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Black Lives Matter Springfield Procession Draws Thousands

Thousands of cars circled downtown Springfield Sunday afternoon to protest recent police killings.

JoAnne Bardwell drove her SUV down Ninth Street Sunday afternoon – her sons and nephews leaning out of the windows, holding signs that read “Black Lives Matter” and “Can I Live?”

She said they’ve been having some difficult conversations, after the recent death of George Floyd, a black Minneapolis man killed at the hands of the police.

“You can obey all the laws; you can have cameras being filmed, witnesses, unarmed and still have to beg for your life,” Bardwell said she told the two older boys – who recently started driving.

Bardwell said as a mother, it’s a crippling feeling. Floyd’s death, which set off days of protests across the country, is something a lot of moms and aunties fear.

“It could be me mourning,” Bardwell said. “Right now this (procession) of unity is beautiful. But this could have been a procession of a funeral.”

Bardwell said she wants the young people in her life to understand that protesting is one way change happens. That’s part of what brought her and her family to join thousands of people in their cars, circling around downtown Springfield.

Some are painted with the names of people killed at the hands of the police, or slogans like “End Police Brutality” and “White Silence Is Violence.”

Nathaniel Mayfield has “No lives matter until black lives matter” on his side window.

“It’s time for us to show solidarity,” said Mayfield, who works at a school for children with disabilities. “Let’s push for the reform and change we talk about on social media.”

Mayfield is wearing a mask – as are many other protesters.

Organizers with the local Black Lives Matter group planned the demonstration as a car parade – to abide by public health rules banning large gatherings aimed at stemming the spread of the new coronavirus.

Before the procession started, cars gathered in the parking lot of the Bank of Springfield Center.

This is close to where demonstrators against the stay-at-home showed up a few weeks ago. Those protests became a point of contention recently as residents and some city officials pointed out that police closed down streets and escorted them to the Capitol. Meanwhile, law enforcement has been breaking up outdoor parties on Springfield’s predominantly black east side.

“And the block parties were much smaller so it was a stark contrast in the treatment of the two organizations,” said Sunshine Clemons - cofounder of Black Lives Matter Springfield.

She said the biggest difference between those going to block parties and those demonstrating against the stay at home order is their race. Unfair treatment by the police is what the group is fighting against.

“It’s not just specifically when someone is killed. It’s the overall systemic treatment we receive,” Clemons said. “Everything from being pulled over at higher rates to being arrested at higher rates.”

City council members had a similar discussion at last week’s meeting, where Springfield Police Chief Kenny Winslow said the situations were different and the officers had to respect the protesters' right to gather.

Ward 2 Ald. Shawn Gregory and Ward 3 Ald. Doris Turner’s made similar arguments as Clemons. The city assigned an officer to desk duty after he posted disparaging comments about the council members on social media, according to a news release from the city.

Clemons said Springfield still has work to do to improve the relationship between the police and communities of color.

Clemons took issue with the mayor and police chief’s joint statement condemning Floyd’s death. The statement calls it a senseless tragedy and a horrific act.

“While we understand the outrage and anguish, destroying one’s community accomplishes nothing and only creates additional hardship for those who live and work there,” it reads.

“We know you’re upset, but please don’t tear anything. Peacefully protest in a way that we think is acceptable. I really think that’s the underlying message of the letter they put out,” Clemons said.

Mayor Jim Langfelder, who attended the procession, said he hears where she’s coming from, but defends his record and that of the police chief.

“What we need to do is each and every day work towards addressing issues and we’ve done that,” Langfelder said. “We don't always promote what we’ve done but we have taken positive steps.”

Langfelder said he’s offered to meet with Black Lives Matter organizers.

Meanwhile for the procession, police assisted organizers in blocking off a few intersections and directing traffic. The parade route had to be lengthened because so many people turned out.

Bardwell – the mom in the SUV – said she thinks Springfield is doing better than other cities in terms of police-community relationship.

And she’s happy with how many people turned out to protest police brutality.

“It’s not just black people out here,” she said. “It’s a mixture of crowd coming together because once you see it – you can’t unsee it.”

Mary Hansen is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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