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Jelani Day art removal brings strong emotions to Normal Council chambers

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A group of emotional public commenters chastised the Normal Town Council during its regular meeting on October 4, 2021.

NORMAL – A group of emotional public commenters chastised the Normal Town Council during its regular meeting Monday — as well as during an outdoor rally preceding that meeting — about the town’s controversial removal of an artwork honoring Jelani Day, an ISU graduate student whose death police continue to investigate.

“The taking down of a mural: Who was engaged in that conversation and those decisions, and why was there such urgency?” commenter Marcos Mendez asked the council.

He said town leaders needed to better focus on boosting community engagement, to avoid the anger this situation has wrought.

The Day portrait, created by an artist who remains anonymous, was posted sometime between Sept. 27 and 28 on the exterior of 104 E. Beaufort, a town-owned building near Uptown Circle. Town officials removed it Sept. 29, citing town rules for posting on public buildings, and promising to relocate the poster.

The Jelani Day portrait was returned for temporary display Monday morning, within a window at 104 Beaufort St. It’s expected to be placed at ISU. Jake Fogal/WGLT

However, it was returned for temporary display Monday morning, inside that building, visible through a sidewalk-facing window. It’s expected to be moved to an ISU location.

On Sept. 23, authorities identified Day’s remains, three weeks after discovering the body near Peru, Ill. He’d been missing since Aug. 24, and his death remains under investigation.

The race of Day, a Black man studying speech pathology at ISU, has repeatedly been a focus in this case. His mother Carmen Bolden Day, and other supporters, criticized a lack of police and media focus since he was reported missing — attributing that to him being a Black man. And, on Monday, many commenters told the council they didn’t believe the portrait of Day would have been removed had he been white.

The Bloomington-Normal Democratic Socialists organized the “Tell Normal: Jelani Day Matters” rally Monday before the council meeting.

Ann Rountree, a member of that group’s Afro-Socialist caucus, later addressed the council. She’s the mother of 8-year-old Rica Rountree, whose father’s girlfriend was convicted of the Normal girl’s 2019 murder.

Rountree said she empathizes with the pain Bolden Day most be feeling — trying to have Jelani be seen, and not forgotten.

“The least we could have done was left his face outside. A memory is all she asked, and y’all couldn’t even do that much. It’s very disappointing,” said Rountree.

Mendez, another commenter, lamented that as far back as 2016, as part of Normal’s long term Vision 2040 plan, some town conversations were “about Black and brown people not feeling safe in this community.” Yet now, the town finds itself in this situation of those very groups feeling unheard, he said.

Mendez and Rountree joined about 12 others addressing the council. Dozens more filled the chamber’s seats, applauding frequently throughout the public comments’ period.

Many of the speakers found themselves swearing in anger — saying the art’s removal illustrated the concerns of Black Americans being invisible, and treated as second-class citizens, both among concerns of the Black Lives Matter movement. BLM support was evidenced with masks, signs and Tshirts throughout the crowd.

“We understand in moments like this, emotions are very high, and for some people it’s easy to get caught in the moment,” said Normal council member Chemberly Cummings, a Black woman who is the only nonwhite seated member. She called Day’s death and the investigation surrounding his death heartbreaking. But she said the Normal worker who removed the artwork from the public building was just doing his job.

“Let’s not politicize this in order to point fingers, and create a platform,” she said, urging the crowd to instead directly support Day’s mother.

Cummings said Illinois State University officials are working with Bolden Day to determine her wishes for the portrait’s permanent home. If the family does choose to allow the art to be displayed, Cummings said she’d like to see it shown at ISU’s new multicultural center.

The majority of public comments Monday veered into an airing of grievances against the Bloomington Police and other law enforcement agencies’ handling of the Day investigation. The lack of federal assistance early on drew criticism, as national media was focused on the Wyoming death of a young, white female hiker, Gabby Petito.

Cummings responded to commenters’ criticism of Normal’s lack of attention to the investigation by clarifying that because Day lived in Bloomington, Normal Police did not handle the case.

“How you get justice is by making sure you are asking the right questions to the right departments,” she said. “The best way to get answers is to get active in the right way — use our energy in the best way possible,” she said.

