George Floyd’s murder left us all wanting to do something.
Watching a man’s life slowly drain away for an agonizing 8 minutes and 46 seconds was shocking and brutal. It ignited an impassioned reaction in all 50 states and around the world.
But these protests speak to a deeper, darker truth about our society. Just as George Floyd’s life was cruelly cut short, Black and Brown communities have been gasping for air for years as they are cut off from necessary resources.
In the past week, I have participated in multiple clean-up events and protests in Austin and around the Chicagoland region, but one of the first things I wanted to do was drive through the area I represent so I could check in on businesses and first responders and take the pulse of the community.
I drove south from my home, a few blocks, to Chicago Avenue, the first major artery, and headed east. I passed the old Fair Oaks Pharmacy where I bought baseball cards as a kid, years ago reinvented as a successful dental practice; the old Zephyr’s, my first dry cleaners, now the brand new Daly Bagel with a line around the corner; next door, the old Wilson’s Foods, the last great storefront neighborhood grocer and sponsor of my Bronco League baseball team, transformed recently into a tech office space; and the sparkling new New Mom’s facility, a fantastic nonprofit serving young mothers.
Almost to Austin Boulevard, I passed the Ace Hardware, where Clyde can (and has) taught me to fix almost everything; and across the street, a construction site with a brand new facility replacing the old laundromat.
Businesses may come and go in Oak Park, but when they go, it seems someone’s always willing to invest and start anew.
A few paces away, crossing east over Austin Boulevard into the city, I passed a cellphone store, its metal grate ripped open, and a Family Dollar store, boarded up, likely a result of recent unrest surrounding the protests. I drove by the new Bitoy Restaurant on the north and the Sweet Shop on the south, neither of which I’ve seen open in months. I passed the site of the blues club we’ve been talking about for years now, my hope that it would draw Oak Parkers across that mystical/mythical dividing line between city and suburb, not yet coming to fruition.
I passed the Sankofa Center, the cultural center of Chicago Avenue, where Malcolm Crawford, Ade Onayemi and the AAABNA have been planning the rise of the Soul City Corridor for as long as I’ve been in office. There’s plenty of room to grow — Chicago Avenue on the far West Side still has dozens of vacant lots, many likely vacant since the summer of 1968, when Dr. King was assassinated. There is a tremendous desire to develop the area, but businesses leave too often and too quickly, and investment is always a struggle.
George Floyd’s murder was a horrific, visible demonstration of the inequity present in our society, but it was not an isolated incident. Protesters are taking to the streets bearing signs with the names of dozens of unarmed black men, women and children killed at the hands of police officers over the past decade alone. The pain is visceral and real. It has spilled over those invisible dividing lines between suburb and city, between urban and rural areas.
In the days, weeks, and months to come, we must remain united in our outrage and our fervor for change. What many of us who have lived in privilege are now grappling with is the result of decades of disinvestment in Black and Brown communities. We are seeing the institutionalized racism — and what one Chicago columnist recently captured as “systemic dehumanization” — that our brothers and sisters have endured for centuries. It is ugly, and it would be all too easy for some to turn away, to let these protests fade and to try to return to life as we knew it.
We cannot and we must not.
As Senate President, I recognize that I am in a unique position to foster change, and I have a responsibility to do so, not only with words, but with action. I am meeting frequently with members of the Black Caucus to find out what their legislative priorities are. I am talking with the leaders who are organizing these protests and clean-up efforts to find out what they need.
George Floyd’s murder brought us together in the streets across the country to demand change.
We must continue to do the work and listen to the community leaders, business owners and citizens of our state who are asking not for extra, but just for the knee to be taken off their neck.
Because they cannot breathe.
Don Harmon, an Oak Park resident, is the Illinois State Senate president.