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Illinois Issues: Black Lives Matter — More Than A Hashtag

Black Lives Matter is one of the largest activist movements since the civil rights era of the 1960s. The organization has garnered more attention in recent weeks due to protests over the fatal police shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. Meanwhile, attacks on police and the presidential election have shifted the conversation since Black Lives Matter got its start in 2012 after the death of Trayvon Martin. 

Earlier this year Rachel Otwell took a look at the origins of the Black Lives Matter movement and how it's played out in the state. This week, Illinois Issues revisits that story from January. This updated post includes a new interview with Otwell that covers developments since her story was originally published. 


When U.S. Congressman John Lewis was growing up in rural Alabama in 1955, he heard about a woman named Rosa Parks. His interest in joining the civil rights movement was lit aflame, and he wrote to Martin Luther King Jr., who eventually served as his mentor.

While attending college in the mid-1960s, Lewis chaired the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and was considered one of the “Big Six” civil rights leaders. Lewis organized sit-ins at lunch counters, and was one of the first freedom riders. He became involved in the Selma, Alabama marches for voting rights. The marches went over 50 miles from Selma to the capitol city of Montgomery. Of the three marches, one resulted in what we now call “Bloody Sunday.” Lewis, and many others, were beaten by police. His skull was fractured, and he blacked out. But the marches contributed to federal legislation being passed — the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Credit Rachel Otwell/WUIS
Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis speaks to a Springfield crowd

“Yes, I almost died on that bridge ... But I never gave up ... I (say) to the students, and young people, and all of us — when you see something that is not right, not fair, not just – you have a moral obligation, a mission and mandate to stand up. Speak up, and speak out – make a little noise. Sometimes I think we’re just too quiet,” Lewis told a packed Sangamon Auditorium in Springfield last year. He was there with the co-authors of the recently released comic book series called March, a memoir about his civil rights activism.

It’s not as if civil rights efforts have gone away since the 1960s. There are hundreds of groups across the country dedicated to making society more equal by bettering our education system, fighting against the racially disproportionate effects of the war on drugs and mass incarceration, and as has been highlighted in recent years — taking on police violence and racial profiling against black people.

Black Lives Matter is not only an organization, but a movement. It’s one that has heeded the advice of civil rights leaders like Lewis: nonviolent yet disruptive protests can be more effective than other methods when it comes to accomplishing change in laws and society. In Illinois, there are at least two chapters of the Black Lives Matter organization. With the protest revolving around the shooting death of Laquan McDonald in Chicago, and the protests and continued activism in nearby Ferguson, Missouri, Illinois has been well-traveled by activists across the nation. Those activists may come from different groups and organizations, or none at all, but they share at least one commonality — they hope their efforts will result in a fairer and less violent world for black people.

Chicago is, and long has been, a hotbed for social activism. Response to a video, which was released last year, of a Chicago police officer shooting and killing a black teenager named Laquan McDonald resulted in hundreds of protestors gathering downtown over the course of several days. Members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, were there. College students took part – some involved in the Black Lives Matter organization, some not.

Kathy Chaney, a reporter for WBEZ in Chicago, was on the scene as protestors did things like block off popular shopping destinations. Chaney says to this day, organizers are taking part in demonstrations at restaurants and on the subway. They carry signs, sing songs and chant. “They get you uncomfortable, I mean it’s civil, but they get the (subway) riders uncomfortable.” Chaney says she has covered several dozen demonstrations and gained protestor's trust. Many refuse to speak to the media.

For her, the coverage is somewhat personal. “I have two daughters, 17 and 12. I wasn’t around during the civil rights movement to be able to witness any of that or to capture any of that as a journalist. I wasn’t alive. But I am here now, and that’s why I think I have a responsibility ... especially as a black journalist, to chronicle this movement, because it’s history in the making, and my daughters are witnessing it.”

Chaney says that in Chicago the ongoing demonstrations center on combating police violence against black, sometimes unarmed, people. And changes have happened, like the ouster of former Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, plans for the use of more police body cameras and torture reparations for some black people mistreated by police. Chaney says protestors deserve credit, even if politicians don’t make that clear.

“A lot of people are saying, ‘Hey, let’s not discount the fact that these young activists have been out here for more than a year coming to every Chicago police board meeting, every city council meeting ... They have been out there in the streets marching, leading teach-ins.” Chaney says she expects protestors and those in the Black Lives Matter movement to stay active in Chicago, especially come election time. “I think that the upcoming primary in March also is making sure the movement doesn’t die down.” The group is calling for Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez to resign, but both have said they won’t. Chaney says the group will likely be involved in voter-registration and get-out-the-vote efforts.

