Many attendees carried hand-crafted signs. Photo by Heidi Randhava

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More than 150 people gathered on Saturday at Dawes Park, 1700 Sheridan Rd., for the Evanston Rally for Democracy, an event inspired by the Women’s Marches that took place across the country that day.

Organized to “support democracy and build momentum to combat systemic racism and inequality in our community,” the rally was hosted by Women’s March – Illinois, Indivisible Evanston and Bridget Isaia Samuels, according to the event’s Facebook page.

Covid-19 precautions for all attendees included the requirement for masks and social distancing of at least six feet. “Mask/distance marshals” were on hand to monitor distancing and to distribute surgical masks and hand sanitizer as needed. The microphone used at the event was sanitized between speakers.

In their remarks, speakers encouraged Evanstonians who plan to vote in person for the Nov. 3 Presidential election to take advantage of early voting, which continues here through Nov. 2 at the Morton Civic Center, Room G-300, 2100 Ridge Ave.

Themes included criminal justice reform, healthcare, racial equity, economic justice and climate change.

Speaker Betsy Lehman, Board Chair for the Moran Center for Youth Advocacy, cited “just a handful of examples of the devastating results of the systemic racism inherent in the criminal justice system:

 

“2019 data from the Prison Policy Initiative showed that, on any given day, close to 50,000 youth are confined in facilities away from their homes – most in locked, prison-style spaces; 40% of these facilities isolate youth in locked rooms for periods of four hours or more, and 43% use restraints such as hand/leg cuffs and strait jackets.

 

“Black youth are arrested, and confined to juvenile institutions, far out of proportion to their share of all youth in the U.S. In Illinois, the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] estimates that Black youth are incarcerated at five times the rate of white youth.

 

“As Covid-19 spread across the U.S., the number of Latinx and Native American youth in detention facilities actually increased, despite calls for juveniles to be released.

 

“Marijuana usage rates are similar among white and Black Americans; however Black Americans are more than three-and-a-half times as likely to be arrested on possession charges. Legalization and decriminalization has not changed this.

 

“At the end of 2018, the Pew Research Center found that the imprisonment rate among Black Americans was more than five times the rate among whites. A generation of Black fathers has been lost to incarceration.

 

“We demand a system that is rehabilitative and restorative to both victim and offender…A system that not only rejects, but protects against the criminalization of poverty and mental illness. A system that refuses to funnel black and brown bodies into institutions or legitimizes their murders.

“The Moran Center is advocating every day for policies that support women and families in Evanston and the values that I know we all share – education, healing, compassion, support of the most vulnerable members of our community…

“This [election] is not just about the White House or the Senate. It’s the statehouse, it’s county-wide and local government, and it’s the judiciary. Get out there and vote!” said Ms. Lehman.

“Speaker Mikaela Parisien is an ETHS senior and a member of Evanston Fight for Black Lives.

“We believe in radically acting and transforming the ways in which public safety within the city of Evanston is conducted, in hopes of fostering a community where radical and intentional love is prioritized,” said Ms. Parisien. She shared the organization’s official mission statement and her personal beliefs about activism.

“I believe that activism is so important and can really give us the tools we need to move forward as a community to transform our desire for change into reality. It doesn’t matter who you are; you have the power and the voice to be active in the work in your community – a community that will make this change together, because Evanston does have a lot of work to do.

And it is not enough to sit around, or show up at one rally, or post something on social media. We must actually get up and do so much more. And be devoted to being active…and finding resources to be a part of the change that is happening right here in Evanston. Our community must continue demanding change, being open to learning, being inclusive, loving – maintaining that force and desire to see a change happen, and so much more,” said Ms. Parisien.

More information about Evanston Fight for Black Lives can be found on the group’s Facebook page.

Evanston Present and Future founder Kemone Hendricks partnered with several local businesses to set up voter registration pop-ups this fall.

“When we’re talking about ‘freedom for all,’ that includes all,” said Ms. Hendricks.

