From Rockford to Washington: Black youth and the way forward

by William P. Muhammad

        Rockford, Ill. ( -- Through the legwork and consistent efforts of the Rockford/Dekalb Local Organizing Committee, a diverse group of local activists, college students and area residents, departing from Rockford, Dekalb, and Champaign-Urbana on chartered buses, traveled to observe the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March in Washington D.C. on 10-10-15, returning to their respective cities with a renewed determination to demand justice for the masses and to make a stronger commitment to social, economic and political independence.
Rockford participants at the 10-10-15 gathering in Washington D.C.  Photo: Alvin C. Jacobs Jr.

          Local resident and long-time Rockford activist, John Tac Brantley, a former radio personality and area DJ known as The Quiet Storm, said the trip to Washington D.C. re-energized his commitment to fearlessly serve the poor, the marginalized voices of the city, and Rockford’s youth: “I was blown away about the number of not only men that were there, but also by the number of females and youth that were there, and what stood out the most to me was the fact that even though it wasn’t televised by national news media, it was a sea of people that were there,” Mr. Brantley said. “What brought tears to my eyes was every speaker talking about going back into the community and working with our youth and our young people. A lot of what they talked about was what we are trying to do on a local scale, but to hear it talked about on a national scale, for us to go back to every city… reinforced me to not only go back to doing what I am doing, it also reinforced me to do it without fear,” he said.
           University of Illinois student organizer, Deonta Muhammad, 21, whose student group, Men of Impact, organized a bus from Urbana-Champaign with input from the Rockford/Dekalb Local Organizing Committee, said since returning from Washington, he and his fellow students have been motivated to make major changes. “My peers really enjoyed the trip and found it inspirational and they felt like they were a part of history. A lot of young people attending tells me that we are the future, and the fact that all those young people, that I did see in attendance there, also tells me that they want to change what is going on and that they’re striving to make a difference,” Mr. Muhammad said.
           Keelan Wright, 20, a John Henrik Clarke honors student at Northern Illinois University in Dekalb, and a member of several student organizations to include the Phi Rho Eta Fraternity Inc., said the students representing NIU agreed that unity of the people is something that must be capitalized upon in order to force changes in matters of justice. “I felt that it was great that we brought everybody who had been feeling some form of injustice, not just the Black experience, but also the Native American experience as well as the Latino experience,” Mr. Wright said. “I understand that we are the minority, so if the minority comes together, we become the majority, so I feel that was significant.”
         Covering a range of issues from justice for the Black, Native American and Latino communities, to justice for women, those organized under the banner of the Rockford/Dekalb Local Organizing Committee expressed a general satisfaction with the spotlight pointing onto their concerns. “The degradation of the Black woman in general is a big issue for me because as a Black woman, it’s how we’re portrayed in the media and how we’re seen as not even second class citizens. We are lower on the totem pole because we are Black and a woman, said Toni Gary, 21, an NIU student activist who went to Washington D.C. on the bus from the Dekalb. 
          “I think justice for Black women is just as important because you see in the media how Black
men and Black children are being hurt and killed in the street, but you didn’t really hear about anybody that was a woman until Sandra Bland. But there’s so many other women that have been kidnapped, murdered, assaulted, and you never hear about them because we are women,” Ms. Gary said.
           “I attend NIU and Kishwaukee College and I can say the march impacted our students in great way,” said Kendall Collins, 20, a third-year student and member of Brothers Reaching Out to Help Enlighten and Rejuvenate Self-Consciousness (BROTHERS), who traveled on the bus out of Rockford. “You have people who once didn’t have knowledge of themselves, who are proud to be Black now. You have people who have a fire for justice now, so I would say it affected us in a very positive way,” Mr. Collins said.           
             Regarding the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan’s call for a national boycott of the Christmas spending season, from Black Friday through New Year’s Day, as a way to force attention to the injustices suffered by too many Black, Brown and Red Americans, Mr. Collins agreed that the purpose of Christmas would be better served if the desire to spend hard earned dollars were replaced with a reflection on faith and a deeper understanding of unity in the name of ‘Justice or Else.’
              “In a holistic sense, I feel like it will make us Black people understand the actual meaning of the commemoration of Christmas rather than taking it to value material things, but to give it to the religious body that it is,” Mr. Collins said.  Secondly, it will give people a fiscal understanding, a sense of economics, a sense of finances that we can keep for ourselves rather than spending all this money that we always do every year with people who don’t spend money on us. Understand your power, understand that us being Black is power,” he said. “Mobilize yourself for the greater good of your people.”
