By Josh Bootsma
LANSING, Ill. (November 24, 2020) – When a video emerged of a white police officer in Minneapolis kneeling on the neck of George Floyd—a black man—for over nine minutes, causing his death, the country—and Lansing—took notice. The viral video, which emerged in late May, churned stomachs everywhere and caused unrest across the country, some of which resulted in looting and vandalism.
On the afternoon and evening of May 31, an estimated 20-30 cars came into Lansing from Calumet City, where looting had already started at River Oaks Mall. Multiple businesses in The Landings shopping center were looted, as well as several businesses along Torrence Avenue. By 4:00 p.m. Lansing Police and Public Works were securing business entryways and blocking thoroughfares. Two officers sustained minor injuries and one arrest was made.
“I don’t believe for one minute that any of those 20 or 30 cars…were Lansing residents,” Lansing Police Chief Dennis Murrin said.
The death of George Floyd didn’t sit right with Lansing residents, and neither did the actions of looters entering Lansing to damage businesses and incite violence. As a result, the summer of 2020 in Lansing was one marked by demonstrations of prayer, peace, protest, division, and unity.
The day after looting occurred in Lansing, Pastor Leroy Childress of Grace Church welcomed more than 30 local church leaders and representatives to pray for Lansing in his church’s parking lot. The socially-distanced group prayed for humility, compassion, wisdom, and peace. Childress told the group, “We want to boldly say to God: ‘Move within our city.’”
One day later on June 2, two local families used the median grass strip at the intersection of 178th and Burnham to pray and display signs supporting peace and decrying injustice.
Local protests and demonstrations
JUNE 5 – “That’s not what we’re about”
Saddened by both the looting that occured in Lansing, and the implications of George Floyd’s death, Cameron Sanchez, Chawn “CJ” Wilson, and Jawaan Dorch, all young black men in Lansing, organized a peaceful protest at Lan-Oak Park that drew a crowd of roughly 200 people.
In response to the looting, Wilson said, “We were like, ‘No, that’s not what we do here. We’re not gonna do that. That’s not what we’re about.’”
The trio wanted to stage a public statement to protect the reputation of their hometown. They wanted the world to know that the damage in Lansing was done by outsiders, not locals, and they wanted to prevent misinformation and wrong assumptions from creating division in diverse communities that currently look out for each other.
“Our overall goal is to spread peace,” Sanchez said.
At the suggestion of Lansing Village Trustee Saad Abbasy, the young men connected with the Lansing Police Department to make sure the event was peaceful and protected. The organizers also asked participants to bring a mask and honor COVID-19 guidelines. The morning before the event, Mayor Patty Eidam personally visited residents living along the perimeter of Lan-Oak Park to inform and assure them of the collaborative and peaceful nature of the demonstration.
The gathering included a march around the park, spoken word poetry, personal testimonies, and an 8 minute and 46 second period of kneeling or lying down—to honor and identify with George Floyd.
JUNE 13 – “UNITY PEACE MARCH”
Around noon on Saturday, June 13, about 40 protestors stepped into the northbound lanes of Torrence Avenue from the Walgreens parking lot, stopping traffic as the cadence of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech filled the street. The “Unity Peace March” was organized by professional bodyguard Kevin Collinz and was done in compliance and cooperation with Lansing and State Police.
The dozens of marchers were mostly silent as the voice of Dr. King rang out from a speaker before they stopped and knelt near the intersection of Torrence of 176th for a few minutes of listening. The group then marched back to the Walgreens parking lot using the sidewalk along Torrence.
Collinz recognized his unique position as a black bodyguard, saying, “I don’t think that all officers are bad. Not only am I a voice for blacks, I’m a voice for law enforcement because I wear the badge also.”
In a Facebook message before the event, Collinz specifically invited police brutality victims to join the march. Collinz said that in 2004, multiple Chicago police officers physically beat him, leaving him bleeding. At the hospital afterwards, 16 staples were put in his head, and he was told he had broken ribs and a broken jaw, which he still feels the effects of today.
June 13 – CONCERNED CITIZENS OF LANSING
As Collinz’ march was nearing its end, a larger protest was starting in the parking lot of TF South High School, organized by a newly-formed group called Concerned Citizens of Lansing, IL.
The group was founded by Dan Stellfox and identifies as “a small group of concerned citizens hoping to foster meaningful change in our community.” A description of the event read, in part, “Our demonstration has many goals, but the most important is to promote meaningful change and action. We can no longer ignore the lasting and continual impact of oppression. It is our job to learn, educate, and foster an actively anti-racist village.”
The group marched north on Burnham from TF South to the Lansing Clock Tower, where it gathered in the grassy area. By this time, an estimated 300 people were part of the diverse crowd and a handful of speakers addressed the assemblage. These speakers were TF South graduates Kimberly Luna, Tre’sean Hall, and Jadyn Newman, as well as Lansing resident Jennifer Cottrill and Pastor Nate Smith of Lighthouse Community Church.
