It’s been a heavy week. It’s been a heavier 72 hours. Added to the layers of uncertainty and grief that we are dealing with as a nation and as a community because of a virus, we are faced with the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, at the hands of a white police officer, a death that comes on the heels of the video of Ahmaud Arbery’s brutal murder, the murder of Breonna Taylor in her home, the video of Amy Cooper, a white woman, calling the police on Christian Cooper, a black man, because he respectfully asked her to leash her dog. All of these instances come on the heels of injustice upon injustice, trauma upon trauma in the black community — injustice and trauma that we, as white people, continue to allow to happen, without truly attempting to enact systemic change. And now, the country is burning.
This injustice and trauma is intertwined with poverty, mass incarceration, community violence, lack of resources. Even those of us who have the deepest desire to be allies — to promote anti-racism, to work for change — fall short. We fear what will happen to our inherent privilege if we truly work to dismantle the systems that hold it up. We share our outrage and sadness on social media, and we may even show up to protest, but then we don’t know where to go next, or worse, choose not to go anywhere or do anything. We don’t know what will actually make a difference, so we lean into indifference, resting in our ability to do so, because it’s not our lives that are at stake.
White people often find a way to shift the focus. The outrage last week over the death of George Floyd is more widespread than usual, with protestors of all races flooding city streets. Perhaps because the video so clearly shows that this was not fear or self-defense on the part of the police officer, but was clearly callous indifference to the life of the person over whom he was exerting his power. Yet there are still those that condemn the reaction to the murder, rather than the murder itsel, failing to see the broader implications of this particular incident. In other instances, we put that seed of doubt in our minds about the justification of the brutality: if they would’ve complied, if they followed directions, if they didn’t run away, if they weren't committing a crime, then this wouldn’t have happened.
October 2019 marked the 10th anniversary of the killing of Kiwane Carrington, an unarmed black teenager, by a white Champaign police officer, where the Chief of police was actually present during the murder. The officer was never charged with any crime related to Carrington’s death; the Chief was never held accountable in any way. Our Mayor at the time, Jerry Schweighart, was a known “Birther” and by all accounts, a White Supremacist as well. In April, we saw the video of Aleyah Lewis being brutalized by an Urbana police officer. The Urbana police department found no wrongdoing on the part of the officers. Urbana Police Chief Bryan Seraphin was quoted in The News-Gazette saying that he was “satisfied that it was done within policy and within the bounds of the law.”
Therein lies the problem.
The images of burning buildings and maced children and beaten and bloodied protesters you’ve seen over the weekend are disturbing. It’s important to ask ourselves if we find them disturbing because we are afraid that our comfortable status quo has been challenged, or that certain groups of people are not behaving in the way you expect them.
Or are we afraid that it could happen right here in C-U? Protesters took to Neil and North Prospect on Sunday afternoon. No violent altercations took place between police and protestors, but as these protests continue, will non-violence continue? There was looting at Marketplace Mall, Best Buy, and Meijer, as well as some other businesses throughout Champaign, Urbana, and Savoy. It’s easy to get caught up thinking about looting and property damage, but that is not the issue. Police are murdering black people with impunity. That is the issue.
White people, are we listening to the black community and showing up to school board meetings, city council meetings, and county board meetings when they need our support? Not to shout over black community leaders, but to listen, stand in solidarity with them, and add to their numbers? Here is an opportunity. What are we demanding of our local police departments in terms of “use of force policies?” Campaign Zero is a project aimed at reducing police violence, and it clearly outlines policies that police departments can put in place.
Beyond policy and political action, how are we changing the narrative in our personal lives? White parents, are you having conversations with your kids so that they have the language ingrained in them? Are you shutting down racist language and behaviors — the subtle and the overt — when you hear it from your friends and family? As an individual, are you checking your bias of those who are of a different race, and not relying on the cops to sort out a situation that they don’t need to be involved in? Are you reading the work of black authors, activists, and historians to understand the history that has led us to this point, and your (and your ancestors’) place in that history? Are you supporting black-owned businesses? These are questions we are asking of ourselves as well.
This piece from Medium is a good start, a general list of what white people can do for racial justice. Here is a local version of it that addresses each issue, which you should peruse as well. The National Museum of African American History and Culture has a website with resources for parents and caregivers, educators, and those dedicated to equality. We know it feels good to flag our own allyship by sharing posts on social media, but we must be mindful we are not further circulating traumatic and violent images of murder. Those with the resources should donate to these places. We must contact our representatives, and advocate for change. Find your state rep here. You can contact IL-13 Representative Rodney Davis here. Send emails and letters to Illinois Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth.
We don’t have all the answers, but it’s imperative that we continue to seek them, and actually enact policies that will not only change the narrative, but put those words into action.
The Editorial Board is Seth Fein, Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, and Patrick Singer.
Editor's Note: In the original version of this article, we regrettably mispelled Ahmaud Arbery's name. We have updated the text above to reflect the change.