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Springfield Council Members Question Differing Police Response To Protests, Parties

Protesters gather outside the Bank of Springfield Center as state lawmakers prepare to convene on May 20.
Sam Dunklau
NPR Illinois

Some Springfield City Council members questioned the mayor and the police chief about the city’s response to protests at the Capitol late last week, saying it was more permissive than the response they’re seeing in some neighborhoods. A few also reacted to a racial slur found spray painted at a local park.

Ward 2 Ald. Shawn Gregory said he doesn’t agree with anyone gathering in large crowds amid concerns that the coronavirus is still spreading. But he said he’s gotten questions about why the police dispersed parties of mostly people of color over the weekend, but did not disband dozens of mostly white protesters, a handful with anti-Semitic or hateful signs, as they rallied against the stay-at-home order last week.

“The feeling right now in my community is well, dang, our police officers come and block off the streets for people who ain't even from Springfield, Illinois, and make us go home,” he said. “And I get it. They do need to go home… we just want to see the law applied equally.”

Police officers escorted the protesters from the Bank of Springfield Center to the Capitol lawn.

Springfield Police Chief Kenny Winslow defended the move, saying the protestors were exercising their rights.

“We're going to just maintain the public safety, let them exercise their right,” he said. “This is different from the block parties that we deal with over the weekend where people were doing pop-up block parties in the middle of residential neighborhoods or business parking lots at 1:30, 2 o'clock in the morning.”

Much of the debate revolved around if the two situations are similar, or if they warrant a different approach.

Ward 3 Ald. Doris Turner, Ward 6 Ald. Kristin DiCenso and Ward 8 Ald. Erin Conley expressed skepticism at the response during the meeting.

“It's different, but it's not different,” said DiCenso. “The double standard is horrifying… I'm very uncomfortable with how this is all being handled.”

Winslow said his department hasn’t issued any tickets or fines for gatherings, despite having the power to do so under an executive order from the mayor. He said police are walking a fine line with enforcement of the stay-at-home order.

“The police department is the one thrown in the middle, and we're walking a tightrope here between whether or not that executive order is going to end up being ruled constitutional,” Winslow said.

Langfelder responded that city officials have been trying to address problems as they arise, but those efforts have been stalled by the pandemic.

“We do bring people together and have those discussions and how we can address the issue at hand,” Langfelder said. “Because two things, if it's a perception, we need to change that perception. But if it's a reality, then we need to change that reality. And so that's what we need to get to the heart of with regards to that.”

‘Equally Troubling’

Turner said she connects the unequal reaction to protests and parties in different neighborhoods to racist graffiti found in Centennial Park over the weekend, which she said she has heard little about publicly.

“The situation that happened is Centennial Park is one overt action,” Turner told NPR Illinois after the meeting. “But there are so many other actions that are not as overt but they are equally troubling.”

Tuner said she’s concerned people don’t want to admit that there is racism in Springfield, and more people need to speak out.

Springfield Park District Trustee Lisa Badger said she sent a photo of the N-word painted on a sidewalk she saw on social media on Saturday to the district’s director. It was removed promptly. She said she was “disgusted” by it, but she thought a public statement would bring attention and encourage copycats.

“I decided it was not worth the risk of copycats or other hate produced by saying anything about it at the time,” Badger said.

Vandalism is frequently a problem at parks, Springfield Park District Director Derek Harms said, and they don’t announce every time it happens.

“We absolutely do not support that type of horrible behavior,” Harms said. “But going out to the public every time that something like that happens in the park is not something we do.”

Springfield Park District Police Chief Limey Nargelenas said the district has been restricting access and issuing warning tickets to people at the skate park, where the painted words appeared, per the stay-at-home-order. He felt it was in response to that and directed at the police department. He said “F--- the Springfield Park District Police” was also painted there.

Nargelenas said the department is investigating the incident.

Gregory said he was shocked and hurt by the graffiti, and he now won’t go to Centennial Park. He said he was also disappointed more people haven’t spoken out about it.

“Race relations don’t get better until other people besides people of color or Black people are saying it,” Gregory said. “It’s a tough topic, but we can't shy away from it if we truly believe that those things are wrong.”

Mary Hansen is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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