A peaceful demonstration led in part by high school students was interrupted Wednesday when an agitator deployed what authorities called a harmless “smoke device,” in at least the second attempt to intimidate protestors in the past four days.
A small group of protesters lingered after the 6 p.m. demonstration outside of McLean County jail when witnesses saw a man calling himself “James Madison” and holding a “Pritzker Sucks” sign, walk up to the group and throw a smoke device.
The device emitted smoke and a strong odor, but no injuries were reported. Witnesses later described it as a store-bought smoke bomb.
Demonstrator Robert Garcia said the man ran away once protesters tried to get him on camera.
“We smelt the gas and were covered in it and people came running into the streets,” said Garcia. “He said his name was James Madison, which was a lie. We thought it was the police but it wasn’t, so our allies began pursuing him.”
Yelling at protesters as they screamed, “This is peaceful, we’re being peaceful!” the man began to walk away.
Allen Chambers, a small business owner who’s been active in this week’s demonstrations, said the man came to scare the protesters with the intention of blaming it on Bloomington Police.
“He tried to make it like the cops did it when we got on his side,” he said. “It’s always going to be somebody there to try to distract you from what you’re actually doing, but what we have to do as a people is let them know we’re not going anywhere. We're here to stay and we’re not going to let them deter us from the message we’re trying to portray.”
McLean County Sheriff’s Lt. Jeff Kretlow said no law enforcement was present at the time the device was thrown. Bloomington Police released a statement confirming no law enforcement officer threw the device, stating it was harmless and the event proceeded without any other issues.
The suspect later turned himself into police and is being held at the McLean County jail. His photo was widely circulated on social media before his arrest.
8 minutes of silence
Despite the incident, the student-led #BlackLivesMatter protest began at the McLean County Law and Justice Center and proceeded peacefully to City of Refuge Ministries. The protesters knelt and held a moment of silence for eight minutes to honor George Floyd, who was killed in the custody of Minneapolis police.
— WGLT (@WGLTNews) June 4, 2020
Recent Normal Community High School graduate Kayla Cobb attended after being on the front lines Sunday night when a motorcyclist drove into a crowd of peaceful demonstrators and injured two people.
“I was literally two feet away from getting knocked out by that motorcycle and I was over there when the girl got run over. I can still hear her crying and I could not sleep for the past two days because of that,” said Cobb, adding experiencing the racism that night opened her eyes.
“I saw everything on TV and as a black person, obviously I know the struggles we go through every day, but to see it so overtly in my own community, it struck a chord in me,” she said. “It's very prevalent in our community and there's been KKK fliers going around in people's mailboxes, so I knew I wanted to do something and when this opportunity came up, I knew I had to take it.”
It was the first protest for Drew Hopper, who said it was important for him to come to amplify the message and acknowledge his privilege.
“I was born with the unfair privilege that should belong to every man, woman and child on this earth,” he said. “I’m going to use my voice and the privilege that I was unfairly given to protect other people's rights and give them a voice so that one day they can obtain that same privilege.”
Hopper said it’s important for people to not just talk, but act.
“You can't just start recording things. You have to stand in. You have to not just post things. You get involved. If somebody is being abused, whether it's the police or a citizen, you need to step in and you need to intervene. You need to stop that person and you need to tell them enough is enough.”
Normal West senior and organizer Justin Turner said he hopes the demonstration shows people that making change is a community effort.
“When you feel discriminated against, it hurts. It hurts so bad to feel like people are gonna judge you because you're different,” he said. “The way I cope with it is by speaking out at things like this. I hope everyone shows love and understands that we're in this together. We're not going to do this by ourselves and we're not going to end racism by itself, but we're going to do this together as a community, and we're going to step out so we all have equality.”