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A Dialogue On Race Begins With Police In Bloomington-Normal

Donovan G. Muldrow
A dialogue on race and policing began over the weekend in a Crossfit parking lot.

“You probably don’t know this, but a broken tail light is a black man’s biggest fear.”

Around the table, people were silent as Otis Evans Jr. described what it’s like to be a black man in America. 

“Police stop you out of the blue. And I can’t be myself when they come to the car. I can’t be like, ‘Hey, officer, how ya doin.’ I have to be, ‘Yes, sir and No, sir.Hands at 10 and 2,” said Evans. “Because I don’t want to be the next one.”

The next Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Ahmaud Arbery, or Breonna Taylor.

The next George Floyd.

“I have to be a different me,” Evans, 39 of Normal, went on. “And that’s what I would like to stop. That’s the systemic racism that I’m talking about.”

Across the table, Steve Petrilli, assistant chief of Normal Police, listened.

On Saturday, a diverse group of around 60 people gathered in the parking lot of CrossFit Bloomington-Normal to have a conversation about race. Called “The Community Unification Project,” the event was organized by CrossFit owner Chad Hobbs in coordination with the Normal Police Department (NPD).

Hobbs outlined the event’s objectives in opening remarks to the crowd.

“The purpose of today is to gain knowledge. Ignorance has a negative connotation, but it only means a lack of knowledge. We’re here to open our eyes to different experiences that people have.”

I have to be a different me. And that's what I would like to stop. That's the systemic racism I am talking about.

The crowd then broke into smaller discussion groups with a reminder from Hobbs: “I don’t like cancel culture. I’m a big fan of keeping people in the network,” he said.

Hobbs encouraged the groups, each of which comprised a mix of community members and Normal police officers, to speak openly, without fear of reprisal. The point of the event, he said, was to bring people together in face-to-face conversation.

“It’s too easy for internet comments to get taken out of context,” he said. “Nothing gets hashed out.”

In the wake of George Floyd’s death beneath the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, the clash between beliefs, ideologies, and lived experiences have exploded on an unprecedented scale. On Saturday, WGLT sat in on one discussion group that reflected the difficult conversations Americans are having about race, policing, and social injustice.

At a table that included Owen Evans Jr. and Petrilli, Bloomington resident Duane Farrington said the protests surrounding George Floyd’s death have given rise to a divide in his own home.

“My kids think I’m a little too MLK,” said Farrington. “And I think they’re a little too Malcolm X.”

“I’m trying to convince them why they shouldn’t be angry and they’re trying to convince me why I shouldn’t be sad.”

Evans shared the story of first learning about racism at the age of 6. He wanted to play with his white neighbors; kids who liked GI Joe, just like Evans did. But the kids told him to leave and used a racial slur. “I had to ask my father what it meant,” said Evans, who recalls crying in his bedroom as his father explained. “Suddenly I had a different understanding of the world.”

people talking at tables in a parking lot
Credit Sarah Nardi / WGLT
Participants in the dialog said they hope it will continue.

Now, he said, it’s his mere existence as a black man that puts his life at disproportionate risk. Frequently, law enforcement invoke data in defending against accusations of racial profiling. One commonly cited statistic is that black men, who account for 6% of the population, are involved in 44% of homicides. Following this logic, black men are stopped more often by police because they are statistically more likely to fit the description of a subject.

“But here’s the problem with statistics,” Evans said, turning to Petrilli, who is white, and officer Landon Richmond, who is black. “That statistic is what’s going to get me killed if that statistic is what leads you to me.”

State and Bloomington-Normal data show African American drivers are significantly less likely to have contraband in their vehicles than Caucasian drivers. Police are significantly more likely to ask to search the vehicles of minority drivers than they are the vehicles of Caucasian drivers.

In 2016, Philando Castille was pulled over in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota, because he fit the description of a robbery suspect-–a black man with a “wide-set nose.” Castille complied with the officer’s requests and voluntarily informed him that he was in possession of a legal firearm. The officer responded, shooting Castille seven times. The statistic that led police to Castille is, arguably, the one that got him killed.

But the problem isn’t systemic racism in police departments, Evans said. “The problem is systemic racism in the country. “

"It’s not the cops, it’s everything,” he said. “Every day, I’m in fear of my life. That’s just what it’s like to be black. It’s not this or that. It’s everything.”

Petrilli asked for input. What can police officers do given the data that they’re working with?

“If you stop me because I fit the description, explain that to me,” said Farrington, who is black. “At least I understand why I’m being stopped. Explain it on the front end rather than just ‘license and registration’.”

“I was raised to respect police officers,” Farrington said. “Respect is something that’s important to urban kids because they don’t have a lot. There’s a need for mutual respect.”

Addressing the issue of black neighborhoods being subjected to heavier policing than other neighborhoods, Evans said, “We’ve been pushed into these neighborhoods. We’ve been pushed into these situations where we can’t prosper.”

Historically, black people in the United States have been subjected to unequal access to housing through redlining, rent discrimination, and income disparity.

“You are governing a people that have been set up to fail,” said Evans. “To corral us into a justice system that has been set up to fail.”

Police in black neighborhoods should come in “Not just to say ‘I don’t want to see you doing that,’” he went on. “But to say, ‘I want to see you prosper.’”

Jaymi Nettleton, 25, who is white, offered an analogy she once heard about the experience of being black that’s stuck with her. “It’s like starting a baseball game down 15 runs, being handed a bat and helmet, and told to go win the game.”

“We’re uncomfortable saying they don’t have the same resources,” she said.

“I appreciate your discomfort,” said Evans. He and Nettleton looked at each other and smiled. 

As the conversation wrapped up, Petrilli said he was happy with the dialogue. “We had people come to the table who were really just speaking from the heart.”

“It was good,” he said. “Honest. The kind of conversation you’d have in your backyard with some neighbors and friends.”

Asked about the events that informed Saturday’s discussion, specifically the killing of George Floyd, Petrilli said:

“It’s incredibly upsetting, just as a human being, but also as a police officer. To look at our profession, the men and women who do this job on a daily basis, the dedication and compassion that they display every day, to have it all brought into question with an incident like that, was just really disheartening, upsetting. It was just a letdown, in all respects.” 

“But you also realize that people are human beings,” Petrilli continued. “And you’ve got to look at things and you’ve got to find a better way to do it.”

Sharing his impressions, Otis Evans Jr. said: “We have to take ownership. It has to reverberate outside of here. I don’t want this to end here.”

“That’s my biggest fear,” said Evans. “I don’t want this to be a memory, I want this to be a catalyst. Please be uncomfortable in your effort because that’s the only way to make any change.”

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