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Q&A: Four Young Black Leaders From B-N On What Comes Next

Justin and Jasmyn
Ryan Denham
Normal West seniors Jasmyn Jordan and Justin Turner speak to the crowd during Sunday's NAACP rally in downtown Bloomington.

Bloomington-Normal organizers are looking to build on the momentum of four straight days of peaceful demonstrations against racism and police brutality. One of their greatest assets is a deep bench of young black leaders who have seized the moment and stepped forward.

WGLT spoke to four of those young leaders on Tuesday about what they want and their own experiences in Bloomington-Normal. They are Normal West seniors Jasmyn Jordan and Justin Turner, recent Bloomington High School graduate Alexander Phillips, and Calvary Christian Academy ninth-grader Bradley Ross Jackson. (All four were featured speakers at Sunday’s NAACP rally.)

Here are excerpts from the conversation. It’s been edited for brevity and clarity.

What did you feel when you first watched the video of George Floyd being killed while in police custody in Minneapolis?

Jasmyn: It just felt like pure hatred. The way the officer had his hands in his pockets. It was like he didn’t even care that George Floyd was a human. It was like George Floyd was an animal and he didn’t mean anything to anybody.

Alexander: I personally wish that I would’ve been shocked by seeing that video. But sadly I’m not shocked. This is nothing new. … It was very heartbreaking, to see life drain from a human being on camera like that.

Justin: I’ve seen this my whole life, since I was a black kid especially. On the news. This moment just felt different. It felt like my life didn’t matter. Once I see this man is being killed … he’s being executed in the street for everyone to see. And that man who killed him doesn’t face justice—well, he is facing justice now—but every single officer in the past who has killed a black man, they haven’t really faced the consequences. And it’s just made me scared. And this was just the last straw for America.

Bradley: When I saw it for the first time, my heart began to sink. The police officers showed no compassion. He just didn’t care because he had his hands in his pocket. It’s just a feeling of hatred that you’re seeing.

Bradley and the demonstrator
Credit Ryan Denham / WGLT
Calvary Christian Academy ninth-grader Bradley Ross Jackson (blue shirt) shared an emotional moment with a rally attendee after his speech Sunday.

When did you first realize you were black? What’s your first memory of someone treating you differently because of the color of your skin?

Justin (who has lived in Bloomington-Normal almost his whole life): It was during sixth grade. I was going to my friend’s house, and his parents weren’t home yet, so I couldn’t go in yet, so we had to stay outside. He had to do something so he left me alone for a moment. And I see people just start to stare at me. This lady just calls—I don’t know who she’s calling. The cops pull up immediately and ask me what I’m doing there. It was a majority white neighborhood, so my mom taught me beforehand to be aware of your surroundings. And then my mom sped up and said, ‘Get in the car, we need to go.’ And she explained to me, ‘You’re different. That’s just how it is. There’s nothing we can change about that. They’re going to judge you on your skin color, but you can’t let that stop you from what you want to achieve in life.’

Alexander: At age 5. I grew up in the Birmingham, Ala., area, so I was well aware of the issue. But It really hit home when I realized some of my classmates, as early as first grade, their families were members of racist organizations. They were white supremacists, KKK, you name it. We’d oftentimes have discussions in class about racism, and to hear children try to justify it, that was really when it sunk into me, at a really young age.

Bradley: When I was 9, my Mom told me about ‘The Talk,’ which is how you have to have your hands on the dashboard when a police officer stops you in your car. Luckily, any problems like that haven’t happened to me, but if it does, I’ll definitely put my hands on the dashboard or the steering wheel, and I’d ask the officer if I can get my registration and license and all that and also be calm in the moment.”

Jasmyn, you founded the new Black Student Union at your high school, Normal West. Why?

Jasmyn: I created the Black Student Union because I was, and still am, the only black person in so many extracurriculars I’m involved in both inside and outside of school. And if I’m not the only black person there, I’m the only black girl there. I feel like black people need to be more involved inside and outside of school as well.

Justin (one of the group’s leaders): Showing recognition for the black community is really important. In different places in our school, you see that we don’t really stand out as much, and only in bad aspects. If we can stand out in great aspects, people are going to look at us in a great way.

What should happen next in this movement?

"This was just the last straw for America."

Justin: Personally, you’ve gotta educate yourself on this cause. And you’ve gotta plan. Because if you go without a plan during something like this, it’s not going to end up well. I don’t support the riots that have been going on. I understand why they’re mad. I understand why we’re all mad. To see this hate filling the country—it hurts me. It hurts my heart. But we can’t react to this. Because love is how we need to react to this. And the next step is to help different organizations. Donate to Black Lives Matter movements, and help small businesses, and maybe rebuild the Target, who knows? It’s all about the cause.

Alexander: I believe we really should be focusing on voting. When it comes to local, state and even federal government positions, we as a people have a voice. And we need to use it. If we want to make sure we keep racists out of positions of power, then we need to go out there and do everything we can to get our vote out.

Jasmyn: I definitely want the system to be changed. This is not about one man. This is about structural racism in a country built on a system with black slavery. And I feel like there should be education. Justin and I, in our Black Student Union meetings, we discuss how we want there to be more black history classes, like they do at various colleges. We want those brought in more, so people can be more aware of what African Americans have been through. We have a class (at Normal West) called U.S. History, and they only talk about things everyone already knows, like Martin Luther King Jr. But there are so many unheard names and voices that no one knows about, because we’re not educated enough. And people who aren’t African Americans, they definitely need to know what we’ve been through so they can empathize with us.

We’re living in unprecedented times when information changes by the minute. WGLT will continue to be here for you, keeping you up-to-date with the live, local and trusted news you need. Help ensure WGLT can continue with its in-depth and comprehensive COVID-19 coverage as the situation evolves by making a contribution.

Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
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