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Speaking Out: Voices From Racial Justice Rally On Park Central Square

Michele Skalicky

Springfield Police estimate there were around 2500 people at Saturday’s protest rally for racial justice on Park Central Square.  On a hot and humid day, speakers challenged the crowd—skeptical they were as mad as they were last weekend when protests were held at Glenstone and Battlefield.  One person asked the crowd “Did you all settle down and get comfortable again?”

But people who went to the rally are eager for change.

"I'm here because I'm tired of people taking lives that aren't theirs for the taking," said Lydia Prescott.  "And I hope that this rally kind of brings more awareness  because a lot of people just ignore things."

Prescott was at the protest rally Saturday with her friend, Helena Spigner.

"I came out here because I have nine siblings, and, obviously, we're all black, and my youngest sibling is two-years-old," said Spigner, "and I would love for him to live in a world where he doesn't have to be afraid to walk outside his house every day."

Spigner and Prescott were joined at the rally by their friend, Matilyn Cote.  The three are from Buffalo, Missouri, and Spigner said she’s been the victim of racist comments numerous times.

"I've been told to go back to Africa," Spigner said.  "I'm half black, and I'm from Omaha, Nebraska, so nowhere near Africa.  People love to use the 'n' word but not give us any credit for anything and no respect, so I would love to see that change."

Cote said she saw racism “all round her” as she grew up in a small town in the rural Ozarks.

"In our sixth grade choir class, she's my best friend since sixth grade," Cote said, referring to Spigner, "and she's been called the 'n' word on multiple occasions and just discrimination has to end, and I believe that it can end with our generation."

Sadly, Spigner said she’s become accustomed to being targeted because of her race.

"I honestly have no words anymore because it's kind of like a day to day thing, and when you get used to it, you get used to it, and it shouldn't have to be that way," she said.

Credit Michele Skalicky
Protest Rally on Park Central Square

Cornelius Johnson moved to Springfield from Chicago, Illinois almost nine years ago. 

"This right here is my first time being out here, so I was curious, for real, but while I'm out here, you know what I'm saying, I like the way that everybody is coming together and stuff like that, you know what I'm saying?" he said.  "I guess a lot of people want it to be a race riot where black and white people are going against each other and stuff like that, but actually everything turned around on me.  Everybody's coming together and being more peaceful, so actually, I mean, I actually came out here to be a spectator, and I mean, man, I mean it is going so good.  I'm surprised."

He talked about what he hopes the rallies will lead to.

"Oh, I pray that everybody be equal, you know what I'm saying? Black people be equal to white people and stuff like that, you know, they don't --the white people don't see us no less or not like that," he said.

He was in prison for a time before coming to Springfield, and he saw a lot of racism there.  And he sees a lot of inequity in Springfield.  He recently worked as an electrician and was the only black person at his workplace.

"You get a lot of this and a lot of that and a lot of this, and, you know, as a black man you have to hold your composure, you know what I'm saying?" he said.  "You have to let things go that you're not used to letting go, you know, because you don't want to lose your job and then when you do speak to the supervisor about it, you know, what they will say is, 'well, you know, everybody is talking about you,' so, in other words, that makes you the problem instead of checking them and seeing what's the real problem is."

He’d like to see more black-owned businesses in Springfield and more black police officers on the city’s police force.

"You know what I'm saying?  So, that our side can have a voice, too," he said, "you know, when there ain't nobody of our color, of our race, then we have no voice.  This right here is the only way we have a voice, so we come out here and protest."

He’s fearful of getting pulled over by police because of what’s happening to black people across the country at the hands of law enforcement officers.

