More than 150 people walked from Oak Park and River Forest High School to Forest Park’s busy Madison Street business district on Saturday as part of a peaceful protest march that grew out of a viral Facebook post.
The multiracial throng, accompanied by police escorts, walked the sidewalks of Lake Street and Harlem chanting slogans like “Unity Now!” and holding signs that read “Unite Behind Equity,” “Everyone is the Same,” and “I Am a Customer.”
Now, Anthony Clark, the OPRF teacher who planned the July 16 march, wants to turn the weekend event into a wider, more permanent movement to address the kind of discrimination he and most of the demonstrators say is an everyday occurrence for African Americans in the suburbs.
On July 10, OPRF English teacher Paul Noble, who along with several other high school teachers helped Clark organize the march, reposted a complaint on Facebook that he noted “was posted today by a local mom.” The post alleged that a group of people went inside the Forest Park bar Doc Ryan’s on the night of July 9, requested 90’s hip-hop and were told “that they did not play hip hop because it brings black people in.”
The local mom, later identified as Cynthia Martz, posted a lengthy statement about her incident and in support of the march to her Facebook page on Sunday. Martz wrote that, after telling a manager about what she was told by the person in the DJ booth, she was shocked “when he offered no apology, nor did he attempt to help, resolve or fix the problem; instead, he explained that the DJ was hired by the door man – not him.”
By July 14, Noble’s post about Martz’s incident had been shared more than 520 times, with many people commenting on what they felt were discriminatory experiences of their own in Oak Park and Forest Park.
In the days after Noble’s post, Martin M. Sorice, the owner of Doc Ryan’s who along with his wife bought the bar over a year ago, said the incident with the mom happened in a DJ booth and that the person who may have said the offensive statement wasn’t an employee of the bar.
Sorice, who noted that he received information about the incident after talking to staff, also wrote that “we take full responsibility for letting someone represent us who doesn’t work there. We promise to do everything in our power to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Some Forest Park residents, in numerous Facebook comments, expressed their opinion of Clark’s demonstration as a hasty and overblown reaction to one allegation of racial discrimination that couldn’t even be verified. Some commenters also expressed fears that the demonstration would unfairly stigmatize other businesses in the area.
Clark said that by the time he reacted to Noble’s post, however, the original incident had become an afterthought, obscured by the many other discriminatory incidents it had forced the Oak Park native to recall.
‘You can’t be neutral when it comes to equality’
“When the incident [with the mom] happened, I couldn’t even validate that, but when I saw [Noble’s] post and I saw everybody posting comments underneath it [about their experiences], I could validate them,” Clark said. “I could validate my own experiences growing up in the suburbs. That’s all I needed.”
There was the time, Clark alleged in one Facebook comment, when he was kicked out of Doc Ryan’s for hosting a comic show that “brought in too many black people.” And the “last time” he drank at the bar, he wrote in another comment, “one of the owner’s friends held what initially seemed like an innocent conversation with me about sports etc. but then ended it with I wasn’t like those other [ni — ers] you see on TV. Needless to say, that didn’t go over well!”
On Saturday, marchers shared similar experiences with discrimination and racism in the suburbs, places some demonstrators noted have been overshadowed by the recent national unrest over police mistreatment of African Americans, particularly in big cities like Chicago and New York.
“You can’t be neutral when it comes to equality and peace,” Clark told demonstrators who gathered at the corner of Lake Street and East Ave. beside the football stadium, before the march began.
“I feel like too often in suburban communities, we witness [racism], we experience it, but we never speak on it,” he said. “We never act on it. We just go about our day. That’s not unity. That’s not progress.”
Noble, who said that he didn’t know Martz before he made the post about her incident at Doc Ryan’s, noted that the events involving the police-related shootings of African-American men like Michael Brown, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, likely played a significant part in how he and others responded to the woman’s accusation.
“Maybe my own initial instinct was affected by [those events], I’m not going to deny that,” he said. “But while we can point the finger at Ferguson or this place or that place, let’s at least make sure our own house is in order before we start pointing the finger at these other communities.”
