Anyone worried about a Black Lives Matter Protest coming to Newton would have learned Saturday there was no reason for any apprehension.
A sign taped to the pole on south edge of the Jasper County Courthouse Square was on target: This is a Peaceful Protest. There was plenty of tree shade for the gathering on the afternoon of June 13.
This was also not just a gathering of young people committed to social justice in wake of the death of George Floyd on May 25 while being held down during an arrest by Milwaukee police officers. A bystander’s phone video shocked the nation as Floyd’s continually said, “I can’t breathe!” as one officer held his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. This has spurred protests on racial injustice for weeks in major cities and even small towns like Newton.
About 130 people came to the Square that afternoon to support social justice or the young organizers of the event.
There were many articulate young people speaking from the south staircase of the courthouse. Ethan Osborne, an alumnus of Newton Community High School and recent graduate of Eastern Illinois University, offered a history of racial justice embedded in the country’s history. Erica McNeely and Josie Angel talked about disrespect shown to people of color in Jasper County. Terrence Hill of Effingham told of his experiences growing up in a mostly white community.
Local young musicians, Trevor Parrent and Arianna Goss, performed inspiring songs, including Amazing Grace and Underdog, for the crowd that included older people and even toddlers. Parrent was a cheerleader for the rally, encouraging the crowd to shout out slogans.
The most compelling comments that Saturday came from Ray Diel, a former elected official who worked for years in the county courthouse and now a businessman. Before he offered the opening prayer for the event, Diel offered encouraging words to the younger generation in their efforts to change attitudes on race.
“You know we’re getting ready to turn the reins of this country over to you. There are some things in our generation that are pretty good,” Diel said. “But if we’re honest I’ll tell you there are a lot of things we’ve let slip. A lot of things we did not take care of. And I apologize to you for that. But I ask you today to build on the good. To fix what we screwed up. Could you do that?”
Across the street, there were a few uniformed officers from Newton Police Department and Jasper County Sheriff’s Department. They were there to ensure the rally stayed peaceful and was not interrupted by opponents. There were no disruptions except for a couple of brief tire-squealing moments by a pair of pickup trucks that trolled the Square at times.
Diel thanked the officers and had the crowd offered applause to them. The officers obviously appreciated the recognition.
One of the speakers, Kevin Gaither, explained how police departments should held accountable on their interactions with African Americans and people of color. He said too many times law enforcement agencies have ignored whistleblowers or made a farce of investigations into accusations of police brutality or questionable deaths of people on the streets or in custody.
Gaither, who has worked for social justice, said many times traffic stops for not wearing a seat belt can send a black driver to jail. They can lose a job from the time needed to rectify the arrest or other minor charges in court.
With their dark curly hair glistening in the sunlight, Chayse and Izayah Cummins were proud to hold their Black Lives Matter signs by their mother, Desirae, as the speakers talked before the march down Washington and Jourdan streets. This rally meant something extra to the mixed-race family.
“I feel like everybody should be treated equal,” Desirae answered when asked why she came to the rally.
“That’s why I’m here, too!” said Izayah with pride.
There were some humorous moments during the rally. When Diel offered his remarks calling for the crowd to right past wrongs, Bruno, a large dog with thick brown fur, offered some barks as if affirming the call to duty. Or Bruno might have been barking at a cute German Shepherd puppy sitting under the shade of nearby trees.
But Allison Dart of Oblong made sure Bruno did offer canine support for the cause. Two small cardboard signs mounted on the dog’s back stated in dog spelling: Black Hoomans Matter.
(In the June 6 story on the Effingham Rally for Social Justice, Madisson Stanley, one of the organizers of the Newton rally, was incorrectly identified as a college freshman. She is a college senior. The Newton Press Mentor regrets the error.)