Year in review: Race relations in Central Illinois and where we go in 2021

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PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — The May death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer was all caught on camera. The footage sparked calls for police reform across the country, including central Illinois. Months later, local leaders are still reflecting on the impact that Floyd’s death had.

“It’s been a very challenging year in every regard,” said Pastor Marvin Hightower, the president of the NAACP-Peoria chapter. Hightower cites the combination of racial division, the coronavirus pandemic and the contentious presidential election as challenging factors in 2020.

“I would describe 2020 as a year I never want to see again,” said Gloria Clark, the president of Peoria Community Against Violence.

Following Floyd’s death, unrest unfolded in Central Illinois, sometimes in the form of peaceful protests. Other times, the frustrations boiled over to more widespread disruptions, including looting. Months later, while the demonstrations surrounding Floyd’s death have died down, the local conversations driving calls for unity have not. 

Hightower said, “It’s going to take a willing and wanting to, but I’m believing that people are willing and wanting and people are just tired of all the divisiveness, of all the hateful rhetoric and just tired of being in the place that we’re in.”

“People still want to see change,” Clark said. “People still want to grow. People still want to know that this city is viable and we’re going to continue to strive for change.”

Hightower cites progress when it comes to race relations in Peoria as more diverse voices are being brought to the decision table. Locally, more Black Americans are in prominent positions of power: from the school board, county board, city council, and a slate of mayoral candidates of color.

“We have African-Americans serving on boards and commissions throughout the city, many of whom are in leadership roles. So we have a lot of work to do, but it’s also worth looking in the rearview mirror and seeing what has been done.”

pastor marvin hightower

“[The civil unrest] made me feel some kind of way. But as I look in the rearview mirror of the past, there’s always been civil unrest for my lifetime and before my lifetime and there will be after my lifetime, sad to say,” said Hightower. “However, we also have to look at — and I really want to specifically say — not only the work that we have to do, but the work that has been done on a local level.”

Clark stated large-scale reform partially stems from voter participation, like the widespread number of people voting in the most recent election cycle. She also said part of the solution of unity lies in community involvement and people taking ownership of the places they call home. 

“I want to see our community back with our neighbors sitting out on the porch and joining the kids and play. And knowing where your kids are at 10 o’clock at night,” said Clark.

With 2021 quickly approaching, the two said they’re optimistic about what’s to come for the future. 

“I’m becoming optimistic, especially for the new year. You know, I’ve seen some changes especially here in our city. I know that our city is willing to work and make changes.”

gloria clark

Hightower said, “Just because the page turns [Jan. 1, 2021] doesn’t mean things are just going to automatically disappear. I’m hopeful that we as a country as a state and as a community will start — begin to start pulling together.”

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