Photo by Genie Lemieux Evanston Photographic Studios

By the hundreds they crossed Lake Street at Dodge Avenue, walking toward Evanston Township High School, chanting, holding signs, protesting the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota and what appeared to be an aggressive arrest of a young black man here last week.

Despite the weekend of protests that turned violent, this one in Evanston was determinedly peaceful. The organizers, all of whom were graduated from ETHS in the past few years, had put out the word on social media that face coverings were required. Social distancing was difficult as the numbers swelled – to 5,000 by one estimate – but people found ways to spread out on Dodge Avenue and onto the ETHS lawn.

“Social distancing was really important,” said Mollie Hartenstein, one of the organizers. “We collected masks, and a lot of people dropped off masks and gloves as we were getting ready; we left the extras for the YWCA,” in whose parking lot the march began.

Sinobia Aiden, Phoebe Liccardo, Maia Robinson, Amalia Loiseau, Liana Wallace,  Nia Williams and Ms. Hartenstein planned the logistics of a march they thought would be much smaller. At the same time another group was also planning a protest, so groups merged their plans.

The protestors wound down Ridge Avenue, around Dempster Street and then north on Dodge Avenue to the high school parking lot.

Many carried signs that appeared to be of their own making, uniting the universal with the personal and showing solidarity with victims of police brutality.

“I can’t breathe.”

“If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention.”

“No room for racism.”

“Protect Black Lives.”

Chants were loud but not raucous:

“Black lives, they matter here.”

“No justice, no peace. No racist police.”

“Hey, hey, ho, ho. These racist cops have got to go.”

“White silence is violence.”

“Brionna Taylor, say her name.”

Most of the crowd remained for speeches but some headed back east toward downtown.

The speeches were passionate, with strong language, some of it critical of the Evanston Police Department. The somber calmness that permeated the crowd was remarkable

 “I’m so proud of Evanston” said longtime resident and civil rights leader Bennett Johnson, praising the peaceful, well organized protest that so many attended with a unified message.

Second Ward Alderman Peter Braithwaite told the RoundTable  that on Saturday, “I spent a good part of my day in touch with the [Interim] City Manager and [Police] Chief [Demitrous] Cook making sure we had enough support for the crowd.”

Ald. Braithwaite said he thought the event was “very successful” and said, “I’m really proud of the job ETHS has done in turning out these amazing kids.  … I’d like to add a thank-you to Valli produce, who provided water for the event and who also allowed any employee who wanted to attend the event permission to take the time off.”

“Enough heartbreak” read the sign that Alaka Wali and her friend Anna Galland, an ETHS alum, carried. 

“I’m heartbroken and outraged about the fact that Black people keep getting murdered by police and by vigilantes. It feels like we’ve reached a boiling point for racial justice, not just because of the police violence but because COVID19 is killing black and brown people at twice the rate of white people. It’s too much. And it feels important for white people not just to march but to really rededicate ourselves to what we can do to secure racial equity in this country,” Ms. Galland said.

Ms. Wali said she attended the march because “ I wanted to express my outrage at the continuing racism in police departments and other institutions of our society that daily harm African Americans and other people of color.  I also wanted to express my support for Evanston youth who organized the march and solidarity with my community.” 

Ms. Galland also said she was “really proud of our community. There was a huge, multi-racial crowd, all ages, with incredible organizing by the recent high school grads and the volunteers supporting them. And it’s been so long that I forgot just how deeply moving it is to be in a big group of people in real life –when you’re grieving and angry and  aching to see the path forward. There’s no Zoom meeting that can feed your morale & determination the way a powerful real-life protest like this can.”

Ms. Wali said, ““The march was very moving.  It was heartening to see so many thousands of Evanstonians turn out, walk together peacefully, following social distance and yet passionate and loud!  It made me glad to live in this diverse community where old and young could come together even though the catalyst was so terrible.  I only expected a few hundred, so the number of people was a surprise. “ 

Carmiya Bady said “action” prompted her participation. “A lot of people were posting on social media and talking about it [the killing of black and brown people by police], but nothing is really done until we make a statement.

“And I think that most of this [protesting] is to be in solidarity with all of the black people that have died. It’s for love and power, because when we protest and we stand out and we all come together, we see that peace will be possible. Peace will be possible if all of us come together for these people [who have died].

Carmiya will serve as the student representative on the District 202 Board of Education for the coming academic year.

Before the march, the RoundTable contacted City Council members to ask them how they felt about the march.

Alderman Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, wrote, “I participate in today’s rally as a Black Women who is enraged by the continued oppression faced by Black folks across this nation. 

“As a mother who is terrified by the society we adults are creating and leaving for our children.

“As an elected official fully aware of my representative institutions role in contributing to continued racial inequities

“And as an Evanston resident proud of the youth who organized and lead this rally. “Hopeful that all youth will learn from our mistakes (including our silence) and push forward to do better.”

