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Government, Politics & Issues

Protesters March Against Racism Through Freeburg, O'Fallon, IL

People prepare for a Black Lives Matter protest, June 5, 2020
Lexi Cortes | Belleville News-Democrat
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People prepare for a Black Lives Matter protest in Freeberg, which is predominantly white town.

Editor's note: This story was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat. Updated 3 p.m. with O'Fallon protest information

High school students flying Confederate flags at their graduation parade this week added to Lily Reaka’s urgency to organize a Black Lives Matter protest in Freeburg, her small and predominantly white hometown, for Saturday morning.

Reaka is a 2019 Freeburg Community High School graduate. She called the video “appalling.”

But the protest Saturday was a Black Lives Matter demonstration, and not a protest against the students who flew Confederate flags or the school, she said.

“It’s not just about the Confederate flags that were flown; this has been an ongoing issue, and I really just think that it’s something that needs to be addressed,” Reaka said Saturday.

Since a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd on Memorial Day, people have organized protests against police brutality and racism across the country, from small towns in southwestern Illinois to big cities coast to coast. Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, died when he was pinned down on the ground by a white officer, whose knee was on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. Four officers have been fired and charged in Floyd’s killing, which was captured on video by bystanders.

In O’Fallon, IL, peaceful protest draws diverse crowd

A teenager sat on the ground with her sign during a peaceful protest in O’Fallon.

“This is beautiful,” Zaida Hill said. “It shows great unity. We have to keep the momentum going.”

Co-organizers were encouraged by the crowd of at least 200 who filled the O’Fallon City Hall parking lot Saturday morning.

Alisha Rose and Christine Ponsano, along with Donna Johnson, put the word out on the O’Fallon Next Door app. They were part of a Black Lives Matter group that had been discussing the George Floyd killing, systemic racism and the civil unrest of the past 12 days.

Rose said, “We had good communication and conversations about needing a change in our community. That’s how we brought everyone together.”

Ponsano called the turnout “amazing.”

“We expected 30 people. It gives me hope. So many youth are using their voices. It’s a proud moment,” she said.

Emcee Al Keeler of O’Fallon, retired military, said the crowd exceeded his expectations.

“To see these high school and college kids show up here, that’s a big part of it. That’s why I think we have a shot to change things. This brought everyone together. Not just parents bringing their kids but kids bringing their parents,” he said.

Francine Nicholson, president of the O’Fallon chapter of the NAACP, said the police chief, Eric Van Hook, called her the day after the Floyd killing.

“Francine, we need to talk,” she said that he told her.

Nicholson said she and the chief have talked about what they can do better and what needs to be done, and she praised the police department for its “community policing efforts.”

Nicholson said the conversations will be ongoing and they want to hear from residents, especially young black men. Nicholson also encouraged people to register to vote.

Bishop Geoffrey Dudley Sr. of New Life Church said the cause is not just in O’Fallon but in the broader community.

“It is not just how we roll in O’Fallon but also Collinsville, East St Louis, all through the metro-east. We need to realize we are all God’s children, all of us,” he said. “To reject a human being is to reject the creator, because we’re all made in his image.”

Jayne and Jake Erickson brought their son Oskar to the protest.

“Our whole society is crumbling. We need to see each other as human beings — with all the same justice and liberties. We all need to evolve,” Jake said.

Freeburg protesters experience pushback

In Freeburg, at least 300 people marched a mile-long stretch of sidewalk through the town shortly after 10 a.m. Most were young adults. As they marched, they chanted Floyd’s name, as well as Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman who police shot at least eight times in her Louisville, Kentucky, home March 13 as they executed a “no-knock” warrant.

Freeburg Police Chief Mike Schutzenhofer was present before protesters departed from a park. He said he was aware of online posts threatening violence against protesters. It turned out to be an empty threat.

“We ask that everyone be respectful and encourage a peaceful event,” Schutzenhofer said in a statement before the protest.

One citizen holding a sign on the sidewalk told protesters she couldn’t physically walk with them but she supported them.

Another along the route stood arms crossed. A motorcycle rider shook his head as they passed. Many more simply watched the march.

“Don’t let ‘em fuss at ya,” one woman said from her front yard, where she stood cheering.

Yae Hubbard is a 2018 Freeburg graduate; her brother graduated this year. She found the Confederate flag video on a parent’s Facebook page and shared it, along with her disappointment in her alma mater. Originally, she wasn’t going to attend the protest, even though she fully supported it.

“I don’t know if it’s worth my well being to choose to fight our battle there,” she said earlier this week.

Hubbard changed her mind, calling the protest a perfect opportunity for community members to open their minds and listen.

“It’s important for me to be there and to show them that they can’t scare us out of fighting for what’s right,” she said, emphasizing that she wasn’t attacking the town, but encouraging the community to become better.

High school issues statement on Confederate flags.

Freeburg Community High School issued a statement after the graduation parade.

The administration said while they understand the frustration of community members, there was no action they could take: The parade was sponsored by community members, held on public streets, and the students who flew flags had already graduated.

Protest in O'Fallon Illinois, JUne 6, 2020
Credit Lexi Cortes | Belleville News-Democrat
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A protester holds an anti-Confederate flag sign at a demonstration Saturday, June 6, 2020, in Freeburg. Earlier in the week, a video of Freeburg Community High School students flying Confederate flags at their graduation parade was shared online.

“The administration is very disappointed that an event that should have been viewed as an honor for those students who have put in four years of hard work is now being scrutinized or looked at negatively because of the actions of a limited group,” the statement reads.

The student body in 2019 was 95% white and less than 1% black, according to state data.

Superintendent Greg Frerking said he had no comment beyond the release. The statement does not include any reference to the nation-wide protests against racism that have been ongoing for nearly two weeks.

“I wish they would have acknowledged a little bit more about how serious of an issue this is,” said Emily Marler, a protester and 2015 graduate of the high school. Even if the event wasn’t school-sanctioned, she said it reflected poorly on the school.

“I really think now is the time to act. Everyone around the world is acting,” Marler added. “If people even in this surrounding area can see that a small, predominantly white town is protesting something like this, I think it could bring hope.”

In the days before the protest Saturday, Reaka said she was already receiving a lot of negative feedback, some from people she doesn’t know.

“I think a lot of them are scared that people are bringing violent riots to small towns, but that’s the opposite of what this is,” she said. “I really think our community needs this.”

Lexi Cortes and Megan Valley are reporters with the Belleville News-Democrat, a reporting partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

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