In Salt Lake City, Utah, murals of individuals killed by police have become a community site of remembrance and activism.
SALT LAKE CITY, UT—West of downtown Salt Lake City, a compelling series of pink-colored faces gaze at passersby who traverse 300 West and 800 South—street coordinates within the city’s notable grid system.
The faces—portraits of individuals killed by police—are painted in uniform style and on the surface of large white panels adorning the perimeter of a city-owned building that, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, houses police and fire department vehicles.
The street is situated in a once-industrial section of the city now called the Granary District, which, like other areas previously considered residentially undesirable, is now home to coffee houses, luxury apartments, and microbreweries.
The “Protest Portraits,” as their creators the SLC Mural Makers call them, aim to highlight the enormous toll of police brutality in a city that has a statistically startling number of police killings.
The portraits emerged in early June 2020 in the days following George Floyd’s murder and quickly multiplied, highlighting the local lives lost to police violence. What began as a spontaneous memorial has now developed into an indispensable part of Salt Lake City’s public infrastructure, forcing the city and corporate interests alike to halt and re-adjust plans for the area’s development.
“We came together to educate our city about the people we have lost. We came together to make it impossible to look away from the faces of those who have been taken from us,” the group says in a press release on the Mestizo Institute of Culture and Arts website. “Every brushstroke is dedicated to them, their families, and our community. Each brushstroke is for all of us.”
MICA, a grassroots cultural organization aimed at elevating artists of color and addressing systematic racism, awarded the group the 2020 Ruby Chacon Social Justice Arts Award in February of last year.
“The murals still affect me as I drive by them every day, their faces demanding we acknowledge them and their humanity, and to ensure that their deaths lead to action, rather than fading away into another news cycle,” says Paul Kuttner, a MICA board member, in an email interview with Southwest Contemporary.
In the months since their inception, the murals have become a site of community engagement, often serving as a designated location for public statements about racial injustice and a location within designated protest routes.
The portraits—each twenty feet in height—depict only the faces of their subjects, some wearing serious expressions and others smiling in a manner that highlights the vibrancy of a life lost. In a central section of the portraits, a text block reads, “Mourn the Dead and Fight for the Living.”
The first portrait emerged on the north side of the building in the week following the death of George Floyd, whose murder by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin created an international reckoning with the persistence of racial violence in America. Floyd’s death—horrifically captured on video for the world to see—inspired a string of protests in Salt Lake City, mirroring countless demonstrations across the nation.
Shortly after Floyd’s, a second portrait emerged, that of Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal, a Utah man shot and killed by police on May 23, 2020 near the site of the portraits. The immediacy of Palacios-Carbajal’s death to that of Floyd’s spurred a collective outcry among local civil rights activists, with tensions boiling over in July 2020 when the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s office ruled police action in the case was justified, reports Deseret News.
The ensuing months saw additional portraits. In a display that radiates around the street corner and down the entire block, the site has become a commemorative shrine laden with flowers, notes, and devotional items left by loved ones and well-wishers alike. Portraits range from national figures like Floyd and Breonna Taylor, killed in Louisville, Kentucky on March 13, 2020, while asleep in her bed, to local individuals Cindreia Europe, Cody Belgard, Allen Nelson, and Darrien Hunt, to name a few. The newest leader of Utah’s chapter of Black Lives Matter, Rae Duckworth, is the cousin of Bobby Duckworth, also featured in the series of portraits. As of this writing, twenty-six individuals are depicted on the building’s edifice.
On a local level, 2020 has forced a reckoning on issues of race, diversity, and the lasting impacts of police violence within various Utah communities. In the fall of 2020, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Utah’s predominant religious affiliation, spoke out in support of Black Lives Matter. In February 2021, Brigham Young University released a report urging school leaders to take immediate action regarding the treatment of students of color, who reported feeling “isolated and unsafe” at the school’s campus.
Even with renewed attention to the issue in the aftermath of 2020’s historic civil rights protests, Utah’s rates of police killings remain high, with seventeen deaths reported in 2020. Nationally, Black Americans are reportedly ten times more likely to be killed by police than their white counterparts, according to data collected by the research collaborative “Mapping Police Violence” from 2013 to 2020. In September 2021, the United States Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division issued a notice condemning a Salt Lake City suburb for ignoring widespread instances of racism in their district.
Since its inception, the project appears to be making a lasting impact. Last fall, the city paused plans to re-zone the area in light of local sentiment toward the murals, with talk of making the site a community park in the future. Months after the murals, Salt Lake City mayor Erin Mendenhall commissioned a Black Lives Matter mural in front of the City and County Building.
According to Renato Olmedo-Gonzalez, the Salt Lake City Arts Council’s public art program manager, the murals have set a standard for public art projects.
“The artistic impact of these murals will be felt in the Salt Lake community for years to come. Not only has the community wholeheartedly embraced these artworks, the local artist community now has a powerful example of a public art project that is successful at combining beautiful and compelling art that also serves as a catalyst for collective healing and social change,” says Olmedo-Gonzalez. “Additionally, the Mayor’s Office has been engaging in community outreach efforts directly with the living relatives tied to these murals in hopes of memorializing their loved ones in some form.”
On a frigid visit to the site in mid-December, the figures’ sharp contours are even more striking. Heavy snow obscures the flowers left beneath the towering visages while cardboard boxes and wooden containers filled with essential items invite those to take what they need. These donations recall the homeless encampment that permeated the site last fall, since relocated. As winter has left its indelible mark upon the city, so, too, has the call for racial justice ushered a change of seasons within the public consciousness, emblazoned by the unflinching series of faces, each of whom beseeches us to remember.