Written by Chris Veal ’21
A tear ran down my cheek as I steered my car down a ramp onto I-90. My emotional response came as I listened to a reporter on NPR’s Morning Edition describe the details of yet another death related to the nationwide protests initially sparked by the tragic death of George Floyd, and refueled by the shooting of Jacob Blake. I turned the radio off and drove in silence.
The conflict between the emotion of my soul and rationality of my mind was deafening. I understood why I was making this drive west; the reason was over 400 years in the making. But I also recognized the immense fear that slowly began to consume me, mile after mile, as I made my way to Kenosha, Wisconsin.
“I need to do this,” I reminded myself, as I recounted each moment I thought I was going to die in the hands of the police (four times in the past three years alone). My thoughts shifted to the names of the martyrs that brought this movement into existence: Trayvon Martin, Eric Gardner, Sandra Bland, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor… I quickly shook my head and brought my mind back to the road. I could feel I was speeding. When I looked at my odometer it read 76 miles per hour. Seventy-six…as I stared at that number, my mind brought me to the year 1876. The same year my great-great grandfather was brutally killed by the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama because he was trying to learn how to read. The nauseating mental image of his charred, hanging body brought my attention back to my speed, as I eased my foot off the accelerator and set my cruise control for 70 miles per hour.
“Yes, this will be dangerous,” I solemnly admitted to myself as my mind brought me back to the news story of a counter-protester being murdered in Portland, Oregon, just days after two protesters were killed by a 17-year-old boy from the town adjacent to the one where my parents live.
Although Wadsworth is considered a “Chicago suburb,” it’s a bit of a misnomer, given it is an hour from the city (on a good day with traffic) and the last town in Illinois before you cross into Wisconsin. This community that lies 20 minutes from Kenosha feels more like rural Illinois/Wisconsin than busy and cosmopolitan Chicagoland. Unfortunately, this only makes the events unfolding in Kenosha that much more personal for me, my parents, and our community. I wasn’t just driving to the new epicenter of the social justice movement; I was driving home.
When I arrived at my family’s home, I was amazed by the apparent normalcy of the surrounding area. If I hadn’t known better, I would have assumed it was just another summer day in Illinois. The tone in my mother’s voice quickly ended that delusion as we started to catch up. My mother, an administrator for our community’s school district, told me of the five teachers from Kenosha that commuted to her district. Despite this being the first week of school for the district, these teachers would not be returning to work because “it’s too dangerous to leave their houses,” one teacher explained. The violent riots that erupted, despite the universally peaceful protests over the weekend, left many parts of the community in ashes. Until these teachers felt it was safe to leave their homes unattended, they would not be returning to their classrooms.
I began to understand their fear when I drove through Kenosha the following day, as the pungent smell of a burning city still hung in the air. I did not want to believe the images of destruction I saw on the news. But as I crept closer to the city center, I grew horrified by the level of disaster this city had endured. Every building along the main city road was boarded up. Graffiti decorated buildings like Christmas lights in December. “Black Lives Matter!”, “Black Owned Business” or the chilling “Children Live Above Here!” were written in spray paint on boarded-up windows beneath a neighborhood day care. The mental images I’d created as a child, when my mother would describe the chaos of the 1967 riots in our hometown of Detroit, didn’t come close to what I was witnessing today. Today, I was witnessing a nightmare.
I did not come to Kenosha to riot. I did not come to Kenosha to fight with members of QAnon, a group my parents agree is the “new KKK.” I came to Kenosha to protest the unjustified shooting of Jacob Blake and the continued mistreatment and killing of Black and Brown people (especially men) in the hands of the police. While my horror from the destruction of this community is heartbreaking, and my disgust with the political manipulation of our shared pain is nauseating, I remain hopeful.
I sat out protests on September 1, along with many organized groups protesting the police in Kenosha, at the request of the family of Jacob Blake. President Trump’s arrival has brought undesired attention to this city at a time when the embers of this community’s frustration and pain are still hot. His repugnant rhetoric has only created more division and violence during these nationwide demonstrations. Instead, I am joining Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Blake family in “Positive Community Service” to help rebuild this city for the better. Brick by brick, conversation by conversation, we will rise to see a brighter tomorrow, one my children will be proud of, and one worthy of the sacrifice made by countless White, Black, and Brown lives that mattered.