Smile Politely

Black youth Azaan Lee is dead after a police encounter in Rantoul

A group of mostly Black people stand in a group and release balloons into the air on a bright day. The balloons are red and gold stars. Many people have their arms extended upward to release the balloons, which are on the left side of the image
Brian Dolinar

Last week, friends and family of Azaan Lee launched balloons in his memory and called for justice. His father Bishop Lee gave a heartfelt speech remembering his 21-year-old son. “He loved music,” the father said. Azaan had dreams of recording as a hip hop artist. “He wanted to be heard.” 

Referring to national incidents — most recently, the police killing of Tyre Nichols in Memphis — Azaan’s father said, “It’s got to stop. We got to change all this.” 

A crowd of about 40 people met at a park off of Maplewood Drive in Rantoul on Friday, February 10, 2023. Many wiped away tears as they remembered Azaan. Others took turns sharing stories about Azaan who they described as a young man full of life.  

On Monday night, February 6th, police approached Azaan about a stolen car. Police have released few details about what happened. Azaan died of a bullet wound in his left leg that pierced an artery. The officers involved were Jose Aceves and Rikki McComas. 

I interviewed Azaan’s father on the Thursday after his son had died. Mr. Lee said there were two encounters with police officers at two different times. The first was when Rantoul police were at the home of a woman who owned the car that was reported stolen. Mr. Lee had spoken to the woman who said Azaan was inside her house, helping to retrieve the car, and that she “wasn’t threatened at all.” Police came to the front door, questioned them, and left. 

After some time passed, Azaan left the home, and Rantoul police stopped him a second time at the intersection of West Belle Street and North Ohio Avenue. What happened next is uncertain. “He never should have been approached again,” Mr. Lee said. “He should have been okay, he should have just gone home.” 

Azaan Lee, a young Black man, is wearing a Menace II Society (movie) t-shirt and white and blue distressed jeans. He is standing in front of the front door of a house, with his hands folded across his stomach. He wears glasses and has his hair in braids on top of his head.
Azaan Lee; Photo provided by the Lee family

A media release put out by Azaan’s family stated, “Young black men across America are dying after police encounters and now our son is one of those statistics.” They called for the release of body cam footage, a decision which is up to State’s Attorney Julia Rietz, and may take weeks or months. 

At the balloon launch, I spoke to Allison Anderson who has lived in Rantoul since 1982, when she was two years old. “I am in shock right now,” she told me. “We’re not going to stop until we get answers.” 

Allison knew Azaan very well. “I watched him grow up,” she said. “He lived with me. He was bright, he was loving. He was very respectful, kind. He was a young adult maturing, trying to find his way. He loved music, loved family, loved friends. He loved people that loved him. He gave you the energy you gave him.”

The reputation of the Rantoul police was “horrible,” she said. “You call them to help you, they are arresting you. They are not protecting and serving nobody but themselves. I would never dial 9-1-1. I handle situations myself.”

Rantoul, where Azaan was raised, is a small, tight-knit community of around 12,000 people. Located north of Champaign-Urbana, it’s about a 20-minute drive to get there. Many working class people who cannot afford the rising cost of living in Champaign-Urbana will live in Rantoul, where housing is cheaper. Rantoul is known for the Chanute Air Force Base, which was home to the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African American squadron of pilots to fly during World War II. The base was closed by President Bill Clinton in 1993, and since then the town has struggled to survive. 

Today, the major employer is Rantoul Foods, a large pig-processing plant that produces 30 to 35 million pounds of pork every month. They hire many Black and Latino workers, and those with a felony conviction. The work resembles the repugnant conditions described by Upton Sinclair in his classic novel The Jungle about the meatpacking plants in Chicago where they used everything of the hog, “except the squeal.” 

The police in Rantoul don’t face many of the challenges in a larger city. Rantoul has its problems of racial segregation and poverty, no doubt. The police will likely come up with an explanation of how this incident was “justified.” But those who knew Azaan will not be able to understand how this young man’s life was so quickly snuffed out.

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