Black Lives Matter was founded by three women in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death. He was shot by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida in2012. Zimmerman, who had been acting as a neighborhood watchman, was acquitted of any crime. Alicia Garza, one of the founders, writes on the group’s official website:

“Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.”

Garza goes on to write that the movement, which largely started as a hashtag to help organizers find each other on social media, has been appropriated by people looking to promote other causes, such as “cops’ lives matter,” “women’s lives matter” and “all lives matter.” In an interview with KPBS public television in San Diego, Garza said: “Of course all lives matter, but we live in a society where black lives are systematically devalued and in fact targeted for destruction and demise. And so if we really want to live in a world where all lives matter, it means we will fight like hell today for black lives.” The website for the organization puts forward “guiding principles,” like the importance of including queer and disabled black people in the movement. It also contains press releases, blog posts and ways to contact local chapters or to apply to start your own.

That’s what Evelyn Reynolds did. She started seeing the “Black Lives Matter” hashtag in 2013, but wasn’t aware until last year that starting her own chapter in Champaign was a possibility. Reynolds is a professor at Parkland College, and the chapter she now heads is one of about 30 in the country. She says her group has about 50 formal members, and up to 150 in its local network.

Reynolds says for her, it’s a way to organize for more than just combating police brutality. For example, members of the chapter volunteer at the Douglass Community Center, which was built to cater to the needs of the African American community in Champaign. Reynolds says members have been regularly meeting with school-age children there. “We talk with them, ask them about their experiences ... We have a hip-hop workshop planned ... Just ways to empower the youth and provide positive images for them, so that they have positive images of themselves.”

Reynolds says the group has been looking at local issues when it comes to race. “Issues with the police are significant in this community ... but more significant ... are issues with the county jail and the racial disparities within the county jail ... We’re also looking at schools and equity and inclusion in schools as far as black students because we see that they’re expelled more, suspended more, dismissed from class more than other students.” Reynolds says while black people lead the group, many white people have joined the cause.

Listen to an interview with Evelyn Reynolds, chapter leader of Black Lives Matter Champaign-Urbana

Black Lives Matters members in Champaign also made their presence known by conducting demonstrations at county board meetings. The members were advocating for the creation of a racial justice task force. The move had been suggested by a different task force the board convened in 2013. Reynolds says her group helped mobilize about 200 people who showed up at meetings, and many spoke about racial profiling. “People were disruptive ... they were holding up signs ... They were disrupting board members when they were commenting. So there was a lot of activity there, but I think that it was successful, and I think that kind of pressure was needed because (the board) did end up approving a racial justice task force.” While the incarnation of the task force approved was not completely ideal to Reynolds and other activists, it was a moment when their power was clear.

Credit Alex Wroblewski
protesters in Chicago after video of Laquan McDonald's shooting death was released

The power of the movement is something long-time activist and author Haki Madhubuti believes in. He co-founded the largest independent press owned by black people in the United States, called Third World Press. It’s based in Chicago. He worked with Martin Luther King Jr. on his trips to the city and has written a book about the deaths of Tamir Rice and Laquan McDonald. “I think that Black Lives Matter, and these young men and women of all cultures – but primarily black, recognize that we live in a nation where power, all ultimate power, resides in the hands and minds and actions of white men and a few white women.” While much as been accomplished since the civil rights era, and because of it, experienced activists like Lewis and Madhubuti say the fight for equality is not over.

Teresa Haley heads the NAACP chapter for Springfield as well as the state branch of the more than 100-year-old civil rights organization. She says some of the NAACP’s young members are involved in Black Lives Matter as well, and members from both have marched together in Chicago. While she respects the cause, she says the groups are different. “The NAACP is the oldest civil rights organization in the world, and it’s not just about black folks. It’s about all folks.” Haley says issues the NAACP covers are broader, like housing discrimination and unemployment. “It’s not to say that Black Lives Matter wouldn’t pick up on some of those other issues,” she says. Haley says she supports the work of fellow activists who have done things like disrupt shoppers, and as long as the activists stay nonviolent, she largely agrees with their methodology. “Their purpose is to be heard, and their goal is ... to bring about changes in the criminal justice system. I think as long as they stay focused they will be around for some time to come.”