Mayor’s response

Normal Mayor Chris Koos said after Monday’s meeting that town leaders knew the decision to take down the Jelani Day art would be unpopular, but because it was displayed on the outside of the public building, allowing it to stay posted could set a broad precedent.

Normal Mayor Chris Koos during Monday’s meeting. Emily Bollinger/WGLT

“If you allow one (expression on that outside wall), then you’ve got to allow every one. And we were concerned about that,” he said, noting extremists also might be drawn to the spot and demand equal space.

“There was certainly never intent to offend anybody. Obviously, we did, and I’ll apologize for that publicly,” he said. Koos said town leaders always wanted to get the artwork back in public view as soon as possible.

Angelique Racki, executive director of the Bloomington-based BCAI Cultural Arts & Humanities, commented Monday as well. She said the BCAI student body is predominantly Black, Latinos and other minorities. Those students have watched how Normal officials took down the Day art.

“This doesn’t just affect the college demographic. This is bleeding into our babies, because they are seeing this news story,” she said, of the middle-schoolers and teens she knows following this story. “These are the messages they are getting.”

In a Facebook post on Normal’s page Monday afternoon, town officials said they’d decided to create a temporary display in solidarity with Monday’s rally, placing the portrait that morning inside a streetfront window, by the Uptown Circle: “In support of this gathering, the Town is placing the Jelani Day Tribute piece in the window of 104 E. Beaufort. The tribute has been respectfully preserved with framed plexiglass. This is a temporary display until the Tribute can be transferred to Illinois State.”

Several commenters said that decision was too little too late. But Koos said the plan always was to find a way to display the art.

At the start of Monday’s meeting’s public comments, the mayor asked people not to applaud, nor shout. But, that was met with group chants of “Black Lives Matter. Jelani’s Life Matters. Black Lives Matter.”

During comments, civility disappeared — with coarse language thrown around, and several people randomly shouting from the council chambers.

After the meeting, Koos explained his decision to proceed in that setting.

“Normally we wouldn’t allow that to happen at our meeting. But there was a lot of pent-up frustration, and anger, and I thought, ‘Let’s just get it out there,'” said Koos.

Community, campus groups organize rally

Many of those who attended the start of Monday’s Town Council meeting rallied before the session near the Uptown Circle.

One of the speakers was Djimon Lewis, an ISU student and member of ISU’s Black Communication Association. He listed off nearly a dozen issues with the police investigation of Day’s disappearance, including the 19 days it took to positively identify his body.

“For context, they (Town of Normal) removed that mural in three days. Less time elapsed from the time that mural was up to its taken down then it took to find Jelani’s body. That’s sick,” Lewis said.

Lewis also said statistics show Black men in Bloomington-Normal are more likely to be harrassed by police than white people. WGLT recently reported on a state study showing Black motorists and pedestrians were 4.4 times more likely than whites to be pulled over by Normal Police.

Another member of the Black Communication Association, Donovan Hill, described himself as a concerned student — not only for his safety, but for everyone surrounding him.

“I am concerned for myself, for my friends, for my family, for my colleagues and for the people in this town,” said Hill. “If this is the normal that the town of Normal is looking for to keep pushing forward as weeks go by then it’s not the type of Normal that I want to live in. This is not the status quo that I want.”

Djimon Lewis with the Afro-Socialists and the Black Communication Association speaks at Monday’s demonstration in Uptown Normal. Emily Bollinger/WGLT

Lewis connected the recent events with the fall 2020 protests surrounding ISU Athletics, where former athletics director Larry Lyons faced criticism for his “All Redbird Lives Matter” comment. That led to the department’s new action plan to address racial equity, among other changes.

“Now we have Jelani Day. Why would we as a community put up a mural in the middle of town of someone that lived in this town, and have to move it to the same campus that is racist to us in the same town that is racist to us?” Lewis asked the crowd, resulting in applause.

Lewis fought tears as he spoke about how Black people have been treated in this country. Lewis expressed that peace and justice will be attained by any means necessary.

After the remarks, the group began its march to City Hall in waving Black Lives Matter flags and shouting in peaceful protest.

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