              According to 24/7 Wall Street’s analysis of discrimination in education, employment, and the courts, Rockford, Illinois is the second most racist city in which Blacks live in America. As Hollywood and popular culture driven media images depict Black youth as thugs, violent criminals and undisciplined savages, the ‘Justice or Else’ gathering in Washington D.C. crushed the falsehood of this notion although it was completely ignored by local media.
             Brandon Demus, 19, a student at Rock Valley College in Rockford, said he was keenly aware of the nationwide so-called justifiable homicide incidents surrounding the killings of unarmed Black youth by law enforcement personnel.  Alerted to the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March and the ‘Justice or Else’ movement by his father, with whom both he and his brother traveled with from Rockford, Mr. Demus said demonstrating for justice was in line with his desire to see wrongs made right. “I talk to people about (injustices) and they are pretty much on the same page as me. They say it’s a problem that needs to be addressed, and they’re addressing it by protesting. We’ve gone to protests downtown and we’ve marched,” he said.
             Agreeing that social media is the primary tool through which the younger generation receives and disseminates information, Mr. Demus stated that television, newspapers and magazines do not carry as much weight with them because their messages don’t come across as being authentic, in Black youth’s best interest or in their favor.
             Speaking on the case of the protests against mercury laden MMR vaccines, and alleged corruption at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, Mr. Demus said social media platforms and maintaining pressure at the grassroots level is very important. “I feel like social media is a really good thing to promote that type (of issue). Also, local protests; if there are more local protests over these (issues), in a wider range of cities, people in each community will see that this is something that actually does need to be addressed. A lot of people know that television is corrupted. It’s run by corporations, it’s not really straight to the point and I feel that social media is the more  dominant because it’s our own voice,” Mr. Demus said.
              Rockford resident and local singing talent, Star L. Durr, 26, said she is motivated not only to
continue speaking out against injustices, but also to intensify her actions in the wake of the 10-10-15 ‘Justice or Else’ gathering. “What inspired me the most was when I saw all of the people of color that deep together. Not just our Black people, our Hispanic people, and our Native American people, but seeing all of them together like that was inspirational,” she said.
            “Our people have to want to be better, have to want to do better, have to want to take action, want to support our own, like the way we went to D.C., they’ve got to want and need that hunger,” Ms. Durr said. “I got a lot of love on Facebook and social media, and everyone was sharing the D.C. experience. My mother watched it on the internet (and) she loved it. My male cousins watched it and thought it was cool that there were a lot of young people there. A lot of people watched it, but there is still a lot of work to be done. Being fearless tells us a lot about our future, and we aren’t scared. Be fearless and be brave, but have structure,” she said. “The system is not fair, and we’re not taking that anymore.”
           Student Minister, Yahcolyah Muhammad, the Rockford representative of the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, noted the work after the march is more significant than the march itself. “As far as young people are concerned, it is vitally important that they become acquainted, knowledgeable and active in the action plan that the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan laid out for us at the march. That is to become organized, to join on to a local organizing committee, and begin to turn that moment of a gathering into a movement,” he said.
             Stating that the Justice or Else movement requires battling both the internal and external opponents of Black liberation, not only nationally, but more importantly locally, Student Minister Yahcolyah said the burden is upon those desiring real change more than it is upon anyone else. “This was a moment in which we declared to the world America’s hypocrisy as it relates to justice and our intentions to demand justice or else. It is extremely important that we begin to handle our differences amongst ourselves by starting with our personal selves, starting within our homes, and then it will grow throughout our community,” he said.
            “The Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan has laid out for us the road map to freedom and liberation. When we begin to govern the day-to-day operations of our own community, we no longer have to look outside our community and expect them to do for us that God has shown and revealed that we are capable of doing for ourselves,” Student Minister Yahcolyah Muhammad said.     

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