At community vigil, Peoria ravaged by gun violence and trauma urged not to give up hope for recovery


PEORIA – Michael Anthony Charles Johnson II was Peoria’s 16th homicide victim in 2021.

Johnson, 21, was one of four people shot dead in a house on Haungs Avenue on July 4. A young person was also seriously injured in this shooting.

And days later, another youngster suffered a life-threatening gunshot wound on East Bluff, just miles from a vigil in honor of Johnson’s life.

For Demario Boone, director of the Peoria Public School Security Service, murders like this are all too common. And the reactions of a city traumatized by gun violence are sadly predictable.

“I have seen this story repeat itself over and over again. An incident, a crime of loss, occurs. It happens to the media. The fingers are pointed as to why this is happening. We cry about it until it slowly fades from the collective thoughts of the city and we repeat this cycle over and over again without any viable solutions, ”said Boone.

The toll of the human cost of the violence was palpable at a community vigil Sunday attended by about 60 people in Morton Square Park, near the North Side. The names of around 190 murdered Peorians were read, one by one, under a canopy shielding the speakers from the light drizzle.

Kristen Meierkord, Sunday vigil organizer and ACLU Peoria Chapter chair, said these names are only a partial list compiled from a combination of FOIA requests, media reports and submissions from families and d ‘friends of the deceased. No complete list of the victims of the Peoria murder exists.

Elner Clark is the sister of Mark Clark, a black panther from Peoria who accompanied Fred Hampton to Chicago, where the two were murdered by Chicago police in 1969. Clark has also lost other members of his family to violence, including a nephew who was killed while trying to settle a dispute between two of his friends.

“I suffer every time I hear about a family that has suffered the loss of a loved one, especially a young person. My heart breaks for young people, ”said Clark. “But we need to do more than talk about it. And the problem seems so insurmountable. We seem to be asking ourselves, what can I do?

One course of action is more social advocacy, which includes going out on the streets and building relationships, Clark said.

“It takes people to turn the tide. What does it mean? It means taking someone under your wing, ”she said. “If you change an individual’s life. If you adopt a person, you make that person your project, you give them a reason to live, you give them a reason to get off the streets, to pull up their pants, to find a job, to study, to acquire a skill, you make a difference. We can all make a difference.

As a treatment advocate with the National Youth Advocate Program (NYAP), Allison Galvin works directly with these young people. NYAP has two offices in Chicago and one in Madison, Illinois. She said a fourth had recently been opened in Peoria to work with children in the justice system.

“(They) are going to be tried and tried as adults, and go to jail with adults, because that’s where they’re going. Because these judges are fed up with seeing the same kids and the same families with the same probation officers and parole officers standing up for them, ”said Galvin. “And guess who’s in that courtroom with them?” Just a public defender, because our parents are not here. No one listens to them when they ask for help.

NYAP is launching a new program in Peoria to help these young people get to school or vocational training – and help them cope with the trauma of being in and out of the system throughout their childhood.

“Crime is not something that just happens. Crime is linked to pockets of poverty created in demarcated areas and considered dangerous by those in power years ago, ”said Boone, who grew up on the South Side of Peoria, one of the poorest areas. the United States. “And those in power today who agree with the folks who stay at the bottom of the ladder: overcrowded, underfunded areas with no grocery stores, but never short of a liquor store.” Large numbers of abandoned or dilapidated homes, limited or no access to mental health care services, and all living in constant trauma, PTSD, just to exist. This is why people are angry and hurt. This is the part of our root cause: divestment.

Sarita Risby, a resident of Peoria, said many of the youth activities available during her own childhood are now gone. This leaves young people – especially young men – with nothing constructive to do, she said.

“By eliminating these, we have increased their result of finding something else to do, which is find a gun and shoot,” she said.

Clark advocates for “escalating” or addressing the underlying causes of disenfranchisement, such as the need for more counseling for young people and providing them with education and employment opportunities.

“If young people don’t have a job, they have nothing to do. They are just in the streets. Our responsibility to demand that this town – and I mention this because I am calling on the town fathers to step in – all the way to the county, to the county courthouse, ”Clark said. “We have a statue of Abraham Lincoln. And the statue has a line made in cement that says, ‘He draws the line here.’ We have to draw the line here, right here in Peoria and demand that we get youth programs. “

Eddie Pratt, Jr., a Champaign-Urbana lawyer who traveled to Peoria for Sunday’s rally, urged communities to use US Rescue Plan (ARP) dollars to reinvest in communities and attack violence community at its roots.

“We need to invest directly in people to fight inequality. We need to arm our parents so that they can care for children in a way that takes them away from the streets. We need to be able to restore our black and brown communities in a way that allows them to have the economic and social power that makes our municipal, state and federal governments care about these communities, ”said Pratt.

The city of Peoria has received $ 47 million in federal ARP funding. Some of the money has been used to avoid costly debt and to reduce time off for city workers, but the rest of the money is still on the table pending council action.

“You will be able to do what we need to do. It’s now. The money is here. Now it’s ours. Don’t let them tell you otherwise. It’s our money, ”Pratt said. “And it’s high time that it went straight to where it’s supposed to be, to the people, by investing in people, by investing in neighborhoods, by investing in infrastructure improvements where they need it.”

Minister Jorell Glass asked those at the vigil to echo this sentiment with a mantra: “I deserve to be served. “

Glass said the violence that takes place in the community is a symptom of a dysfunctional societal institution.

“If we say that the school system, our zip code, is making us deficient, it shouldn’t make a difference between the education we get here in Peoria and what they get in Dunlap,” said Glass. “When we go to a bank, my brown skin shouldn’t be an indictment as to whether I get the loan or not. If I need to get a mortgage and something comes to my mind as a black man, I should be able to get a mortgage. I should be encouraged to get a mortgage. But traditionally we’ve seen mortgages and banking, they’ve tried to make you not even be considered for a mortgage. They want you to be a tenant for life. So there is a problem with the institution.

Glass said the election of Rita Ali as Peoria’s first black mayor gives her hope for change. But he said that will only happen when people ask to be served by their institutions.

Boone challenged Peoria’s elected leaders not to feel comfortable while children who don’t feel embraced by the village burn it for warmth, citing an African proverb.

“If you are elected by the people, there is no excuse to be disconnected, disengage or bask in the glow of a shiny new title as the city suffers. We certainly heard from everyone when they were running their campaigns. It’s time to get to work, ”said Boone.

Three elected officials attended the Sunday vigil, for which a quorum notice was posted: 1st District Councilor Denise Jackson; 3rd District Councilor Tim Riggenbach; and 4th District Councilor Andre Allen.

Chama St. Louis, Peoria business owner and former mayoral candidate, said high crime rates are directly linked to chronic poverty. She said tackling this underlying problem of poverty would go a long way in healing the community.

“It doesn’t have to be difficult. We just need to take back the power that is rightfully ours. It is no coincidence that black and brown communities, the communities that most need good politics to survive, are the ones that vote the least and struggle the most. Have you seen the “Hunger Games? Is anyone watching this movie? If you haven’t, that’s fine. Because you see it in Peoria, ”she said.

Pratt said the community must face its underlying trauma – and not allow it to become a barrier to continuing to work for a safer, more equitable Peoria.

“We were born traumatized. Trauma passed down from generation to generation, not to mention the trauma we all have from just experiencing this. This is not normal. This is not normal. Where we start to feel like it’s normal is the telltale sign that you’re traumatized, ”Pratt said. “I know it feels like it never ends. But if you don’t keep grinding, it will.

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