Jessica Heinz had a close view of a death that sparked protests sweeping the country.
Heinz, who grew up in Elmhurst and graduated from York High School, attended college at the University of Louisville. She was in the city in March, when Black EMT and aspiring nurse Breonna Taylor was shot to death by police in her home while she slept when they allegedly executed a no-knock search warrant on the wrong home.
Heinz has friends who were co-workers of Taylor. Friends flocked to Louisville’s Jefferson Park daily for protests, and Heinz attended.
“It was really hard,” Heinz said. “I have a lot of friends, Black and people of color,” Heinz said. “I spent the first two nights after Breonna Taylor’s death in my friend’s apartment. She was afraid to fall asleep by herself.
“Being here in Elmhurst, it is so easy to build that wall and separate yourself because you don’t see it every day. It’s so easy to say that’s not my problem.”
Protests throughout the country, and in Chicago’s suburbs, after the murder of Black man George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of police May 25, on the heels of Taylor’s death, have exposed some of the realities behind that wall.
On June 28, close to 100 people walked five miles in the Elmhurst March on York Road. The event intended to shine a light not only on police brutality nationwide, but on systemic racism that Elmhurst residents have witnessed in their own community.
It was the third event in Elmhurst in the past month. While a previous rally June 13 featured speeches before and after in a park, this was a 5-mile march that started at the corner of Lexington Street and Kendall Avenue and ended at Churchill Middle School. It only stopped at the Elmhurst police station to take a knee for 8 minutes, 46 seconds, the same amount of time former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee to Floyd’s neck.
Abby Ciccarone, an Elmhurst native and York graduate who is now a junior at Skidmore College in upstate New York, led the organization of the event. She said the long march was intentional.
“I thought, how can I show all of Elmhurst that there are people in this town who care. I felt like I needed to challenge myself beyond feeling comfortable in a park with people I knew,” Ciccarone said. “As a white individual, I wanted to challenge myself to walk through the town and reflect on my own complicity that parts of this town taught me. When I planned this it was an open invite for anyone to join me on a walk. It turned into a big demonstration, which was awesome.”
Ciccarone and Heinz, another event organizer, both said it was important to educate the public on the systemic racism not only within policing, but importantly in education itself.
Ciccarone said she never had a Black teacher in any of the schools she attended from kindergarten through high school. She only learned in college how that can create implicit bias.
“To sit in a classroom and reflect on your childhood is wild, the literal segregation of our schools that exists,” Ciccarone said.
Heinz said she attended Churchill in Elmhurst, currently 50% non-white, a school that she said was called “the ghetto school” by the community. Parents of friends that went to other schools who didn’t have similar exposure to Blacks would call to ask if she was OK.
Heinz has since been in touch with a couple of former English teachers at York to come to terms with a lack of a representative curriculum in the English and History departments.
“What I loved about this march is that it focused on systemic racism,” Heinz said. “Yes, we don’t have cops murdering people in our community, but part of it is that violence has not come up. Systemic racism, you’re talking about hospitals and school systems. It opened my eyes to racism in Elmhurst.”
The majority of Elmhurst residents passing by the marchers June 28 were supportive of the event and the Black Lives Matter movement as a whole, but Ciccarone said the level of hate by a group of four or five individuals was horrible.
Heinz has been to marches in three different cities – Louisville, Chicago and Elmhurst – and said she hadn’t seen the adverse reaction to any previous march that she witnessed in Elmhurst.
“I was flipped off on multiple occasions, sworn at by cars, people were filmed without our consent, including small children,” Heinz said. “There is this misunderstanding of what the movement is trying to do.”
“A lot of people do not understand this movement,” Ciccarone said. “People do not understand that defund the police and abolish the police is two different things. When we say Black Lives Matter, that doesn’t mean that everybody’s lives don’t matter. Black lives are on fire right now, so why are we not expending our energy for them.”
Ciccarone said she has been disappointed and surprised that there has not been an acknowledgment for change from Elmhurst community leaders in the wake of recent protests. She noted the lack of an inclusion board in the community, and the community’s shortcomings in celebrating and promoting people of color in Elmhurst when it is suggested that the community does not have enough diversity.
“We’ve seen protests and petitions and literally hundreds of testimonials, and our leaders – the mayor, police chief, the fire chief, the school board, layers of community power – have heard the stories and not even acknowledged them or come up with a call of action,” Ciccarone said. “For me, there first needs to be an acknowledgement of what has been happening around the world, how Elmhurst has problems, acknowledging that and engaging in conversation.”
To that end, Ciccarone has written letters and emails to different groups and levels of leadership, including the mayor, police and school board calling them to action.
She was pleased with the turnout June 28, and has had people of color express their gratitude at the solidarity and support.
But the work doesn’t stop.
“We can celebrate and pat ourselves on the back, but we cannot stop. If change doesn’t come, we do it again,” Ciccarone said. “We have a privilege as white people of when we want to stand up and fight racism. People of color do not have that option when they are oppressed. We cannot give up.”