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Young Leadership Brings New Energy To Black Lives Matter Movement In Springfield

Protesters march on Capitol Avenue in Springfield Monday against police brutality. The rally and march were organized by young people.
Mike Smith
NPR Illinois
Protesters march on Capitol Avenue in Springfield Monday against police brutality. The rally and march were organized by young people.

On Monday, Allaijah Davis and her friends Nykeyla Henderson and Ariona Fairlee led an estimated 1,000 peaceful demonstrators down Capitol Avenue in Springfield.

At age 15, Davis is the youngest of the three organizers who put together that event. She later said they weren’t sure if anyone would show.

“After we got done marching, and then I turned around and seen more people coming – it brought a smile to my face because a lot of people are supporting us through this movement,” Davis, a Lanphier High School student, said.

Demonstrators rallying against police brutality and recent police killings have gathered in Springfield every day this week. Teenagers and young people have led, using bullhorns, sharing poems and songs, and marching through downtown.

Davis and her friends are among a few groups of young people who organized the protests. More are planned for this weekend, Friday at 5:30 p.m. at the Illinois Capitol, Saturday at 4 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m.

Davis and her friends organized Monday’s Black Lives Matter protest after seeing videos of George Floyd’s death. He died after a Minneapolis police officer held his knee on Floyd’s neck. Davis said she usually avoids similar videos because they’re painful to watch.

“That could have been my father, that could have been my brother, that could have been my uncle. And that breaks my heart because we don’t know what’s going to come after,” she said.

Davis, Henderson and Fairlee spent the weekend preparing. They got city permits, advertised on social media, made signs, and gathered snacks and drinks for supporters. From the beginning, she said, they emphasized they wanted it to be a peaceful event. But that didn’t shield them from hateful messages.

“I used to see a lot of ‘Oh it’s peaceful now, just wait until nighttime fall,’” Davis said. “And we did and nothing happened. So I’m really glad we could prove them wrong.”

Springfield police officials said a handful of windows on cars and businesses were broken, but that vandalism could not be connected to protesters. The city positioned dump trucks to block off the streets to the municipal center and police headquarters. City leaders called for residents to stay in on Sunday and Monday evenings after receiving reports of potential unrest.

Still, demonstrations this week have proceeded without issue.

“Because at the end of the day, being violent isn’t going to help anything. It’s going to tarnish his name; it’s going to take the media away from George Floyd and towards the looting and stealing,” Davis said.

While the event was peaceful, protesters expressed anger and pain, saying the demonstrations were not in response to just one killing, but rather to the long history of systemic racism and injustice.

Eighteen-year-old Kenya Apongule read a poem she wrote when Eric Garner died at the hands of the police four years ago in New York.

“Four years later, another man has lost his life at the hands of racist America. I still can’t breathe. I hate to face the reality that this will not be the last time,” she read.

Credit Olivia Mitchell / NPR Illinois
NPR Illinois
Protesters lay on the ground at Second and Capitol in Springfield with their arms behind their backs during a Black Lives Matter Protest.

Motivated For Change

Across the street, Erica Austin gathered with members of Springfield’s black fraternities and sororities to pass out bottles of water. Austin, a community activist, said this moment is significant.

“Our youth has finally said ‘hey, I’ve had enough. I’m tired of seeing people who are my age fall to the hands of violence. I’m tired of being seen as a step-child compared to my counterparts. And I just want to be heard,’” Austin said.

Dominic Watson, head of the Springfield Black Chamber of Commerce, agreed. He said what he heard is that youth are in pain, but inspired to take productive action.

“We need to come out and celebrate and embrace them, and offer additional guidance and direction because right now, they’re hurting, but they’re motivated,” Watson said.

Credit Mary Hansen / NPR Illinois
NPR Illinois
Black Lives Matter Springfield organized a car procession to rally against recently police killings.

He said he hopes the momentum gets younger people involved in conversations about policy changes.

“We absolutely need everybody at the table, but we don’t need the same players at the table,” Watson said. “It needs to be a fresh group of leaders who are pushing policy of the future.”

Austin also drove in a Black Lives Matter car procession in Springfield with thousands of others. Many of the attendees were older, with children in tow.

Sunshine Clemons is cofounder of Black Lives Matter Springfield and organized the procession in part to ensure people could follow social distancing guidelines and avoid spreading the new coronavirus. Still, she said watching the teenagers lead the marches downtown filled her with pride.

“I think that gave multiple generations some hope that maybe the next people coming up under us can be the change we’ve been working for and have not really seen,” she said.

She said their leadership is needed as people who have been fighting racism and racial injustice for decades are tired.

“Black people, we’re burned out,” Clemons said. “And I think that event that those young people had motivated us partially because they were so young.”

Looking ahead

Tyrese Thomas, a 24-year-old Springfield resident, helped organize the march Monday and spread the word about a protest in Taylorville Thursday.

“We’ve had enough of being angry, afraid… enough of having to fear people who are supposed to protect us,” he said. “Enough of feeling like we’re not educated enough to make a change.”

Credit Mary Hansen / NPR Illinois
NPR Illinois
Some of the organizers of the Black Lives Matter protests this week in Springfield pose with new shirts that read "Be the change you want to see."

Henderson, one of the teenage organizers, said they planned the protest because they didn’t see anyone else stepping in. She said what motivated them were emotions.

“When you make the youth mad, you know you’ve done something wrong,” Henderson said.

She said her passion comes from what she learned from her late father, who made them learn about the Civil Rights Movement.

Henderson and Davis — both Lanphier High School students — and a handful of others are building an organization, named the Black People’s Party of America , what Henderson said her dad wanted to name an organization. They want to work with other teenagers and younger kids, too.

“Come out, speak out, don’t be silent. Don’t let nobody shut you up, and speak what you believe in,” Henderson said.

The organizers say they’re looking forward to a packed summer. They’re planning more demonstrations and collaborating with the group that puts on Springfield’s Juneteenth celebration.

Mary Hansen is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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