Matt Baron, the president of the Oak Park Public Library Board of Trustees, said he grew up in a “lily white community” in suburban Boston and attended a high school where “nobody in my graduating class was African American,” before explaining his support of the march.
“You can’t be neutral on this,” he said. “You’re either on the bus or off the bus. I realized that, if I could be here tonight, I needed to be here because if I wasn’t then I’d be passively part of the problem.”
The Saturday march took many bystanders, like 20-year-old Tylisha Jackson, by surprise. Jackson, a waitress at Mancini’s Italian Bistro, 1111 Lake St., watched the demonstration along with a group of several of her coworkers while she was taking a break.
“I don’t have much of an opinion about it,” Jackson said when she was finally clued in on the reason the march was taking place.
“I’m kind of wrapped up in my own life,” she said. “But from what I’ve heard and seen about other marches (across the country) it seems like they’re not really making a difference. People come out, march, protest, but are they really changing our laws and local businesses?”
Julia Bruynseels, a resident of River Forest, was seated in front of her laptop outside of Starbucks on the corner of Lake Street and Harlem Avenue when she saw the march. She said it was unexpected, but not unsurprising.
“I just came back from being in Naperville and have a seen a lot on the news,” she said. “I didn’t think it would happen here, but it doesn’t surprise me because Oak Park people are open to voicing their opinions and promoting equality across the board.”
Steve Pointer, a longtime resident of Forest Park, stood outside of Zimmerman-Hartnett Funeral home as the demonstration neared its end. He said he thought people were protesting against gambling bistros coming into town.
One man, an owner of a Madison Street business who requested anonymity, was asked his thoughts on the march before saying, “That’s an issue nobody wants to touch right now.”
Jason Barishman came to the march from Skokie with his wife Asa, who grew up in Oak Park, and their three children.
“I’m standing up for my family,” said Jason. “My family is black. We get some head turns a little because I’m white, but I don’t think we’ve ever gotten turned down service or anything like that.”
Asa said her parents, who organized a black studies conference at Olive Harvey College and have lived in Oak Park for 30 years, taught her to “be woke,” or aware of the persistence of racism and discrimination. But they couldn’t fully prepare her to deal with what she said was her first “official experience with racism.”
“I was in my 20s,” Asa recalled. “It was my senior year of college and I was living at Beloit and Adams in Forest Park. I was walking down the street and an elderly lady was approaching me. I stepped to the side for her, because that’s what I was taught to do and she told me, ‘Rot in jail ni — er.'”
The Barishmans shared their stories at the march’s terminating point, a few hundred feet from a stage installed for Forest Park’s popular Music Fest, which is being held over the weekend. Before the demonstration ended, the marchers stood in a circle cater-cornered from a Starbucks and listened to different people share their testimonies and evangelize the need for more love and unity in the world.
At one point as the marchers stood encircled, a song by the controversial rap group NWA (Ni — az Wit Attitudes) blared ironically from the fest’s loudspeakers along with hip-hop songs like the early 1990s anthem “Tootsie Roll,” made by the rap group 69 Boyz.
NWA rose to prominence in the late 1980s and early 1990s for lyrics that condemned police abuse while inviting criticism from national leaders like Ronald Reagan, who thought the group incited violence against cops.
With hip-hop blasting, a group of officers from Forest Park’s police department looked through powerful binoculars on the roof of Healy’s Westside, a bar on the corner of Madison St. and Circle Ave.
“After what happened in Dallas, we’re just watching the rooftops making sure there’s nobody up high,” said Forest Park Police Chief Tom Aftanas, referencing the July 7 shooting deaths of five police officers in that city who were gunned down while protecting people protesting against the deaths of Castile and Sterling just days before the massacre.
But the paramilitary presence was more than logistical. It was also a pungent visualization of the complex, ambivalent and sometimes fraught relationship between the police and African Americans — a tension that doesn’t abate even in communities well-known for their embrace of cultural diversity, some marchers noted.
A complex relationship
Oak Park Police Commander Joseph Waitzman said the department “has collaborated with the community, and the community has collaborated with government, since the 1970s.”
