Bloomington-Normal Youth Activists along with 50 community members took to the streets in Downs on Wednesday to peacefully protest racism and police brutality.
The group, led by high school students, gathered at Dooley Park to address concerns with racism in the community and to bring awareness to victims of police brutality like Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in the national outcry for justice.
Resident Lydia McNiss said the community is so small and shut out of the issues of racism that’s happening on a larger scale. She said it's important to shed light on what's happening outside of Downs and for residents to do their part in ending racism and acknowledging Black Lives Matter.
“I’ve witnessed a lot of racism going on throughout this community, all the Trump supporters. So I thought it would be great to bring a protest out here to show people a taste of what’s really happening out in the real world,” McNiss said.
Downs is a village with less than 900 residents, located just southeast of Bloomington along U.S. 150. Residents can make the short commute into Bloomington-Normal for work. One recent Census estimate pegged Downs residents at about 95% white. The student body at Downs-based Tri-Valley school district is about 92% white.
Gavin Cunningham, a leader with BN Youth Activists, said the group stands in solidarity with Black Lives Matter to help amplify the voices of Black people who have been muted.
“Black Lives Matter is something that we need to actually take into what we say,” he said. “We need to have our actions reflect our words.”
United Methodist Church Pastor Donald Jackson that the community needs a shifting of its heart from racism and to focus on getting concrete resources to develop communities instead of increased policing in Black and brown communities.
“We cannot legislate our way out of systemic racism,” Jackson told the crowd. “But it does not mean we should stop working for just laws.”
The group marched down Washington Street up to Water Street chanting the names of victims to police brutality.
For Kemmy Mizinga of Bloomington, attending the protest was important because as a young Black man, the fear of being a victim of injustice hits home.
“Like George Floyd, I am a young black male and I've always been concerned about the safety of myself from the people that are trying to protect me,” Mizinga said. “My sign says, ‘Am I Next?’ because it could very well happen to me. It seems like these are regular people doing things in public that I do. I like to go to the store unarmed, I like to drive my car, and I like to sleep in my own bed. It's just always worried me as a young African American male and I want to let people know that.”
Downs resident Brandy Elmore said she saw a surge of American flags appearing around town.
“I think with all the flags out, which are never out on the street, people are starting to pay attention,” she said.
Elmore said attending different marches has helped her realize the importance of making sure her children are aware of what’s going on around them.
“Realizing that my son as a white male already has this privilege, I need to intentionally teach them what that privilege means and also how to utilize it to help elevate the voices that can't be heard,” she said. “I mean I'm still learning too, but this is the way we learn.”
Chynna Miller said it was essential to march in the area to help people realize the importance of diversity and inclusion.
“This is the most time I've ever spent in this town because it’s uncomfortable. I've gone to the gas station and stopped to use the bathroom in a bar and got looks from people like I don't belong here,” she said. “Marching in Bloomington, Peoria, and Chicago is important, but reaching out to communities like these that don't have a lot of diversity or inclusion is important because they need to see some color.”
In the end, Mizinga said he hopes the protests will result in officials giving justice to victims of police brutality, and to see more diversity in every aspect of life.
“I want justice for the officers that killed Breonna Taylor but it feels like a lot of these police, if they are getting punished at all, just get a slap on the wrist,” he said. “I want to see some amount of accountability in the system to make it to where I don't have to hesitate to call 911 or have to pull over for speeding with the risk of getting shot. I want to see reform and I want to see more education towards empathy towards people of color, especially in the form of education.”