The incredibly active and amazing NIOT group in Bloomington-Normal, Ill. hosted a virtual NIOT screening and community discussion via Zoom earlier this summer. Not In Our Town member Mike Matejka shares this story of local action.
By Mike Matejka
With George Floyd’s murder, the nation, particularly white America, finally woke up to not only police abuse, but also systematic racism. Marches, demonstrations, vigils and sometime violent clashes resulted, along with soul searching and hard questions about the country’s direction and future.
To open more dialogue, on June 29 BN-NIOT took to Zoom for a discussion about police-community relations. The NIOT film Camden’s Turn was the program feature, followed by 45-minutes of discussion. Camden, New Jersey, reformed its police practices instituting a culture of community policing, with an emphasis on direct constituent outreach. When Camden did not experience the street confrontations that other communities did after Floyd’s murder, national news media zeroed in on the community and its police department as an example of positive law enforcement relations.
Leading up to the virtual film screening and discussion, a pre-registration was available through BN-NIOT social media, which was shared by other organizations and individuals, including the NAACP and Next Gen Initiative, plus a news story with links ran in The Pantagraph Bloomington and Normal's local paper. The event was “pinned” to the top of our Facebook page, ensuring regular exposure. The page averages between 200-400 responses and reactions daily. Discussion moderators were recruited and leading questions formulated, with input from the NAACP and other partners.
Almost 100 people participated and attended the screening, broken into Zoom small groups for in-depth discussion after the film. Four law enforcement agencies – McLean County sheriff, plus the Bloomington, Normal and Illinois State University police chiefs – participated in the call.
The Zoom program was hosted by NIOT volunteer Mary Aplington. As local chair, I made an introduction, along with co-chair Camille Taylor. Camden’s Turn was then shown, followed by remarks by Not In Our Town national director Patrice O’Neill. Participants were automatically sorted into small groups of seven to eight, with a moderator for each group. Moderators had the ability to control the conversation within their group – if an individual was dominating, they could mute that person until it was appropriate for that individual to share again.
Leading topics for conversation included responses to the film, both negative and positive, its local applicability, what changes both the community and law enforcement needed to make and what metrics should be used to measure not only law enforcement, but the community’s well-being.
Small groups ended on their own, but moderators reconvened for a spirited 45-minute wrap-up. Moderators took notes from their own session, which were compiled into a 15-point bullet point list to share with local elected officials and law enforcement.
Many comments included stories of individuals’ own interaction with law enforcement. “Stop pulling us over on grounds of ‘suspicion,’” one young man shared, noting he was stopped while walking during a rainstorm with a poncho on. A South Asian woman told her pull over story, fringed with suspicion of terrorism.
While many noted the need for a more diverse police force, one mother sadly said that her pre-school son had asked her, “Mama, will police kill me someday?” She wondered how people of color could be recruited when they already have deeply instilled fears at a young age, reinforced after parents have “the talk” with their children. Others commended the local forces for their efforts but added that many people come with negative perceptions from other communities. “What do we see when we see each other coming?” was a pointed question. What do the police see when they view citizens and how do individuals see officers – calling out the need to see each other as human beings, not as stereotypes.
Finding common ground and continued dialogue was continually encouraged, as one participant noted, “sincere outreach” from law enforcement will organically improve relations. Community members also offered their clubs, organizations and youth centers as opportune locations to foster improved relationship. “More art and cultural expression” outlets were another common theme. As the Camden film showed, ex-offenders, if treated decently and recruited, could use their incarceration experience to help counsel youth to avoid criminal activity.
COVID challenges our usual means of interaction, so needed in socially fraught times. Zoom and other social media platforms provide a space for people to come together. BN-NIOT is planning to continue these. Throughout August, a weekly “Listening Circles” meeting is being offered to discuss racism-related issues. Depending upon the future medical situation, a 2021 series is planned on immigration issues, either in-person or via social media and Zoom.
Human understanding comes through dialogue. When people can meet honestly in a small group, insight, empathy and understanding can follow. BN-NIOT hopes to not only continue large public events, but these more intimate opportunities to tackle the difficult issues we all face.
If you are interested in hosting a virtual NIOT screening for your community, contact us and we will help you!
Learn More About NIOT - Bloomington-Normal
Nestled in the state’s center, Bloomington-Normal's Not In Our Town chapter (BN-NIOT) was established as a community group in 1995, and has organized marches, forums, and dialogues, and lobbied local government on human rights for the past 25 years. Today, BN-NIOT has over 3,000 Facebook followers and nearly 300 on its e-list. The BN-NIOT works closely with the NAACP, immigrant rights and LGBTQ+ and other organizations. It also has a youth component, Not In Our Schools (BN-NIOS), with student chapters in every public junior and senior high in the twin cities, along with some grade schools. An open door is maintained with local government and law enforcement agencies.
Because of COVID restrictions, public gatherings are tenuous, though they have happened. Demonstrations and marches are spirited vehicles for reflecting deep seated emotions and a call out to the larger community but are not conducive to small group conversations. BN-NIOT co-sponsored a Black Lives Matter demonstration with the NAACP in May with over 1,000 in attendance and a later event that was law enforcement focused. BN-NIOS is very active, having sponsored two marches and working with other youth organizations to support their efforts. The NIOS youth come from diverse backgrounds, both economically, racially and culturally. Their marches have gone through suburban streets, not the usual route for public actions.