Protesters shouted down police officials who tried to address a racial justice rally in Bloomington on Sunday, while several speakers said Bloomington-Normal is not immune from racism and that the next black man to die at the hands of a cop could happen here.
An estimated crowd of 800 people gathered for the demonstration outside the McLean County Law and Justice Center in response to the killing of George Floyd, the black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes.
Hundreds of demonstrators marched in downtown past the McLean County jail after the rally. A motorcyclist plowed into the crowd along Madison Street near Grossinger Motors Arena. Witnesses said at least one person was injured.
Bloomington Police Chief Dan Donath cut his comments short as the crowd chanted, “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!”
Normal Police Chief Rick Bleichner and Illinois State University Police Chief Aaron Woodruff who also were scheduled to speak decided against it.
“It was unfortunate, but sometimes being a leader, you have to know when to step into the background and that sometimes your words aren’t adding to the situation,” Bleichner said after the event.
President of the Bloomington-Normal NAACP Linda Foster tried to quell the disruption by calling for a more united front to avoid giving fuel to any disrupters.
“This is what they want us to be: at odds with each other,” Foster exclaimed to the crowd. “This is what they want. Stop giving them what they want. It ain’t no ‘who was here first.’ Let’s calm down.”
Illinois State University President Larry Dietz also faced some hecklers during his speech. Last fall, Dietz received criticism from black student leaders on campus over the administration’s response to race discrimination claims.
“We’ve got more work to do, but we are trying to make that work,” Dietz told the crowd. “There is no room on the campus for bigotry and hatred.”
Dietz added were it not for the pandemic which has closed the campus, ISU would likely be holding similar demonstrations related to Floyd’s killing.
Bloomington City Council member Jenn Carrillo called for a moment of silence for Floyd’s death. Then she tried to dispel claims that Bloomington-Normal is immune from racial injustices, even at the hands of police.
“Racism is not about bad apples. Racism is not about good or bad intentions. Racism is about who has power and who doesn’t, and black and brown people in his community have been disempowered for too long,” Carillo said.
Bradley Ross Jackson, a student at Calvary Christian Academy in Normal, read a poem he wrote to convey his anguish.
“Let me breathe, so that I can achieve;” he recited the refrain multiple times to cheers. “When I heard Mr. Floyd plead for his life and ask for his mama, my heart began to sink.”
David Hirst, chairperson of the Immigration Project, called it a day for new beginnings.
“Today is a time for action. Today is a time to weed out a failed system of privilege, to eradicate the very notion of racism and give root to the very universal human need for justice and compassion,” Hirst said. “It is time for change.”
Carla Campbell-Jackson, vice president of the local NAACP, said after the meeting the group has a good working relationship with police departments in Bloomington-Normal, but she stressed she has urged each of the departments to hire more minority officers to help foster trust in the black community.
“I think when the trust is there, that is absolutely critical, so if our police officers have that relationship and that trust, then that helps to manifest the relationship and the interaction they have,” Campbell-Jackson said.
Foster said she was “ecstatic” with the turnout and said the pandemic likely kept some people away. Many were wearing face masks as the organizers advised. She said she felt the conversation helped "move the needle" toward finding solutions to help bridge the racial divide.
“We are looking forward to having this conversation again and we want everyone to know that we heard you and that we were listening.” Foster said.
The Bloomington-Normal NAACP sponsored the rally along with Not In Our Town.
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