PEORIA — Michael Anthony Charles Johnson II was Peoria’s 16th homicide victim of 2021.
Johnson, 21, was one of four people shot at a house on Haungs Avenue on the 4th of July. A youth also was critically injured in that shooting.
And just days later, another youth suffered a life-threatening gunshot wound on the East Bluff, just a couple miles from a vigil honoring Johnson’s life.
For Demario Boone, director of Peoria Public Schools’ Safety Department, murders like this one are far too common. And the responses of a city traumatized by gun violence are sadly predictable.
“I’ve seen this narrative play out over and over again. An incident, a crime of loss, happens. It gets to the media. Fingers get pointed as to why it’s happening. We mourn about it until it slowly fades away from the city’s collective thoughts and we repeat this cycle over and over again without any viable solution,” Boone said.
The toll of the human cost of the violence was palpable at a community vigil on Sunday attended by about 60 people at Morton Square Park on the city’s near North Side. The names of around 190 Peorians murdered were read, one by one, under a canopy shielding speakers from the light drizzle.
Kristen Meierkord, the organizer of Sunday’s vigil and president of the ACLU Peoria Chapter, said those names are only a partial list compiled through a combination of FOIA requests, media reports, and submissions from families and friends of the deceased. No comprehensive list of Peoria’s murder victims exists.
Elner Clark is the sister of Mark Clark, a Black Panther from Peoria who accompanied Fred Hampton to Chicago, where the two were murdered by Chicago police in 1969. Clark also has lost other family members to violence, including a nephew who was killed while trying to resolve a dispute between two of his friends.
“I hurt whenever I hear of a family that has suffered the loss of a loved one, especially a young person. My heart breaks for the young people,” Clark said. “But we’ve got to do more than talk about it. And the problem seems so insurmountable. We seem like we wonder, what can I do?”
One course of action is more social advocacy, which includes hitting the streets and building relationships, Clark said.
“It takes people to turn it around. What does that mean? That means take someone under your wing,” she said. “If you change the life of one individual. If you adopt a person, you make that person your project, you give them a reason to live, you give them a reason to come off the streets, pull their pants up, get a job, get an education, get a skill, you make the difference. We can all make the difference.”
As a treatment advocate with the National Youth Advocate Program (NYAP), Allison Galvin works with those youth firsthand. NYAP has two offices in Chicago and one in Madison, Ill. She said a fourth was recently opened in Peoria to work with children in the court system.
“(They’re) going to trial and being tried as an adult, and going to jail with adults, because that’s where they’re going. Because these judges are sick of seeing the same kids and same families with the same probation officers and parole officers advocating for them,” Galvin said. “And guess who’s in that court room with them? Just a public defender, because our parents are not there. No one’s listening to them when they’re asking for help.”
NYAP is launching a new program in Peoria to help those youth get to school or vocational training — and help them cope with the trauma of being in and out of the system throughout their childhoods.
“Crime isn’t something that just happens. Crime is tied to the created pockets of poverty in redlined areas deemed hazardous by those in power years ago,” said Boone, who grew up on Peoria’s South Side, one of the most impoverished areas of the United States. “And those in power today that are fine with the people staying at the bottom: overpoliced, underfunded areas with no grocery stores, but never lack of a liquor store. High numbers of abandoned or dilapidated homes, limited to no access to mental health care services, and all the while living in constant trauma, PTSD, just to simply exist. This is why people rage and hurt. This is the part of our root cause: disinvestment.”
Sarita Risby, a Peoria resident, said many of the youth activities available during own childhood are gone now. That leaves young people — particularly young men — with nothing constructive to do, she said.
“By eliminating those, we’ve increased on their outcome of finding something else to do, which is, find a gun and fire it,” she said.
Clark advocates for “upstreaming,” or dealing with the underlying causes of disenfranchisement, like the need for more youth counseling and providing educational and employment opportunities to young people.
“If the young people have no jobs, they have nothing to do. They’re just out in the streets. Our responsibility to demand that this city — and I’m talking about (it) because I’m calling for the city fathers to step up — right down to the county, right down to the county courthouse,” said Clark. “We have a statue of Abraham Lincoln. And the statue has a line drawn in the cement that says, ‘He draws the line here.’ We need to draw the line here, right here in Peoria and demand that we get some programs for the youth.”
Eddie Pratt, Jr., an advocate from Champaign-Urbana who drove to Peoria for Sunday’s rally, encouraged communities to use American Rescue Plan (ARP) dollars to reinvest in communities and attack community violence at its roots.
“We must invest in the people directly to fight inequity. We must arm our parents with being able to take care of the children in a way that keeps them off of the street. We must be able to restore our Black and brown communities in a way that allows them to have the social economic power that makes our municipal and state and federal governments give a damn about those communities,” Pratt said.
The city of Peoria received $47 million in federal ARP funding. Some of the money was used to avoid taking out costly debt and to curtail city employee furloughs, but the rest of the money is still on the table awaiting council action.
“You’ll be able to do what we need to do. The time is now. The money is here. Now it’s ours. Do not let them tell you different. This is our money,” Pratt said. “And it’s about time that it goes directly where it’s supposed to be, to the people, investing in the people, investing in the neighborhoods, investing in infrastructural improvements to places where they need them.”
Minister Jorell Glass asked those attending the vigil to echo that sentiment with a mantra: “I deserve to be served.”
Glass said the violence taking place in the community is a symptom of a dysfunctional societal institution.
“If we’re saying that the school system, our ZIP code, is causing us to be deficient, it should not be a difference between education we’re getting here in Peoria and what they’re getting in Dunlap,” Glass said. “When we go to a bank, my brown skin shouldn’t be an indictment on if I get the loan or not. If I need to get a mortgage, and something clicks in my mind as a Black man, I should be able to get a mortgage. I should be encouraged to get a mortgage. But the traditionally we’ve seen that mortgages and banking, they tried to get you not to even be considered for a mortgage. They want you to be a renter for life. So there’s a problem with the institution.”
Glass said the election of Rita Ali as Peoria’s first Black mayor gives him some hope for change. But he said that will only happen when people demand to be served by their institutions.
Boone challenged Peoria’s elected leaders not to feel comfortable while children who don’t feel embraced by the village are burning it to keep warm, quoting an African proverb.
“If you are elected by the people, there is no excuse to be disconnected, disengage, or basking in the glow of a new shiny title while the city’s in pain. We sure heard from everybody when they were running their campaigns. It’s time to work,” Boone said.
Three elected officials attended Sunday’s vigil, for which notice of a quorum was posted: 1st District councilwoman Denise Jackson; 3rd District councilman Tim Riggenbach; and 4th District councilman Andre Allen.
Chama St. Louis, a Peoria business owner and former mayoral candidate, said high crime rates are directly tied to chronic poverty. She said addressing that underlying issue of poverty would go a long way toward healing the community.
“It doesn’t have to be hard. We just need to take back the power that is rightfully ours. It’s no coincidence that Black and brown communities, communities who need good policy for survival the most, are the ones who vote the least and struggle the most. Have you seen the ‘Hunger Games?’ Anybody watch that movie? If you haven’t, it’s okay. Because you’re seeing it in Peoria,” she said.
Pratt said the community must address its underlying trauma—- and not allow it to become a roadblock to keep working for a safer and more equitable Peoria.
“We were born traumatized. Trauma passed down from generation to generation, not even talking about the trauma that we all have by just living through this. This is not normal. This is not normal. Where we start to feel like it’s normal is the tell sign that you are traumatized,” Pratt said. “I know it feels it feels it’s never ending. But if you don’t keep grinding, it will be.”