“That, for me, is a positive feeling,” Waitzman told marchers before they started walking. “The police department has made those deposits in the community over many years. We’re happy to be here to ensure that everybody has an opportunity to exercise their First Amendment rights to public assembly.”
Clark, however, noted that planning the march, which he said he opted to stage on sidewalks so that he wouldn’t have to obtain a permit, was far from a waltz — even with Oak Park police, who he said called his home due to concerns shared by some people that he may be inciting violence.
The police, Clark said, also encouraged him to change the march’s highly visible route so that demonstrators might walk along more placid, less visible, side streets instead. Oak Park Police couldn’t be reached to verify or deny Clark’s claims.
Clark also said that, as his plans received more and more attention, he began receiving lewd and threatening text messages from anonymous numbers.
When he approached some local businesses in the days ahead of the demonstration so that they might sign a pledge indicating that they were against racism and discrimination in their practices, Clark said, he was met with indifference and even disdain.
Of the 40 businesses he walked into along the march’s route, 17 signed the pledge, he noted. Employees from the majority of establishments he approached told him that they needed to wait for a manager’s or owner’s approval. Some, he said, preferred to remain neutral. Others, like the Forest Park ice cream parlor The Brown Cow, responded enthusiastically.
“I’m not going to put out those businesses [that reacted neutrally or with hostility to the pledge], because this isn’t about negativity. This isn’t about that,” Clark said, adding that he doesn’t want to invite any more distractions from the much larger issue of racism and discrimination.
Will Knox, Clark’s best friend, shared his own complicated experience growing up black in Oak Park — experiences contoured by frequent run-ins with the cops.
Knox, 34, said he thinks that violence against cops won’t help prevent nightmarish encounters with police, such as his own. If anything, he said, “shooting cops will make things worse.”
“There are some genuinely good-hearted people here,” Knox said. “I grew up next door to a police officer. He was great. I drove his car, babysat his kids. Me and him were known for throwing parties. He was cool.”
But then, Knox said, there are experiences like the time he came home from college and couldn’t remember the security password to his sister’s home, where he lived.
“The police tried to lock me up just for trying to get into my house,” Knox said. “I had to call my sister to get the pass code.”
One of his earliest experiences with Oak Park police, Knox recalled, has to do with what ordinarily might be an emblem of a relatively staid suburban childhood — a bicycle.
“My sister raised me, so I had a nephew and I would ride a bike with a baby seat on the back of it,” he said. “I don’t know how many times they put that bike in the back of the squad car, put me in the car and drove me to my sister’s. She would have to tell cops, ‘Yeah, this is my bike.'”
For Jeremiah Billups, a 2016 graduate of OPRF and Clark’s former student, the march was a chance to walk down the streets of the place where he was raised empowered for once. Usually, he said, he walks on eggshells crushed even finer by the specter of his criminal background.
“They stopped me and my homies one night for walking in an alley,” Billups said. “They gave us a ticket just for walking through an alley. I had something on my background, nothing serious, just little cases. I asked why we were getting stopped and the officer was like, ‘Because you in my alleys at 11 o’clock with robbery and theft all on your background.’ But he didn’t know that before he gave us a ticket.”
The march may have been designed to make audible what many demonstrators consider the often muted experiences of discrimination and racism that suburban blacks go through daily, but within Saturday’s protest were also the rumblings of resolution ahead.
“From what I’ve seen from Anthony’s posts online, he’s been very articulate and concerned about inclusivity and he’s interested in working with people,” said Nick Ardinger, a member of Forest Park’s recently formed seven-member diversity commission.
Ardinger said, while the commission hasn’t formally responded to the concerns raised by Clark and others, they plan on finding ways to address them at their next meeting.
Clark said he’s since spoken with the owners of Doc Ryan’s and they’ve agreed to meet in person soon. He said he plans on building a more permanent organization to address discrimination through a variety of ways, such as hosting town hall discussions and the unity pledge he’s asking local businesses to sign.
“This doesn’t stop here,” he told marchers. “This is the beginning. While we can respect the businesses, we’re going to hold them accountable.”