December 17, 2020
  • Opinion

Mural spaces on SLC’s ‘Fleet Block’ are meaningful acts of solidarity and should be preserved

The murals at Salt Lake City’s “fleet block” near 800 S. 400 W. have become places to memorialize loved ones who have been killed by police. PHOTO BY DAVID RICKETTS Mural spaces on SLC’s ‘Fleet Block’ are meaningful acts of solidarity and should be preserved
The murals at Salt Lake City’s “fleet block” near 800 S. 400 W. have become places to memorialize loved ones who have been killed by police. PHOTO BY DAVID RICKETTS||||| The murals at Salt Lake City’s “fleet block” near 800 S. 400 W. have become places to memorialize loved ones who have been killed by police. PHOTO BY DAVID RICKETTS||||| |||||
By Gabriela Huggins

Protests that erupted across the nation in the wake of the high-profile police murders of George Flloyd and Breonna Taylor were unprecedented in my lifetime.

I’d been acutely aware of the movement for Black lives happening in different places around the country for the last handful of years, but the national conversation about racism and the state of policing felt isolated to states where people who look like me are a highly visible minority. In Minneapolis, or the Bay Area, or Ferguson, or Chicago, the outcry could be heard because there were enough Black voices to raise the volume. In Salt Lake, I didn’t think continued justifications of police brutality by city and state officials could truly matter to anyone who didn’t feel directly affected.

To say I was surprised when major protests around state-sanctioned violence started to happen on the streets of Salt Lake City is an understatement. The local protests highlighted the disillusionment that, more and more, is being felt by individuals tired of watching their neighbors and strangers in their community not have safety in a state whose values center around family, community, and collective work to solve problems.

My skepticism about the sustainability around a movement for Black lives in a place where Black people are just one of many marginal groups, whose insecurity and endangerment most of us can pretend doesn’t exist, quickly followed. The protests were promising, but I decided I wouldn’t believe in a genuine effort toward solidarity for those impacted by police violence until I saw it.

The spontaneity of the first “Fleet Block” murals, followed by other murals of Utahns whose lives were taken by police, followed by the construction of benches and garden boxes and the planting of trees was an act of community agency, and an auspicious sign of meaningful activism.

The claiming of the city’s “Fleet Block” at 300 West and 800 South as a space for demonstration represents how empowerment found in the summer’s protests provided hope for how we, the people, might imagine and create different futures for ourselves. Most heartening was that the murals were an invitation for people to channel the collective energy of protest into the communal practice of carving out space they’ve never felt able to claim.

And, interestingly, the murals went up on a disused city building, on a block offering the promises of gentrification, in a part of the city where, historically, residents in the surrounding areas are not meaningfully considered collaborators in decisions about how space is created and for whom.

Creation of public and private space by the Salt Lake City Council has long felt like an exclusionary practice for west-side residents. Fears of potential displacement as a result of gentrification, low participation in council meetings due to timing and technological concerns, and developments  planned without west-side input are constant topics of tension during campaigns for public office.

While city officials imagine efforts towards revitalization with developers and new transplants in mind, existing community members are grappling with anxieties and material struggles. For example, while Utah’s housing crisis is not as dire as the crises in places like Seattle and San Francisco, a recent report released by the National Low Income Housing Coalition found that the average Utahn needs to make almost $20 an hour to afford the average two-bedroom apartment in the state.

Salt Lake’s issues associated with homelessness have also exploded amid the pandemic, with encampments of the unhoused routinely disrupted by the health department and police officers, and a lack of restrooms and bathing facilities which, according Salt Lake Tribune reporter Taylor Stevens in a July article, carries “implications for human rights, public health and criminal justice.” The Fleet Block murals and the investments community members have made surrounding them stand in direct conflict to the trend of city-centered – not community-centered – development, characteristic of Salt Lake’s efforts towards urbanization.

As it stands, the city council has postponed a vote on what will happen with the murals and the Fleet Block as a whole; plans for demolition of the murals do not seem to be on the table. The halting of this decades-long rumination of how to repurpose the Fleet Block is a result of the widespread public appreciation for and defense of the murals.

Residents are speaking up in city council call-ins and through local publications to share how important these memorials are, not just to the memories of people killed by police, but to families in mourning, people concerned with COVID deaths in Utah’s prisons and jails, and houseless folks who might find sanctuary under the gaze of lost community members like Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal, Danielle Willard and Darrien Hunt.

The murals are a piece of community organizing borne out of demands that our institutions stop failing or hurting everyday people, and it’s inspiring to see the reclamation of public space and sustained public demonstration the murals have fostered.

Still, the city council deliberates the fate of this organically-created, community-centered space. If the Salt Lake City Council is as committed to combating police brutality, systemic racism, poverty and homelessness as they would have residents believe, they have a major opportunity to demonstrate their belief in community-centered justice by unequivocally committing to protect the “Fleet Block” murals.

Gabriella Huggins grew up in Rose Park and works for SpyHop as the Community Programs Mentor.