Approximately 250 people, many of them young people, gathered June 9 at Big Ball Park in Riverside for a rally and march to decry racism and police violence in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, a Minneapolis man who died last month after a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
After listening to speeches for about 30 minutes the group marched through the leafy streets of Riverside accompanied by a discreet police escort.
The march and rally were organized by recent high school graduates Audrey Pekny and Emily Kowal, and featured speeches by recent Riverside-Brookfield High School graduates Devin Conrath, also a protest organizer, and twins Seymone and Shalah Russell.
Conrath and the Russells decried systemic racism in American society and also recounted their personal experiences as black students at a predominately white high school.
“When I went to RB I felt like I had to change my identity as a person,” said Conrath, who lives in Riverside. “I felt like I had to be white to fit in instead of black.”
Conrath called for unity, but said police need better training.
“The police need better training, more training with the whole community so they can handle situations better,” Conrath said.
The Russell twins, who live in North Riverside, and like Conrath and Pekny graduated from Riverside-Brookfield High School last month, spoke passionately about both racism in general and their experiences at RBHS in a speech they wrote together and delivered jointly.
They decried the over-policing of black communities and criticized racial bias in the criminal justice system. They also said that blacks are largely absent from the school curriculum except for narrowly prescribed roles.
“The only African American books we read are about are about slavery or impoverished black people,” Shalah Russell said. “This reinforces the stereotypical idea that black people shouldn’t have power and/or that black people having power is taboo.”
They spoke in personal terms about their experience at RBHS.
“Even though the two of us have benefited from privilege due to growing up in the suburbs, unlike black youth growing up in the city, that being said we still have to face microaggressions from peers, teachers, and parents,” Seymone Russell said. “On the first day of freshman year we didn’t just have to prepare notebooks, pens and papers, we didn’t just have to worry about getting lost in a new building or making new friends, we had to coach ourselves with how to act so as not to be labeled as delinquents or the stereotypical angry black women.”
The Russells said they experienced racism and indifference at RBHS.
“We had to prepare ourselves for teachers being silent when other peers said the N-word in class,” Shalah Russell said. “We also had to prepare ourselves for the administration being quiet when racial slurs were written on bathroom stalls. As black women at RB, a predominately white school, we felt that as though our voices were silenced.”
The Russells also spoke somewhat skeptically about how many of their peers seem to have jumped on the Black Lives Matter bandwagon.
“I find it funny how the very same white classmates that are going to these protests and posting black squares on Instagram are the same ones who have done insensitive things,” said Shalah Russell. “How can you yell Black Lives Matter today or tomorrow and turn a blind eye to the black people in your own community being persecuted.”
The Russells called on their peers to put their professed beliefs into action
“Anti-racist is a lifestyle; it’s not just posting awareness tidbits on your story,” Seymone Russell said. “It’s not just paying attention when there’s a major crisis going on in this country.”
After the speeches the protesters walked an approximately 1.5-mile loop down Longcommon to downtown Riverside, east on Burlington to Cowley, north to Shenstone, and back to Big Ball Park chanting slogans along the way.
Onlookers seemed supportive.
“I just think it’s for a good cause,” said 17-year-old Charlie Buh, who encountered the marchers when he was out with a friend. “I’m glad they showed up for what they believe in.”
As the marchers walked by Riverside Foods, co-owner Peter Boutsikakis handed out bottles of water to marchers sweating in the 90-degree heat and high humidity.
Police and other village employees blocked intersections as the large group of marchers walked down the middle of the streets. Two police vehicles stayed a good distance ahead of the marchers and one brought up the rear as officers kept a low profile while maintaining the security of the route.
“Our only purpose was to make sure there was safety for the marchers,” said Riverside Police Chief Tom Weitzel said.
All 12 Riverside police officers on duty and about 13 other village employees made sure that the streets that the marchers walked down were blocked off from vehicles.
Pekny said that she was very pleased by the march and rally.
“I was very impressed and surprised about the turnout we had,” Pekny said. “It was very, very good to see our community come together since we’re not a very diverse place.”
The organizers asked for donations and received $1,358. They will donate half of the money to a free-lunch program for Chicago Public School students. The other half will go to the Chicago Bail Fund, which is working to end pretrial detention.
Pekny began planning the protest about a week before the march. She initially wanted to hold it at Riverside-Brookfield High School but said school officials rejected that idea.
She, Kowal and Conrath then met with Weitzel, Riverside Fire Chief Matt Buckley and Village President Ben Sells to plan the protest and route in Riverside.
“It went exactly how we wanted it to go,” Pekny said.