GEORGE FLOYD PROTESTS POWERED BY WAVE OF WOMEN LEADERS
As thousands of protesters took to Chicago’s streets following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, working behind the scenes --- organizing, agitating, inspiring --- was a new generation of women leaders.
These upfront contributions of young women leaders mark a significant change from the historic drive for Black rights that began more than 60 years ago. The civil rights movement of the 1950’s and ‘60s sprang up out of the Black church, and like the church itself, featured male-dominated leadership. Women played an active role, but mostly behind the scenes.
Even at the 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, women had to fight behind the scenes to have a female voice included. Only one woman spoke on that historic day: Daisy Bates, who counseled and guided the Little Rock Nine as they attempted to integrate the city’s high school.
57 years later, Attorney Sharonda Roberson, 24, would not be deterred by her youth or gender as she took another approach in raising her voice following George Floyd’s murder. When riots broke out in Aurora during a May 31st protest, Roberson saw naked rage without direction.
“I realized it was very unorganized with a lack of leadership from the Black community,” said Roberson. “There was rioting and anger but they didn’t know what they wanted to come out of it.”
Roberson conducted an informal poll of 500 Aurora citizens who repeatedly reported police discrimination against Black and Hispanic residents. She organized a peace rally on June 7th where Kane County State’s Attorney Joe McMahon, U.S. Rep. Bill Foster and State Rep. Barbara Hernandez all showed up. But Aurora’s mayor and police chief did not.
In response, Roberson created a consortium of established community groups called The Peoples Coalition. It drew up a list of demands including body cams for all officers and a more transparent process for filing complaints against Aurora police.
“I agree with defunding police,” said Roberson, “Meaning, cutting their budgets and using some of that money to go back into the community for mental health, resources, education. If we attack the root causes of crime, we would need fewer police officers. We wouldn’t need to be over-policed and there would be less crime.”
Aurora Mayor Richard Irwin implemented a “listening tour” to discuss police brutality and enforcement tactics. Irwin later backed body cams for Aurora police, as well as a detailed review of police training and use of force policies.
Despite her youth and relative inexperience in molding public policy, Roberson insists she’s not surprised at her effectiveness.
“When I put my mind to something I know I can accomplish it,” said Roberson. “My passion and dedication trump everything.”
Kristiana Colon, 34, co-founder of the #LetUsBreatheCollective, was on the front lines as well. Colon joined the end of a protest May 31 in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, lending support to like-minded demonstrators. “They were being blocked in by the police and needed support. We showed up to make sure our people were okay.”
A poet, playwright, and activist, Colon founded the #LetUsBreatheCollective after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. The organization fuses art with protest, and planned for a quiet, socially-distant, Covid-19-conscious summer until George Floyd’s murder.
The unprecedented and unexpected nationwide reaction to Floyd’s murder leads Colon to believe the time is right for dramatic social change. “We’re in a powerful position for social transformation,” said Colon, “because we’ve seen it’s possible to make sweeping changes overnight and these inequities have been put in the spotlight for all to see.”
Colon says she’s witnessing organizations coming together, combining resources, and resolving around a common agenda that involves not just police reform, but a radical re-imagining of law enforcement itself.
Colon supports the current movement to defund Chicago police, reducing the police budget and transferring resources to other community needs and social services.
“People are galvanized and people are angry because we have been conditioned to accept police as a status quo,” said Colon. “Many have not asked what else there can be. Sometimes people just need to know what we could envision with that money.”
Amika Tendaji, 39, a key organizer with Black Lives Matter-Chicago, agrees.
Tendaji traces her activism to her involvement, at age 14, in a campaign against sweatshop labor in Honduras. “It really connected with me how it’s difficult for a poor black woman to change their circumstances individually, but together, we could do quite amazing things.”
The looting and property destruction in the riots following Floyd’s murder stood in stark contrast to the downtown protests in December 2015 organized by BLM-Chicago after tapes of the police killing of Laquan McDonald were released. Those protests shut down weekend commerce on North Michigan Avenue, but were largely peaceful.
Tendaji argued BLM-Chicago was in no way responsible for promoting the violence that erupted in the Loop on May 30th.
“We understand that property damage is a response to the violence perpetrated on communities,” said Tendaji. “But I spent all day downtown with demonstrators who didn’t want to be around looting or burning cop cars. I saw organizers saying, ‘Don’t turn over that cop car. Don’t do that.’”
Tendaji believes the social isolation and joblessness triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic also played a role in the explosion. “People in the pandemic have been starved for human connection and have been suffering greatly,” said Tendaji.
Illinois’ top issues
The Center for Illinois Politics is dedicated to providing you with clear, fact-based, non-partisan information on our state’s biggest issues.
IL Campaign Cash
Take a streamlined spin behind the scenes through Illinois’ biggest and most impactful campaign funds.
Illinois’ top issues
With elections behind us, it’s time to get down to business. The Center for Illinois Politics your resource for non-partisan information on our state’s biggest issues: