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Report for America is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities.

Voices Of The Protests In Northern Illinois

It's been more than two weeks since the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man killed in Minneapolis. One police officer is charged with murder and other officers face charges related to the death. Floyd's killing has spurred protests around the country including northern Illinois.

 

   

There was chanting for several hours at the June 3rd protest in front of the DeKalb County Courthouse in Sycamore. It came after several days of sustained gatherings in DeKalb County. The sounds rose from a sea of Black Lives Matter signs that stretched a couple of blocks. 

Jackie Schmack, a 70-year-old Sycamore resident, is one of the hundreds of people across northern Illinois who joined the march. She said she came because there’s a real need for it. 

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Credit Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco
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Jackie Schmack holds up sign at June 3rd Sycamore protest

In Rockford, protests have also continued since the end of May. And, while many of the chants and the signs are similar, the organizing has been different and creative. The location of many protests are kept under wraps until about 2 hours before the event. One of the protesters, Shadow Wolf, explained why.

“They did not get the opportunity to know we were going to be here," Wolf said. "So we're just kind of we're a flash mob rallying for them. We're about to give them a reason to pay attention to what needs to change.”

One of the recurring chants in Rockford calls for the resignation of Rockford Police Chief Daniel O’Shea. The outcry came after a comment he made in May calling 16 and 17-year-olds that were shooting each other “a lost cause.” He said the police department had shifted its focus to helping younger kids. Many protesters felt deeply disappointed by the comments, including Malcolm Scott.

“I don't think that's fair. I don't think that was fair," said Scott. "Your brain doesn't stop developing until you're 25. He's saying that you're pretty much not savable by 17. So like, you know, that's still an extra eight years that you can still develop and change as a person mentally. And I don't think he was fair for making that statement.”

O’Shea later clarified his remarks and said he does not plan to step down. Still, protesters are hopeful about the numbers of people who have mobilized -- including Jasmine Brown, Tony Thomson, and Mariah Nelson.

“Like I was when I went to the first protest -- I was very surprised with how many people ended up coming," said Brown. "So I was very nicely surprised. You know, that we were able to fill up almost a whole street of people.”

 

Thomson added, “You know, it's a little something called 'change is coming.' It's long overdue. It's the process. But the process is worth it.”

 

Nelson emphasized, “These are people in my city. It's not just something that you see on Instagram in New York is something that happens in every single city because it's in the fiber of America.”

Last week, members of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus chose Rockford to preview plans to address economic injustice in the Black community and police reform. The group plans to meet again in other areas of the state where protests have occurred.

And on June 8th, Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara announced a series of moves to begin police reform in the city. The list includes virtual listening sessions that will allow members of the black community to share their experiences with the Rockford Police Department. McNamara says that his job now is to listen.

“I need to be educating myself to do better," McNamara said. "And once I know better, we will as a community do better collectively and we will act, so we need to listen, we need to learn, and we need to act as a city.”

 

Meanwhile, organizers in DeKalb and Rockford say they want to keep the momentum going.

  • Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco is a 2020 corps member for Report for Americaan initiative of the GroundTruth Project which is a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms.
Juanpablo covers environmental, substandard housing and police-community relations. He’s been a bilingual facilitator at the StoryCorps office in Chicago. As a civic reporting fellow at City Bureau, a non-profit news organization that focuses on Chicago’s South Side, Ramirez-Franco produced print and audio stories about the Pilsen neighborhood. Before that, he was a production intern at the Third Coast International Audio Festival and the rural America editorial intern at In These Times magazine. Ramirez-Franco grew up in northern Illinois. He is a graduate of Knox College.
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