As hundreds of people streamed out of the Back the Blue rally at GE/Union Park Sunday afternoon, Bloomington resident Austin Willis addressed a group of a few dozen counter protesters stationed just outside the park gates.
Their ultimate goal was to create unity, not sow more division, he said.
But before that can happen, “people have to recognize their ignorance, let down their boundaries and talk with us. We’re here because a lot of these people do not see us,” said Willis, gesturing to the crowd of rally-goers dressed in black and blue. “A lot of these people have not seen what we go through. But right now, they’re going to see us. They’re going to see us, and they’re damn sure gonna hear us.”
The two groups hurled insults and expletives, traded crude gestures and snapped photos of one another. It would be hard for those leaving the rally to ignore the beating drums, the waving signs, and the shouts from the counter protesters, but whether the two groups heard each other, or rather listened to each other, was unclear.
Chants of “Black Lives Matter” were frequently met with shouts of “All lives matter.” Police stepped in on a few occasions to de-escalate confrontations.
Peoria resident Kristen Meierkord said she was spit on twice by individuals leaving the Back the Blue rally.
“The second time was probably the worst because it happened right in front of a Bloomington police officer,” she said. “He saw it, did nothing about it.”
She held a sign that read, “Serve and protect, not hurt and neglect.”
“It’s dehumanizing in any situation, but definitely in a pandemic,” said Meierkord, who expected to be met with some level of vitriol, she said. She usually brings her 7-year-old daughter along to protests, but opted to leave her home with a babysitter Sunday.
Still, she felt the need to attend.
“It’s important for the country to understand that putting on a uniform and wearing blue is quite different than being born in the skin that you have to live in,” she said. “People are not blue. They put on a uniform.”
Longtime community organizer Sonny Garcia said a few of those slated to speak at the counter protest decided not to attend.
“I guess they just got spooked, with everything going on around the country. I don’t blame them,” he said.
Similar events held by Black Lives Matter BloNo and aligned groups have attracted hundreds of participants in recent months. Just under 40 attended Sunday’s counter protest.
Garcia said it was still important to show those at the Back the Blue rally they’re not afraid to come out and fight for Black lives, “because Black lives do matter.”
In addition to speaking out against the spate of Black deaths at the hands of white officers this year, Garcia said the group wanted to protest the Back The Blue rally for another reason: encourage police to cross the “thin blue line.”
The symbol that’s often used to show support for police represents an unwritten code of silence among police and police unions for Garcia’s group, he said.
“We are demanding that individuals within the police force come forward about brutality and racism within their ranks the moment it happens, and work together to hold officers accountable to truly begin to repair community relationships,” the event’s Facebook description read.
Garcia said the group knows there are “good cops” out there--he said he has family members working in law enforcement--but many are afraid to speak out against their “corrupt” counterparts.
“Because if they speak out, they get retaliated against, or they get demoted, or they get fired. Some of them even get shot or beat up by their own colleagues,” he said.
Acknowledging the confrontational nature of the protest, Garcia said he and others in the group are “always open to dialogue.”
Bloomington resident Jay Williams talked at length with a woman who attended the Back the Blue rally, and after an initially negative encounter, found common ground in their beliefs about police and race. Both believe the police play a vital role in society. Both agreed Black Lives Matter.
But for Williams, who identifies as mixed race, that doesn’t make them allies.
“My question to her is, ‘When are you ever going to find herself on this side of the line?’” he said.
Williams said he acknowledged the woman’s point that people attending the Back the Blue rally viewed his group’s behavior as antagonistic--and that police fear for their lives, too.
“There is fear on both sides,” he said. “But we fear the fact that our people that we love and support and are here for are being shot and killed mercilessly left and right ... As much as a police officer wants to be able to go home and see his family at night, I want to be able to go home and see my mom, and be able to tell her I love her and kiss her and tell her that I’m OK.”
Peoria resident General Parker knows coming home from a protest isn’t always a given. He’s the president of the Central Illinois Chapter of the grassroots organization All of Us or None. He said some of the group’s members were killed in Kenosha, Wis., protesting the police shooting of Jacob Blake.
“They were out there doing the same thing we are today, and it cost them their lives.”
Garcia said he and the group of protesters won’t be changing tactics.
“Our approach is always going to be the same: no justice, no peace. We’re gonna shut stuff down, we’re gonna be out on the streets, until the police hold each other accountable, and end the code of silence, and cross the thin blue line.”
Editor's note: This story has been edited to correct the name of Jacob Blake, and to correct a word in Austin Willis' quote, cohesion instead of collision.
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