About 20 people in their teens and early 20s took to Riverside’s streets – well, one street in particular, Pine Avenue – on July 12 to continue to keep the Black Lives Matter movement top of mind locally.
On Sunday afternoon, they chalked out a “mural” of sorts on Pine Avenue between Longcommon Road and East Avenue. The large, colorful letters spelled out “Black Lives Matter!” along with other slogans often chanted at demonstrations during the past month, such as “say their names” and “no justice, no peace” and the names of those Black Americans who have died at the hands or in the custody of police, including George Floyd, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray and others.
According to one of the organizers, the decision to complete the large mural on Sunday came after some but not all smaller messages in support of Black Lives Matter had been hosed off the streets by Riverside firefighters at the request of police on July 4.
“We decided we had to make it bigger, make it a community event, we have to show how many people truly care,” said Audrey Pekny, one of a core group of about eight who have been organizing demonstrations and other events in Riverside, North Riverside and Brookfield. “This time we decided to make it bigger, bolder and in the center of town.”
Village President Ben Sells said the decision to remove the messages was a mistake, and that they should have been allowed to remain. The village’s attorney, he said, informed officials that streets and sidewalks are considered a “public forum.”
On Monday morning, the latest chalk mural was still visible, though faded somewhat due to vehicles driving over it. According to Sells, however, someone did apparently attempt to deface it during the overnight hours.
Surveillance cameras at the train depot reportedly captured video of a man getting out of a gray sedan and apparently dumping at least one bucket of water on it. But the mural appeared pretty much intact when a Landmark reporter went to look at it on Monday.
The group’s efforts have not been universally appreciated. A Facebook thread on the Riverside, IL Community page displaying the earlier chalking event and a photo showing them being washed off the street generated disputes over whether what they had done constituted graffiti and whether the village’s response was appropriate.
Even as the young adults began working on the Pine Avenue mural Sunday, they encountered some immediate pushback. After inviting two women who were standing on the Metra train platform to join them, one of the women said they were “All Lives Matter,” which prompted a five-minute back-and-forth between the women and a few of the chalkers.
“If they’re willing to engage in respectful conversation, so are we,” Pekny said of the encounter. “When we feel it’s getting escalated … we’ll all kind of step back. Our goal is to just not escalate, and if it does escalate, de-escalation.”
The group has started a blog called History Not Taught, which can be found at historynevertaught.wordpress.com. Still getting up and running, the blog will include, according to Pekny, “things in minority history that we were not taught in schools. … There’s still so much we haven’t learned.”
The website also serves as a clearinghouse for information on BLM events in the area, links to resources for learning more about the movement, a page addressing misconceptions about it and one listing organizations the address systemic inequities.
The group will host a movie night in Mary Park on Herrick Road, across the street from St. Mary Church in Riverside on July 17. They’ll be screening the film “The Hate U Give,” which addresses police violence against people of color, like that which sparked a nationwide movement after the death of George Floyd in May.
“We’re always trying to plan stuff,” Pekny said. “It’s just whenever we can get people out. We’d love to more of this throughout the rest of the town.”