While Forest Park Against Racism (FPAR) began its first – but not last – event on June 19, a Juneteenth celebration and remembrance ceremony at the top of the Circle Avenue bridge, a crowd of marchers, who walked in brutal heat from Broadview about four miles away, ascended the hill.
It was a remarkable sight: people of all ages chanting, carrying signs (Black Lives Matter, Forest Park Against Racism, Stand up for Black Lives), approaching the top of the bridge to participate in FPAR’s Juneteenth “Meet us at the Bridge” event.
What was also remarkable was the event on the bridge, which drew over 1,000 people, was organized by a group assembled only two weeks prior, a handful of residents who saw the current racial climate nationally and locally as intolerable and decided to take action.
The group, FPAR, was formed 15 days before the event, said Ayanna Brown, one of the organizers of FPAR. Brown, who has lived in Forest Park for about 10 years, said the group formed when resident Ken Snyder sent an email to about seven people saying Forest Park needed to do something to address systemic racism, in general but also specifically in the village.
“We are making a long-term commitment to addressing racism in Forest Park,” said Brown in an interview just before the event began. “We will look at every facet of our community to examine it in how it functions racially.” This includes, she said, the schools, police, village government and hiring practices.
For example, said Brown, 46 percent of students in Forest Park public schools are Black. But 80 percent of teachers are white females, which creates a cultural disconnect for students.
In the village government, said Brown, there are “incestuous hiring practices” that give precedence to people based on who they know, not who is the best for the position.
“Privilege exists even when it’s not something we’d call racism,” said Brown.
Historically and today, said Brown, any time a Black person stands up against racism, they are labeled as militant or irrational. Black people have to constantly evaluate a situation to determine how to best present themselves so they aren’t perceived negatively, in situations where it would never occur to white people to alter anything about themselves. And, Brown said, this includes children.
“Black children learn at an early age the politics of negotiation,” said Brown. “They have to learn how to change their voice or their body language to be more white in an attempt to be perceived a certain way. It’s an atrocity.”
FPAR’s founding members include Brown and Snyder, and also District 91 school board member Monique Cotton Yancy, Maui Jones, Betty Alzamora, Marjorie Adam Clark, Kathy Kucia, Kevin Leonard and Brown’s daughter Zawadi, a Fenwick high school student and the youth representative of the group.
Cotton said that it’s a Black led group, although there are white people involved. And, importantly, it’s “a youth centered thing.”
Zawadi was instrumental in getting FPAR started. She co-emceed the bridge event with Maui Jones. And she did so with stunning strength and grace. Brown’s son Ezra later read a piece he’d written, with poise not often seen in a nine-year-old.
“When will the violence end? When I say violence, I am talking about the
language that is used that says you hate me. I am talking about the things you do
that say, I can only go so far in this world. I am talking about the ways you
use your power to try to take mine.
When will children not feel like they are living in the shadows of the police?
The war against racism has been fought for over 400 years, and it is still
Brown said Ezra, while listening in on planning meetings, said he wanted to speak at the event.
“Mommy, I have something to say,” he told her.
Brown told him to record himself speaking, and she transcribed what he’d written. He took the transcription, she said, and edited it to make it perfect.
At the Juneteenth event, Jones said about the youth, “They lead this fight.”
Jones addressed the crowd in the beginning, asking for three things from them, including respect and cooperation. He asked people to keep the sidewalks clear for pedestrians getting off the CTA train. He asked people to be as socially distant as possible and to wear masks. Almost every single person wore one.
And he asked people to listen to the words being spoken.
“This is a mourning song sung for 400 years. It is imperative that we listen and take action,” said Jones.
At the mic, Mayor Rory Hoskins, Forest Park’s first black mayor and first black elected official, greeted the crowds as he looked north and south at the people spanning the bridge. “This is a great look for Forest Park,” he said, and he, like Cotton and Zawadi, talked about Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday: “Not just a black holiday; an American holiday.”
Sen. Kimberly Lightford attended, having organized the walk from Broadview. She spoke too, congratulating FPAR for its work. “You started 14 short days ago, and look what you did,” said Lightford. “This is a moment in history.”
Forest Park resident Ken Snyder, who has been one of the major driving forces behind the Proviso Together movement to work for improvement in the District 209 schools, briefly addressed the crowd, and, as a white man, spoke specifically to the white people in attendance.
“I want to talk to the white people,” said Snyder. He spoke about the 104 names of Black individuals who have been killed by police violence because of racism, the names that were read earlier by FPAR’s youth leaders and were printed on posters lining the bridge. “This is on us,” said Snyder.
“We have to be honest. We live in a system that puts us at the front of the line.” He added: “We’ve been given a historic opportunity.”
Brown addressed the crowd. “I’m proud to be an angry Black woman,” she said. But she added: “I’m not only angry, I’m actually really pissed off.” Earlier she’d spoken about being the first Black tenured professor at Elmhurst College, how it was something to celebrate, but also a shame.
“Society has taught us that being angry means being unintelligent,” said Brown. “I’m angry with a PhD.”
But, she added, Black people don’t need a PhD to be angry.
Brown said during the interview that the Juneteenth event, a collaboration between FPAR and Forest Park’s Juneteenth committee, whose annual pool party was canceled due to COVID-19, is only the beginning.
FPAR, she said, has made a commitment to address systemic racism throughout the village. “We will show up,” she said.