DeRay McKesson has a background as a teacher and social justice advocate. With more than 280,000 followers on Twitterand a recent appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, he knows how to use media to educate about the cause. He was drawn to activism regarding police violence after Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri. McKesson lives in Baltimore but travels extensively to participate in organizing and activism in cities across the country, like St. Louis and Chicago. He says about Brown’s death back in August of 2014: “For so many of us it was such a different interaction with police violence. We had always known the police didn’t always make people feel safe ... but there was something about the killing of Mike Brown and the subsequent cover up and the lack of information that radicalized so many of us, that mobilized so many of us to organize around ending police violence.” McKesson doesn’t align himself with the Black Lives Matter movement in particular, and calls himself a civil rights activist. He helped found a new effort called Campaign Zero, which has set forth goals to end police violence and curates research and reports regarding injustices in the black community.

“What we’ve been able to do using social media is spread messages that otherwise would not have been spread, and to tell the truth, and communicate with each other in ways that had previously been impossible,” says McKesson.

The impact of social media in the Black Lives Matter movement can’t be understated. It did largely gain initial traction as a hashtag, after all. And by using it, people on the ground in cities where protestors are active have been able to communicate with other. But they’ve also been able to form their own narratives, without reliance on the news media. McKesson is one of only a handful of activists associated with Black Lives Matter who were willing to be interviewed for this story. Several emails and phone calls to the Black Lives Matter chapter in Chicago were not returned.

That could very well be because members feel they haven’t been fairly portrayed in the media. Richard Hamilton is an outreach coordinator for Black Lives Matter in Champaign. He says: “There’s a lot of negative press about the ‘aggression’ of the group — they make it seem like a very aggressive group. I think if anybody came to our meetings they would see how friendly we are.”

Listen to an interview about activism with Michael Pfleger, a white priest and activist who heads the largest African-American Catholic congregation in Chicago

Stefan Bradley teaches history at St. Louis University with a focus on the role black students have played in bringing about societal change. He says he saw bias in some coverage of protests. “Early on in the Ferguson crisis the way that the activists were portrayed I think was slanted.” He says the majority of images he saw in the news were of the rioting — not the grandparents, students, ministers, and community members protesting peacefully. Some activists and members of alternative news organizations would live-broadcast what was happening in the streets, and show that at times, police were throwing tear gas at peaceful protestors in efforts to get them to disperse.

Bradley, who took his own students out in the streets, says social media was helpful in telling people which places were safe. It also helped spread messages about what was happening without time for spin. “What we found is that these African Americans, who have been telling these stories about police abuse of power, haven’t always been lying — haven’t always been telling tales.” He says social media has given activists power over their own stories, and it is becoming as significant as television was for civil rights activists in the ‘60s — when images of them being beaten were broadcast. “This is going to be exciting for scholars in the future — to take a look at how people in real time felt about situations in ways that weren’t as filtered. Social media has been an incredible mechanism in terms of activism.”

Bradley admits he was initially critical about whether the Black Lives Matter movement would be sustainable. He questioned the ability of young activists to work collaboratively. “In working in a university setting, I didn’t have much faith in the idea that young people could move as a collective unit because of the sheer narcissism that I observe on campus.” But he says the philosophical power of the movement is clear. “This idea that black lives matter resonates with an incredibly wide demographic of people, who are not necessarily part of any chapter ... This is something that hits home with people who would not necessarily be part of a movement at all. So that allows people in the ministry, people who are professionals, to pick up a mantra and apply it to their institutions, and this is an important step.”

Listen to an interview with Stefan Bradley, a professor at St. Louis University who researches the history of activism by black college students

Bradley says going forward, he thinks the movement has the potential to sustain itself. “One of the things that I think the movement is doing at this point is evolving. There is a point ... where movements have to go from protest to policy. That’s the hard turn.”

Stefan says Black Lives Matter is clearly headed in that direction, and at this point activists are maintaining their passion and momentum. If the changes already taking place on the heels of the work by activists in cities like Champaign and Chicago are any indication, those in the Black Lives Matter already have numerous successes to point to. Says Bradley: “If I had a crystal ball, I’d say you’ll see policies changing in the next three years that will bring us closer to the justice that the nation deserves.”

Illinois Issuesis in-depth reporting and analysis that takes you beyond the headlines to provide a deeper understanding of our state. Illinois Issuesis produced by NPR Illinois in Springfield.

Rachel Otwell of the Illinois Times is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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