In her remarks, she said she noticed a sharp differences among residents when it came to “feeling like their vote counted. These were people that were able to vote. They had the right to vote…but they felt like their vote did not count. I spent time speaking to those individuals on a personal level, letting them know why they should vote.

“I registered over 100 voters within just a few weeks. It could have been more though, because there were a lot of people that…felt like they weren’t included in what we’re talking about at events like this,” said Ms. Hendricks.

While at a voter registration pop-up, she met a representative of Connections for the Homeless, who asked her to come out to some of their drop-in and homeless shelters to ensure “that all of the residents were registered to vote and also have a plan to vote.”

The crowd applauded when she said, “So I would encourage all the elected officials to try to meet voters where they’re at, and talk to them personally via Zoom, or whatever way they think might be best. Because there are a lot of people out there who don’t feel like they’re included in this democracy, included in freedom for all, and I think there’s a lot we can do to change that.”

Cheers arose when Rachel Ruttenberg, a policy director for a human rights organization, said, “In January 2017, I was distraught and deeply concerned about the future of our country when I took an overnight bus to join the first Women’s March in Washington, D.C. As I marched with hundreds of thousands of people from across the country, and watched as millions more joined us all over the world, I felt hopeful. I feel that same renewed hope looking at all of you.”

However, Ms. Ruttenberg went on to say that Americans are living through “what is the greatest public health crisis of our lifetimes. The pandemic has triggered an economic crisis…This week the New York Times said that, since May, eight million more people are now living in poverty.

“Women are bearing the brunt of this crisis, and hundreds of thousands of women have had to leave the work force just in the last two months, mainly for caregiving. And Black and Latinx women have been again, as always, the hardest hit.

“Here we are, and we have a choice. Policies are choices. And failure to act is also a choice…Now is the time to turn our renewed hope into action…Let’s not lose ground. My little girls and children across the country are depending on us to get this right…Vote like our democracy depends on it, because it does.”

Former Citizens’ Greener Evanston president Jonathan Nieuwsma focused on the impact of climate change.

“One of the reasons that we should all vote is for climate action. How many people here drink water? How many people here breathe air? How many people here believe in the science of climate change?

Climate action is social justice. We’re in a global pandemic, seeing the effects more strongly felt in the marginalized portions of our community. The Black and brown people, the low income people, are in orders of magnitude more affected by Covid. The same is going to be true for climate change – not only in Evanston, but around the world,” said Mr. Nieuwsma.

He asked people to keep the motto of Citizens’ Greener Evanston in  mind: “Think globally, but act locally. We need to keep that in mind as we vote in November, and as we vote next spring in our municipal elections as well.”

Community organizer Stephanie Mendoza asked attendees to use their voices to support women and uplift people of color.

Evanston activist Diane Goldring, who volunteers delivering meals to seniors seven days a week, said she sees the stark income inequality that exists in Evanston.

Alderman Don Wilson said he was not at the rally as a local representative. “I am here as the husband of a working woman. I am here as the father of a daughter. And those are my priorities,” said Alderman Wilson.

Former Illinois Senator Daniel Biss said he felt emotional looking at the crowd “at this critical moment. Over the last four years … I have seen the most incredible outpouring of activism and organizing that I have ever encountered in my life. … We have built the tools… to wake up into a better world than the one we lived in before,” said Mr. Biss.

Also speaking at the rally were 48-year Evanston resident and Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky (IL-9th District), State Representative Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz (17th District) and State Senator Laura Fine (9th District). All three legislators urged Evanstonians “get out there and vote.”

Many people said they attended the rally with family members. Ms. Samuels, who served as co-host and operations coordinator for the event, was there with her aunt, Janice Liten.

“I was very proud of my niece, Bridget, for all the work she did organizing the rally. Covid-19 has kept us all from doing more to get the vote out. It felt really good to see our neighbors, community activists and elected officials come together to encourage democracy by pushing people to get involved, and to get out the vote,” said Ms. Liten.