For about nine minutes, a circle of several dozen people—community members and leaders alike—stood silently in a circle in front of the Elgin police station. Many held signs bearing slogans calling for an end to racial discrimination or referencing people who have been killed by police. For an uncomfortably long period of time, the only sounds that could be heard was the chirping of birds and the cars driving down Main Street a block away.
At the end, first the protest organizers, then the rest of the people gathered, each slowly, wordlessly raised a fist into the air.
“Elgin, that’s a long time not to be able to breathe,” then remarked Steven Ward, the pastor at Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church who had previously given the prayer to close the evening.
On Friday evening, a group of peaceful protesters gathered at Thomas Memorial Park, and escorted by Elgin police, marched through downtown Elgin and ended up at the lot in front of the police station. Protest organizer Anthony Moore, along with Elgin Police Chief Patrick South and Reverend D.W. Townsend from Winn’s Memorial Baptist Church, led the march; the three all held up a banner saying “I can’t breathe,” a reference to George Floyd, a black man who was recently killed by police in Minneapolis when an officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
Floyd’s death, caught on video, has sparked protests and conversations about racism and policing across the country.
As they made their way down Main Street, the crowd chanted phrases like “No justice, no peace” and “One town, one race.” People gathered outside of their homes with signs of their own, while others parked their cars along Main Street to watch or record the protest, and a few groups joined in the march along the way.
Once the crowd arrived at Avenue C and Depot Street, a short program followed with a number of speakers.
Townsend, who said he is 65 years old, recalled facing segregation at restaurants and movie theaters as a child.
“There are so many things we have progressed from,” he said. “But as Paul said … ‘I have not arrived.’ We have not arrived, but we’re going to continue to fight for what’s right.”
Next, Elgin Mayor Chris Cannon spoke, thanking the protesters for being proactive and praising positive culture changes in Elgin’s police department over the past few years.
“I would always rather hear a voice and see a feeling than mourn a mistake in blindness,” he said. “I stand with this department, I stand with all city employees, and I stand with all of you to move forward from today, and not just listen, not just talk, but take action.”
Next, South addressed the crowd, thanking the organizers for letting EPD participate with them.
“It is about community, and we are all part of that community,” he said. “We are dedicated to change, in not only the culture but in the way we do policing. We’ve made incredible strides, but we have a lot more to do.”
Next, Gwendolyn Johnson, the president of Elgin’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), spoke about the reasons to march and protest.
“We march today for every African-American and minority who have suffered at the hands of those who have sworn to protect all of us,” she said. “We march today for the right to not be judged or misjudged because of the color of our skin or the style of our hair or the clothes we wear.”
Next, organizers Moore and Lashiya Reese spoke. Reese encouraged people to focus on building a close community.
“If you don’t take anything away from today, please take compassion,” she said. “Whenever you see injustice, or whenever you’re having a conversation and something hits the air wrong, there’s nothing wrong with having those uncomfortable conversations.”
The program then ended with the prayer and nine minutes of silence.
Afterwards, Moore said the event was a “blissful moment.” He appreciates everyone who showed up to support the protest, as well as the police for making sure the protesters were safe.
“We had blacks, we had whites, we had Hispanics, all different races just came together,” he said. “We all got together and we protested for one cause: Black Lives Matter. We know that all lives matter, but at the moment, everyone knows what’s going on, so it consists of ‘black lives matter’ for the moment.”
Before the march began on Friday evening, the organizers of the protest emphasized to the crowd that they wanted to have a peaceful protest.
“Why go out there and vandalize things and loot and set things on fire, when we’re not proving a point?” Moore said. “(At the peaceful protests), all races could come together, all ages could come together, and everybody just felt safe.”
Moore, who went to high school in Elgin and learned the “one town, one team, one family” mindset, said as Elgin grows, he doesn’t the family-like atmosphere to change.
“The reason for me protesting was because I didn’t want these things to come to Elgin, so I wanted to catch them before they did reach Elgin,” he said. “It’s very important that we don’t wait until these things happen, and we go ahead and act on them before they do happen.
“Hopefully we made a change, hopefully we can create more leaders, and hopefully we can create more voices in the community,” Moore concluded.