of them was Shea Freedom, a musician and activist based in Salt Lake City. KUER’s Caroline Ballard caught up with him on Sunday to hear about his experience.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Caroline Ballard: How has your experience influenced how you think about the unique intersection of civil rights & LGBTQ rights?

Shea Freedom: I lived most my life as a black woman, enduring and surviving in America. The endurance of the black female spirit is astonishing, because you know what it's like to walk through the world concerned for safety. Having the understanding of what it is to be a black woman in America and then stepping into my manhood has really opened up my eyes to the risks and see social subtleties — the tightenings of hands around children, the intentionally looking you in the eye and crossing the street. There's a certain fear.

CB:You were at the demonstrations this weekend and you were on the side of the protesters, but from what I understand, were also arguing somewhat with their methods.

SF: Absolutely. The protests that I had signed up for was never even supposed to involve foot traffic in respect of COVID-19. I was on the side of the protesters and the demonstrators when we were conducting the car rally. When I got back with my friends after doing that, I sat and watched the news a bit and I saw things escalating. I could see agitators. I could see young people wanting to be a part of something bigger than themselves, but with a misunderstanding of how to do that.

I went back the second time around and I walked the line a lot, and I kept mostly my left shoulder to the officer, my right shoulder to the crowd. Every time I'd walk by an officer and a protester, I looked to my left. I go, "You guys get home safe, all right?" I looked to my right. "You guys get home safe. All right?" And I walked the line back and forth, back and forth all night, asking people to respect the space and telling them, "your anger is valid and you have a right to it. Let's maintain a peaceful protest, because these officers right now, they're like a fire. If we stick our hand in their space, we're going to get burned."

But I had at the end of the night met four people who were arrested. I was a couple paces ahead and they were flanked. And at that point, since I was two paces ahead, I had booked it. I had made it to a place that provided cover and shadow. There was nothing I could do except for watch and figure out how to get out of the area I was in and found an officer who had recognized me from one of the lines earlier. And I asked if he could provide me an escort back to my vehicle. And Mike, if you're listening to this, thank you very much.

CB: We've heard a lot about tension and destruction. But was there a moment that you found especially moving or beautiful?

SF: Yeah. Being a part of the original car caravan, every time we rolled by, we had seen these people called Proud Boys. What I had gathered from people around me and things I had heard was they were Trump supporters. A few of them had open weapons on their hips, and they were all dressed in a sort of uniform. And so, I watched them every time we circled around that part of the block.

Our last circle, I had jumped off the vehicle and went over there to thank them. My friends were a little concerned. I'm a black trans man and these are some Proud Boys. I can't speak to their values, but I can speak to the way they conducted themselves. And from what I saw, that was decency and dignity and peacefulness. And that's the world I'd like to see no matter our agreements and disagreements.

At one point I had talked to a fellow they called Chief. He told me he was head of an organization that was Latinos for Trump. I kind of laughed and said to him, "what a complexity that must be."

And then I admitted to him something vulnerable. I said to him, "On Trump's Inauguration Day, I had tried to take my own life." Proud to say that is no longer my point of sanity or existence.

But before I could say anything, he grabbed me and gave me a hug. It wasn't an arm in between bros hug. It was a real human-to-human hug. And after he looked at me and he grabbed me by my shoulders and he said, "Your life is more important than that."

I don't know what his position is on trans lives, but after that I felt compelled to give him my contact information. He later asked me unexpectedly if I had gotten home safe. That was another beautiful experience with someone of different values, views. He also informed me that his automobile was severely vandalized and without pause my reaction was, "How can I help?"

Caroline Ballard hosts All Things Considered at KUER. Follow her on Twitter @cballardnews

Caroline is the Assistant News Director
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