It may not be an officially recognized holiday in Riverside, but the village marked Juneteenth – a holiday that marks the official end to the institution of slavery in the United States – for the first time on Friday afternoon.
Standing in Guthrie Park under an oak tree that may well have stood in that spot back in 1865, Riverside resident Emily Kowal, a recent graduate of Trinity High School, read out the Emancipation Proclamation to a crowd of more than 100, who had marched there from North Riverside to protest police brutality and demand racial equity and justice.
It might not have been the kind of Juneteenth celebration you might see in Texas, where General Gordon Granger of the Union Army landed at Galveston on June 19, 1865 to announce that the Civil War was over and that those who had been enslaved were now free, but it was notable in its own way.
“It felt like it was something important to be heard,” said North Riverside resident Elizabeth Amaya, a 2019 graduate of Riverside-Brookfield High School who organized the march and demonstration. “That’s what we were celebrating today.”
Amaya said she took steps to organize the march after participating in one at Kiwanis Park in Brookfield and seeing others that were organized in Riverside and nearby communities.
“I asked myself, ‘Why hasn’t this happened in North Riverside?'” said Amaya, who just finished her freshman year studying sociology at DePaul University. “So I just kind of took the leap.”
After posting her intentions on social media, others who had been involved in local demonstrations in the wake of the death of George Floyd, the Black man who died May 25 after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, reached out to her.
“We all started working together to put this thing together,” Amaya said.
Among those who spoke to demonstrators both before and after the march, in addition to Amaya and Kowal, were recent RBHS graduates Anysiah Taylor, Devin Conrath, Shalah Russell and Seymone Russell as well as Brookfield resident Tony Williams.
Taylor spoke to demonstrators, who were mostly white, about the difficulty of growing up Black in a community with few other people of color and despite excelling in school as a student leader, scholar and athlete.
“I am just like you in all these aspects, but my Blackness, well that’s not like you,” said Taylor outside the North Riverside Police Department. “You fail to understand the scope of my devastation and suffering being in America.
“To America, its institutions, justice system and police officers, I am no scholar nor a community service leader. I am just a Black girl whose life can be taken out … whose body can be discarded like a carcass of roadkill.”
Between 100 and 125 marchers walked down Desplaines Avenue from the North Riverside Police Department to Woodside Road and into downtown Riverside, where they crossed the tracks and ended in Guthrie Park.
Almost all in their teens or early 20s, and Amaya said they are working to make sure the positive, peaceful momentum seen nationwide since the end of May doesn’t fizzle.
“Many of us, the youth of the community, are talking about what we can do in the future,” Amaya said. “We don’t want this to just die down. The big takeaway for me is that we are demonstrating to the community, that even though we don’t see this [kind of police brutality] in our community, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be fighting [against] it.”
Amaya also asked demonstrators to consider donating money to a Minneapolis group called Young Peoples Action Coalition, who were successful in removing police officers from public schools and are raising funds to provide alternatives for improving education, from hiring more counselors to hiring more staff of color
The group’s GoFundMe page can be found by cllciking here.