Fourth Ward Alderman Don Wilson wrote, “People are weary of condolences and they should be. On a personal level, it is horrifying to see what happened to George Floyd and it should have never happened. But it did happen. And it’s happened before. People in our country rightly believe that this kind of treatment will continue to happen because there is no fundamental change that has resulted from the countless others before George Floyd. It is not only a problem with policing because that is only a symptom of a problem with the nation as a whole.

“Until there is an acceptance of the fundamental premise that no one person is better than another, there is no healing, only false comfort. 

“It is not enough to speak out or speak loudly. We must find truth and speak truth. See clearly, seek truth and fight oppression. Structural racism and white supremacy will only change with structural change that is built on truth.” 

Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, wrote, “The entire world witnessed the cold blooded murder of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, 2020.

“We all saw the ultimate in police brutality. We read that unlike most officers, Chauvin has a long history of being a bad cop. Lots of complaints have been filed against him. This has to stop; Chauvin’s Chief must be held accountable if in fact the cop has a long history.

“I’m not sure how demonstrating by destroying everything in our path recognizes and honors the life of George Floyd or sends the message that we will no longer tolerate police brutality and that we demand police reform.

“I come from the 60s era of passive resistance and peaceful protest and nonviolence. It is believed that the brutality and attacks of Bull Connor and Sheriff Jim Clark on southern Blacks and civil rights demonstrators in the 60s pushed Lyndon Johnson on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. (When I was in Selma with SNCC in March of 1965 only a few hundred Blacks were registered to vote.  There were thousands eligible. I get the impression sometime that people today do not get the significance of that. Imagine – people were not allowed to register to vote.)

“It could well be that George Floyd’s horrific murder at the hands of a sworn police officer Derek Chauvin is that one thing that leads to real police reform.

“George Floyd‘s life needs to be honored and remembered. Every community in this country must look at that video of George’s death and say this will never ever happen again. Our police department is ready for reform.

First Ward Alderman Judy Fiske wrote, “Evanstonians have been asking hard questions and this City Council has consistently been working with the community to try to find answers. In recent years, we have underscored our commitment to racial equality and justice, but more can be done. I value the voices that will be heard at today’s protest, as well as in the days, months and years ahead. Although I am recovering from a foot injury and cannot march with you today, I fully support those who are, and I will be listening to what they have to say with both my head and my heart.”

Mayor Stephen Hagerty called attention to the message he had posted (available on this website), which stated in part, “As a white man of privilege, I cannot say that I fully understand the pain that is being felt throughout Black communities, but I can say that I am trying. I am working to educate myself on the detrimental effects that racism has on Black people in this country.

“As a white man and an elected official, it is my responsibility to call out racism and work to change a deeply flawed system.

“Today, a group of young leaders, recent graduates of Evanston Township High School, have organized a socially distanced march and rally for Black lives. I am proud of these leaders and of the socially aware students that ETHS is producing. These leaders have organized this event based on their right to free speech and are doing so in a way that recognizes the pain that Black communities are suffering.”

Seventh Ward Alderman Eleanor Revelle attended the march with her husband, Bill. “What a tremendous turnout,” Ald.  Revelle told the RoundTable by email. “A huge, peaceful, determined, and committed crowd.  In the last couple of days, I have heard from Seventh Ward residents who want me to make sure the community knows that achieving justice and fairness for all Evanstonians is as important to us as it is to residents across the community.”

Ms. Hartenstein told the RoundTable she is aware that hers is a white voice and not necessarily one that needs to be heard. “There were so many stories. … The black and brown communities in Evanston are experiencing police brutality.” She also said, “It [the momentum] doesn’t stop here. … It can’t stop here. It shouldn’t stop here.”

Sixth Ward Alderman Thomas Suffredin, via email, offered a similar sentiment. “After listening [at the march], it is clear that residents are much less interested in what the Mayor and City Council members have to say than what they actually do. The call is for us to do something not say something – not to try, but to deliver. Moving forward with naming the Citizen Police Review Commission that was created seven months ago (7 months!) would be a good start.” 

Community leader and lifelong Evanstonian Oliver Ruff said, “I was so impressed with the youngsters during the protest. … I’m so happy to see the energized youth try to straighten out what some of us adults let happen for centuries. The youth – if they see some things occurring that are racist or unjust, they’re going to speak up; they’re not going to sit by and allow things to fester or grow like a cancer.  I saw a lot of people who are concerned about the country … This came from their hearts and souls.  There is hope.”

Heidi Randhava and Anna Galland contributed photos for this story.

Heidi Randhava is an award winning reporter who has a deep commitment to community engagement and service. She has written for the Evanston RoundTable since 2016.

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...