As the nation recognized Juneteenth, a day celebrating the emancipation of enslaved Black people throughout the U.S. in 1865, hundreds of mostly teenagers marched on the west side of Joliet for a Black Lives Matter demonstration.
They marched chanting “Black lives matter” along Larkin Avenue, garnering several honks in agreement.
The young protesters said they wanted to continue demonstrating to keep attention on the calls for police reform after a number of high-profile deaths of Black individuals at the hands of law enforcement.
The mostly Black organizers said they wanted to use the moment to speak about systemic racism.
Heaven Booth, 17, a student at Joliet West High School, and a group of her classmates wanted to hold their own demonstration, especially after seeing the large anti-racist protests in Chicago and around the U.S.
She said in planning the march, June 19 stood out to her and her friends as the most appropriate date for a demonstration. Booth called Juneteenth “the real Independence Day.”
“On this holiday, we wanted to have a celebration but also protest,” Booth said. “And it was the perfect day.”
Booth said she was unsure how many people would attend the march. Hundreds of mostly students came and marched along Larkin Avenue to the old K-Mart parking lot, where they held a rally and ate food provided by an organization called Feed the Front Line.
“I just feel really happy that this many people care,” she said.
Fellow Joliet West student and protest organizer Saundria Martin said she remembers watching the reaction to the 2014 death of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri. Although she said she couldn’t fully grasp the reaction to Brown’s death then, when she saw the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Martin said she felt compelled to act.
“I realized I’m going to be a senior,” Martin said. “I’m going to graduate in 2021. I need to make a change. I need to say something because this is my future that I’m walking into.”
The student organizers also criticized the media coverage of the protests for focusing too much on the handful of rioters and looters while the vast majority of demonstrations have been nonviolent.
Anaiah Edmon, 17, another Joliet West student, said she noticed weeks ago when neighbors were concerned about rumors of violence, although very little actually happened.
“I feel like they’re putting on a false narrative that kind of tries to discredit the Black Lives Matter movement, saying that we’re not peaceful, that we’re destructive,” Edmon said. “But when you really look at it, most of the protests were peaceful.”
Martin added that such fears of violence were overblown, especially when it came at the expense of focusing on the fears of Black people like herself when they interact with police officers.
Booth said she’s also been frustrated by how quickly some in the media and others have moved on from covering the protests. Like other protesters, she said she intends to continue her activism into the future.
Booth pointed to past protests that lasted for many months, such as during the Civil Rights Movement. She specifically mentioned the Greensboro sit-ins, where young people protested segregated lunch counters, and the Montgomery bus boycott, where Black people protested segregated city buses.
“We’re going to continue protesting,” Booth said. “We’re going to continue speaking up about this on and on and on until we see change.”