By Michael Romain
At least 1,500 people marched several blocks Thursday from Oak Park’s village hall to the 15th District Police headquarters to protest against the systemic racism that many of the participants believe is the root cause of the May 25 death of George Floyd.
Floyd died handcuffed while Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin had his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. Chauvin has since been arrested and charged with second degree murder, and three other officers who also held Floyd down or stood by have been charged with aiding and abetting the crime.
Kris Simmons stood on the westbound side of Madison Street as the protesters, most of them white, streamed past her. The sight brought Simmons to tears.
“Everybody is trying to make peace, and that touched my heart,” she said.
The 55-year-old Austin resident said she’s been depressed over the last several days, as parts of Chicago and the suburbs have been ransacked by looting, vandalism and arson in the wake of Floyd’s death.
“I’ve been scared to go to work,” Simmons said. “I’m afraid out here, so I just want everybody to come together. I love this. At least somebody is fighting for our rights.”
But some black bystanders were more ambivalent about Thursday’s demonstration, which was organized by state Rep. La Shawn K. Ford and other West Side community leaders.
“I strongly feel that white people are beginning to understand,” said Beatrice Starcks, as she stood outside of AA Rayner & Sons Funeral Home, 5911 W. Madison St.
“I like to see this, but are they true?” said Starcks’ friend, Sandra Turner, 72. “That’s my concern. The bottom line is, if they’re so into us, why didn’t they try to do something prior to this?”
Starcks added the white demonstrators “might be true to what they’re doing, but it won’t do no good for us at the bottom if they don’t care of what needs to be taken care of at the top.
“We’re both educators,” Starcks said. “We work in the school system to try to teach these children how to think. You weren’t born a racist. You weren’t born to hate. You were taught to hate. So we have to start teaching history. History has left the building. Everything is technology now. They’re not teaching history anymore.”
That history informed the angry lament of 60-year-old Terry Carter, who was a child during the 1968 riots that devastated swaths of the West Side including Madison Street. The Austin resident stood on the corner of Madison and Parkside shouting “An eye for an eye!” as demonstrators walked by peacefully.
“This is nothing new,” Carter said. “This has been going on. It’s just being caught on camera. What those people understand is violence. They put on everybody’s head that we’re violent and we’re animals. They’re the ones who perpetrated all of this. And I mean the European race. The white man. They perpetrated all of this. They’ve had their foot on our necks for years. I’ve lived through two riots, and ain’t nothing changed.”
For some white protesters, Floyd’s death was an opportunity to finally confront and take ownership of that painful history.
“One of my realizations is that white people have to stand up and lead on this,” said Tom Cofsky, an Oak Park resident who’s also a member of District 200 OPRF school board. “This is our problem. We have to own it.”
Dana Langhans, 24, of Oak Park, held a sign that read “White inaction is violence” as she walked back to her hometown from Central Avenue.
“In general, for a very long time, white people have not done enough, and often it seems like it has to take another tragedy for white people to show we care,” Langhans said.
“Posting on Facebook is one thing, but we have to do a lot more than that,” she said. “We got to figure out what more we can do. Talk to our family. Educate our family. Learn the history we never learned. Change the minds of our racist parents. Get out in the streets. Follow the leadership of black organizers. And protest.”
Ford captured the general tenor of the crowd during a speech he gave while the march was paused in front of the 15th District.
“My heart is heavy, and I’m so grateful,” he said. “I said in Oak Park that I appreciate white people for being out here with black people. Today is a demonstration that not all black people are bad, not all white people are bad, not all brown people are bad. Today is a demonstration that we are in it together, and that’s what we need.”
Speaking after the protest concluded back at Oak Park’s village hall, Ford said the blending of residents from Austin, Oak Park and River Forest “is an example no other part of the state can match. We can’t do this without white people. There are white people who aren’t racist, but they’ve been silent. They didn’t know they need to speak up.”
Ford said that Springfield legislators must change state laws to create consequences for police brutality. “Police need consequences. There are almost none for bad cops,” he said.
The Austin lawmaker said by the next legislative session this fall that a package of new laws focusing on racial bias training for police statewide, on making police discipline records more transparent can be crafted.
“We have veto-proof majorities in the House and the Senate and a progressive governor. If we can’t do this now in Illinois, we’ll never do it,” he said.