It was inescapable and exhilarating this week to report on Black Lives Matter protest marches in Oak Park and in Austin and to see the mix of races and ages, to note those moved by rage and those finally overcoming liberal denial to take to the street to demand so much more of this America we love.

At a good-sized march last Thursday, which started at Oak Park Village Hall, moved across Austin Boulevard, past the city’s 15th District police station and on to Central Avenue before returning to Oak Park, Rep. LaShawn Ford, an organizer, exhorted the crowd to maintain the momentum. “We can’t do this without white people,” he said. 

Certainly true. But we’re going to need some better white people than those who have historically preened their liberal feathers in Oak Park if we are going to actually take on the systemic racism that permeates all of our institutions and allows a white cop to murder George Floyd on a public street in Minnesota, that allows thug cops to bully citizens with wrongly perceived impunity, that allows a prominent white River Forest resident to believe he can allegedly fully lose control of himself, insult a black woman, and put hands on her in the parking lot of the Jewel. 

That there are serious charges now brought against these white men is some sign of change. Some small sign.

We need to start by proclaiming that systemic racism is profoundly real and has worked to benefit whites in this America for centuries. We need to start by acknowledging the degrees of racism that live in all of us. We need to live lives and build a village that is anti-racist. Actively, intentionally, consciously anti-racist. 

Anti-racist is a pretty new term to most of us. It demands more of us as individuals and as entities than pretending we’re “not racists,” suggesting somehow we are blind to color.

Ibram X. Kendi, one of the leading voices in the anti-racist movement, writes, “To be anti-racist is a radical choice in the face of history, requiring a radical reorientation of our consciousness.” 

Is Oak Park, which 50 years ago proclaimed itself a national leader on race and integration, really ready to make history again, to make new history? There are indications that we are. The equity work at OPRF is serious and bold. The letter sent last week to students there from LeVar Ammons, who fills the newly created position as director of equity and student success, was passionate and powerful. District 97’s equity work is substantial. 

Village hall? The memory muscle of 50 years back has atrophied. Oak Park’s village government does not lead on equity — it reacts. The pledge taken Monday by Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb to join the Obama Foundation’s formula to open discussion and change use-of-force police policies could be an excellent start. It will all depend who leads that effort, what voices are recruited to the table, how fast this moves. 

The suggestion from the village manager that review of policing policies come one-after-another is unlikely to reflect the urgency needed in this moment. 

Conscious urgency. Extraordinary inclusion. Determined transparency. Welcomed discomfort. Expectation of change. 

This is the path for Oak Park in the weeks and months to come. Let’s engage our future.

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