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'This Can't Stop Here': Hundreds March On Bloomington Courthouse

Whenever an unarmed black man is shot in America, Ahmad Williams of Bloomington thinks about whether he will be next.

It was even easier for him to draw that frightening connection when an unarmed man with the same first name, Ahmaud Arbery, was shot and killed in February while jogging in Georgia.

“I’ve lived in Bloomington my entire life,” Williams said. “I’d say I’ve always been safe. I’m even privileged myself. But I still look at these things and think, could I be next?”

Williams spoke at a demonstration Tuesday evening in downtown Bloomington. A crowd of several hundred peaceful demonstrators marched from City of Refuge Ministries to the McLean County Law and Justice Center. That event, and others like it in the past four days in Bloomington-Normal, came in response to the killing of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis.

Williams said he’s never felt more helpful, in part because of these demonstrations against racism and police brutality.

Another speaker, Davon Brown (ph), said change needs to happen immediately.

“This can’t stop here. We need to keep this going, for real,” she said. “Our ancestors didn’t go through what they went through just for us to be complacent.”

Looking out into the giant crowd, Brown gave attendees an assignment.

“I want you to educate your friends who aren’t here. Because that means something,” she said.

Pastor William Bennett addresses the crowd
Credit Ryan Denham / WGLT
Pastor William Bennett addresses the crowd Tuesday.

City of Refuge Pastor William Bennett led the crowd from his church to the courthouse, with help from a Bloomington Police escort. Some in the crowd were also present Sunday when a motorcyclist plowed into a similar demonstration downtown. That motorcyclist has since been charged with multiple hate crimes and aggravated assault. There were no incidents Tuesday.

Bennett gave a stirring, emotional speech to the crowd, stressing repeatedly what they believe in and what they want—and he clarified several key points as to not be misunderstood.

“We are not against the police. We are against racist police,” Bennett said. “All officers aren’t bad. There are some that are serving the community. Guess what? If they’re good officers, they’re doing their job. We need to speak out against the bad ones. We oftentimes say, ‘Well, there’s good officers too.’ But those aren’t the ones killing us. It’s the bad ones. So that’s who we’re talking about.”

Bennett stressed the importance of the words we use. The crowd at one point chanted “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” which became a protest slogan after the police slaying of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014.

He told the crowd to stop saying that phrase, which could be mistook to imply someone who doesn’t put their hands up is fair game to be shot.

“We’re not begging anymore. We’re telling them, stop killing us!” Bennett said.

Credit Ryan Denham / WGLT
The crowd marches back to City of Refuge after the event.

Bennett spoke against white supremacy and white privilege as Bloomington-Normal braced itself for a potential third straight night of looting. The first two nights have led to several arrests, and police remain on guard for more activity.

Bennett said his advice would be to “stop looting and stop the violence.” But he also noted all that’s been stolen from black Americans over their history here, starting with the original sin of slavery.

“I don’t condone looting. I don’t condone violence on no man. But I’ll tell you this, I will not condemn my people. We have been condemned for too long," he said.

The event ended with Bennett calling two black-owned business owners, and the spouse of a third black-owned business, up to his impromptu stage. He announced he was awarding each of them $500 to support their business, and he encouraged the crowd to patronize their businesses too.

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.