“We need to stop being separated and take a unified stand, so the world will know that we value black lives and the future of black people is important in this country. We are so much stronger together!” said Smith, who is black.
Hall walked the crowd through a list of demands for the Village and the Lansing Police Department. It included four action points: promote accountability, implement a “Duty to Intervene” policy, implement a complete ban on chokeholds, and promote accessibility of resources and dialogue by the Lansing Police Department and the Village of Lansing.
Hall specifically called out the Lansing Human Relations Commission, stating, “The HRC has not released a statement at all during the past few weeks, and there is no documentation proving they’ve met virtually to provide resources to the residents of Lansing.” Due to COVID concerns, the commission’s February 21 meeting was its last meeting before it reconvened on July 16.
All of the speeches can be read online as part of the Lansing Journal’s “Local Voices” feature.
JUNE 26 – SOUTH HOLLAND “UNITY WALK”
In neighboring South Holland, roughly 150 people gathered in the parking lot of First Reformed Church to walk and lament in community. The event was organized by the Village of South Holland and the South Holland Ministerial Association, which used Bible verse Micah 6:8 as the theme for the event: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
Unity Walkers were split into six socially-distanced groups and started south down South Park Avenue and gathered at Calvary Community Church for a time of prayer before returning to the First Reformed Church parking lot. A handful of speakers encouraged and shared their testimonies with the crowd, including South Holland Mayor Don De Graff, Rev. Carmin Frederick-James, and youth pastor John Purnell, who implored the crowd, saying, “I need you to act like my three little boys are your three little boys. I want you to hear the hurt and the pain from so many parents who have lost so many little boys and little girls and I want you to make the decision in your heart that you’re not going to let it happen again—that it will not be your silence or your inaction that causes the death of another young person.”
The “Unity Walk” ended with nine minutes of silence and reflection.
At the first Village Board Meeting since Lansing protests took place, Mayor Patty Eidam read a statement condemning looting, supporting peaceful demonstrators, and responding to a few comments made by protestors.
In particular, she encouraged resident participation with the Human Relations Commission and stated that an educational video titled “What To Do When Stopped By The Police” would be released for public viewing. The video was initially slated for release as part of TF South’s curriculum, but those plans were waylaid by COVID.
At the July 14 meeting of the Village Board, Police Chief Dennis Murrin updated the Board on the Department’s progress addressing protestor demands. He called the Duty to Intervene policy a “good idea” and said a new policy was waiting for formal adoption. He explained that the chokehold policy in Lansing (“Officers shall not use a chokehold in the performance of his or her duties, unless deadly force is justified”) is derived from state law. He also said establishing a citizen review board was a work in progress.
Other community responses
On July 11, Sheryl Black, the Education Chairperson of the NAACP Chicago Far South Suburban Branch, held a prayer and unity event at District 215 administrative offices and supported the District’s Statement of Solidarity which said the District would “work tirelessly to ensure the educational environment is free from racist acts, words, and policies” and commit to “listening to voices with very different lived experiences.”
District 215 later voted at its August 25 Board Meeting to dissolve the “Rebels” nickname at TF South. The decision came at the heels of a student survey which revealed that 69.5% of survey respondents desired to see the name changed. TF South Principal Jacob Gourley shared that when TF South was founded in 1958, the pun was that the “South” had seceded from the “North” campus, and the imagery adopted by the new Thornton Fractional South campus was that of a Confederate soldier, the Confederate battle flag, and the nickname “Rebels.” Gourley also noted that the Confederate flag was removed in the mid-1990s and the Confederate soldier mascot was eliminated by the mid-2000s. The student-driven process of choosing a new nickname began in late October.
The month of August also saw the launch of Lansing’s first race relations program, designed to bring people of different racial and cultural backgrounds together to have honest conversations about similarities and differences.
Complex conversations about complex problems
So often in 2020, Lansing residents have been asked to take one side or the other on a host of issues: Do you support black people or the police? Do you believe black lives matter or all lives matter? Do all protests lead to looting or are all protests peaceful? Do you want to defund the police or support them? These questions are binary, with answers that are only polar opposites.
In 2020, the Lansing community rejected black-and-white answers in favor of the gray area in-between. Young residents felt offended by both the killing of George Floyd and the rampant looting that resulted from it. Protestors routinely contacted Lansing police before demonstrating, and the police took the necessary steps to keep them safe. Invested community members demanded change of the Lansing Police Department, and within a month the Lansing Police Chief reported on progress on each of the demands, mentioning them by name. Lansing students started a process to change the nickname of their high school, submitting the initiative to the School Board, who based its decision to do so entirely on a student survey. Dozens of Lansing residents committed to meeting monthly with someone who is racially different than they are to better understand differences. Lansing people of all races and ages joined to march, pray, kneel, listen, and sometimes shout in support of their community, a community that in 2020 has shown its desire to forego simple answers in favor of complex conversations.
- Race relations program Common Ground launches, grows, and unites in 2020 (December 2, 2020)