SPRINGFIELD — For state Sen. Robert Peters (D-13th), ongoing protests sparked by the death of George Floyd are bigger than a single event of police violence, and it will take a collective effort to pave a path forward.
“Those protests are about police violence but I think they go much broader than that,” he said. “If you're 18 or 30, you remember the war in Iraq and the fact that the entire war was built on a lie. You remember the Great Recession and how a few billionaires got bailed out, everyone got sold out or pushed down. You remember the murders of Trayvon Martin, Laquan McDonald, Rekia Boyd.”
McDonald was shot 16 times by a Chicago Police Department officer in 2014, and Boyd was killed by an off-duty CPD officer in 2012. McDonald’s killer was convicted of second degree murder after a video was made public more than a year after the killing, while the officer who shot Boyd was acquitted of a manslaughter charge by a judge. Martin was shot and killed in Florida in 2012 by a neighborhood watch coordinator who was acquitted of murder charges.
Peters said thoughts of those cases and others are stirred when videos like that of the killing of George Floyd surface. Floyd, an unarmed Black man, died in police custody on May 25 as a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. The case set off protests and unrest across the nation, sometimes leading to looting and property destruction.
“And so when you look at what's recently happening, you know, when it comes to the disparities with COVID, when it comes to the economic crisis and that there are 40 million people in this country who are unemployed, and when it comes to the murder of Floyd, you think of all that together,” he said.
Daily demonstrations held across Illinois and the U.S. calling for an end to systemic racism are bittersweet, according to state Rep. Curtis J. Tarver II (D-25th), who represents Hyde Park east of Ellis Avenue and southern Kenwood east of Woodlawn Avenue in Springfield.
Public outcry after Floyd’s death shows “there are more people out there who believe in good,” he said. But at the same time, it is “frustrating” because protests demanding racial equity have happened before and will happen again.
“And that part is very difficult to deal with,” the representative said. “In my private life as a lawyer, I advocate on behalf of people who really don’t necessarily have the ability to do so for themselves. In my public life as a state representative, I try to do the same thing. And it just becomes frustrating when you see videos like this and you realize that despite your best efforts, we have so far to go.”
Still, he said it highlights one improvement society must make “at a very basic level” — “we all need to care about others the same way we care about our family members.”
The representative said he “absolutely” has experienced instances of racism.
“For me, the issue is that if things like that happen to me, and I’m an attorney and I’m a state rep and I have some financial means to hire a private attorney, that’s one thing,” he said. “But how about so many people who don’t have those opportunities … And that’s what I see in my community. Those are the calls that we receive far more often than I care to admit.”
Peters said reforms in criminal justice and police accountability are needed to “focus on reimagining what safety and justice in our communities look like.” Lawmakers should address growing wealth disparities as well, he said.
“I don't think it's just on the governor,” he said. “I think it is on each and every one of us in this state. I think that's an important emphasis. When it comes to our government, we can't look to one individual to be the savior of what we need. I think too much is asked of a politician to be a savior when each and every one of us, both as electeds and as communities, must organize as saviors for our communities together.”
In terms of media coverage, Peters said the focus has become too much on looters and less on the suffering behind protests. He said while some who participate in looting “just do it to create chaos,” for many, “it's because they live in chaos.”
“The story of what's going on right now isn't the story of looting. I think that story is exciting. That story is what so many movies are made out of. It feeds to a particular readership or viewer that skews a bit older. And it helps sell on reaction. It is time for us to tell the stories of the pain and the suffering in the communities,” he said. “If we don't tell that story about police violence, or the economic crisis, or the health care disparities, and the decade or two decades long of pain, and we don't deal with it, then we're not going to get to the root of what's going on in society right now.”
Improvements must be implemented in conjunction with each other, Tarver said. While police reform is high on his list — “we need to be in a position where officers are held to a higher standard,” he said — so are mental health improvements, housing integration and classroom diversity.
The representative added additional legislative initiatives have value, but there are already “plenty of laws on the books.” Their practicality depends on enforcement by state’s attorneys, district attorneys and attorneys general.
Journalists and news outlets have a role to play in societal changes, Tarver said. National conversations must focus more on the message protesters are shouting and less on property damage and looting.
“I think highlighting a peaceful protest and things like that shines a light on what I said earlier, which is that there are very many people out there who love one another,” he said. “There are very many people out there who prefer to focus on what’s positive and what’s good than the negative things that separate us.”
Peters said he would like to see the momentum of the moment turned into lasting change.
He said the fact that protests spread to largely white and wealthy areas in the state such as suburban Naperville shows that there is momentum for change.
“It just goes to show that we're in a, you know, a changing time,” he said “And, I think that is something that is, out of this crisis, an opportunity to build on.”
Before Illinoisans can successfully change current practices, difficult topics should be discussed, Tarver said.
“There’s a lot of conversations that are not had because people are afraid of being labeled something, when the reality is most of us are just ignorant in some capacity,” the representative said. “And so the more that we break down these barriers and we have conversations and we’re candid and honest with each other about our experiences, I think the better off we’ll all be.”
Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation. Staff of the Herald, a member of the Illinois Press Association, contributed from Hyde Park.