"I mean, just the police behind me period I feel  threatened," he said.  "I mean, seriously, because I know what they will do, you know, I mean, you don't have to be armed, none of that, you know, I mean, and you can be telling them the truth and everything else, but they don't want to hear that.  They don't want you to say nothing because they want to do what they want to do.  You know, they've got that badge, they've got that gun, and they're hiding behind that, you know what I'm saying?  But now, but now, people coming back--black people coming back, and they're saying, 'look, you're not going to harm us no longer.  If we have to fight, then we have to fight, but we'd rather not take it to that level, you know what I'm saying?  We want peace.  We just want to be heard just like everybody.  We want to be loved just like everybody else does.  You know, we want people to walk past us and say, 'hey, how you doing?' instead of just, you know, looking down at the ground and keep on going, and you wave, and they look at you crazy, you know?  I mean, come on!"

But Johnson is hopeful as he looks out on a crowd of mostly younger people.  It's the younger generations, he said, that will bring about change.

"Now it's to the point to where we breaking that cycle," he said, and we're all coming together, so I'm just hoping to see a great outcome where, I mean, everybody holding hands, hugging, you know, and just enjoying each other."

Credit Michele Skalicky
Protest Rally on Park Central Square

Ryan Minor was one of those young people at the rally Saturday.

"We're out here to condemn the racist police lynchings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and to stand in solidarity with black people who have faced nothing but 400 years of oppression in this rotten system," he said.

Minor pointed out that the site of the rally—Park Central Square—was the site of the lynching of three young black men in 1906.  And he says the history of racism in the Ozarks haunts the community to this day.

"In the Ozarks, we have a terrible history of racism," he said.  "I mean, we didn't have a slave system like the Deep South did, but, after the Civil War, a lot of people moved here because there was a huge vacuum of people that left because this whole area was basically just guerilla warfare day in and day out, from here to north Arkansas, and, you know, in the Jim Crow era, we saw lynchings in Pierce City and Springfield and Fayetteville, and in many other places that drove the community out.  And, you know, I think we really have to come to grips with that reality if we're going to, as a people, do something."

Minor is optimistic these rallies will lead to change.

"We've already seen that, because of these protests,  that we've seen charges from the police, and it represents a really big turning point in these movements," he said.  "We had something like this in 2015 with Ferguson, but it didn't get the power it needed, and, unfortunately, for the people to be listened to, a police precinct had to be burned down and revolts had to take place across the country, and that's what it has to come to, that's what it has to come to, and I think the people are beginning to wake up and realize that."

Sarah Gray said she supports a revolution and defunding police—finding ways to keep communities safe without what she calls “violence and militants.”

"I would say that our police system, I mean, they need to defund themselves enough to fund the social services that we need here," she said.  "We have immense community problems, and I feel that our city budget is going to our police when it should be going to social workers."

This was the first protest her friend, Erica (who didn’t want her last name used), had attended.

"This is the first time I've actually spoke out against, like, any black issues altogether," she said.  "I've always kind of been the one silent in the back of of the room, but I have had a couple interactions with the cops where could have been a victim, and I don't want that to happen to me or any of my black friends, my black brothers and my black sisters.  If we protest out here, we show them that this entire city has an issue.  It's not just black people.  It's not just the people that are being killed by cops.  It's everyone that sees it's an issue,"

She hopes the rallies will raise awareness of what she calls “much needed change.”

"I have been flipped off by cops just for being in my car for no other reason just me being black, they saw me, and, yes, it was a Springfield cop," she said.  "I don't have to do anything for them to be threatened by the color of my skin.  I just have to be present.  And, I've been stopped by cops for speeding even though I was riding my brakes and other things, and he comes to the car with his gun in hand. I, unarmed, have no idea what's going on, have no idea why I've been stopped.  But he sees that I'm black.  He automatically puts his hand on his gun, and that's not OK."

Erica was heartened by the large numbers of people who attended Saturday’s rally.  She said it gives her a small bit of hope.  She feels maybe police officers need more education on how to deal with de-escalating situations without the use of force.

After spending time on the square listening to speakers, the group gathered at Park Central East and marched to the Martin Luther King Jr. Bridge where they kneeled for a time.  A rally organizer told those in the crowd that it’s time to start breathing for those that can’t breathe.  The group then proceeded to Springfield City Hall and the Springfield Police Department.