Young Voices From B/N Want to Shape Gun Debate

Ryan Denham


Ellie Diggins and her friends can’t drive a car. They can’t vote. They’re not even in high school yet. But they want to influence the public debate over gun violence.

Diggins is an eighth-grader at Kingsley Junior High School in Normal. Along with friends Ari Whitlock, Courtney Sims, and Maddie Beirne, they’re planning a school walkout demonstration March 14 as part of a nationwide movement sparked by the recent shooting in Parkland, Florida. They were inspired in part by the young Florida survivors who’ve lobbied publicly for stricter gun control.

Beirne said she moved to act after seeing the names and ages of those killed in Florida. Many of them were 14, just like her.

“I’m just kind of watching and wondering if my school is going to be the next one that’s going to be shot up or terrorized in some way,” Beirne said. “And I feel like I shouldn’t be afraid of that. I feel like I should be worried more about my next social studies quiz or what high school is going to be like next year, as opposed to whether or not I’m going to die when I walk into (school).”

At 10 a.m. on Wednesday, March 14, the four friends and other students say they will walk out of class, then out the front door at Kingsley. They’ll hold signs during a mostly silent protest (so they’re not disruptive) focused on more gun control.

They want to see universal background checks, a full ban on bump stocks and assault weapons, and additional measures to stop those with mental illness from buying weapons, said Whitlock. They also hope to attract the attention of state lawmakers like state Rep. Dan Brady and Sen. Jason Barickman, who’ve visited their school before.

“We’ll be high schoolers next year, and after that we’ll be adults, and we’ll be voting,” said Diggins, who created an online RSVP for the event. “And right now we can’t hold office. But we want to change things that people in office can change.”

Sims said she wants to make a difference, regardless of her age, noting the impact the Florida survivors have had on the public debate around guns.

“I personally think it’s quite inspiring to see kids as young as we are stand up for themselves and try to make a difference in the world,” Sims said.

Whitlock agreed. During an interview with GLT, Whitlock name-dropped several court rulings and laws that she says gives the students precedent to act.

“I feel that the youngest generation can always make the most change. We’re taking control of our futures. Just because we’re not old enough to vote yet doesn’t mean we have no say,” Whitlock said. 

Ellie Diggins’ mom, Aleda, said she was very proud of what her daughter was doing.

She said they’ve talked about what happens if she’s disciplined for organizing the walkout. (Unit 5 Superintendent Mark Daniel said last week that peaceful protesters who are not disruptive will not be disciplined, calling it a learning opportunity.)

“She has decided it’s worth it. And I back her on it,” Aleda Diggins said.

Demonstrations are expected at both Unit 5 high schools as well as Bloomington High School on March 14. Another rally on gun control is planned for March 24.

Amara: 'The Worst Part Is Being Unheard'

Knowing that it could be anyone is terrifying. The people in my school who are irresponsible and immature can at any time purchase a gun. They can bring that gun to school, and kill people. Knowing that any person in the classroom could be carrying a weapon on them at any time creates a paranoia that I wish I didn't have to feel. When I'm sitting in the classroom, I should be thinking about what's for lunch, my grades, the topic at hand. When I'm in the classroom, I should be thinking about my future, not the lack thereof. 

But this is not the worst part. The worst part is feeling unheard. The students from Florida have done a remarkable job of forcing politicians to take a stance on reforming gun laws and making this a national issue, but we still have so far to go. Now arming teachers is being pitched, but that's not what we're pushing for. Guns belong nowhere in school, and it is so frustrating that grown adults are unwilling to give up their their toys for our lives. It's like they're not even trying to hear our point of view. 

When you're sitting in the same place every day, feeling threatened, and you're told there's no problem, it starts to get to you. How can you learn if you feel scared but ignored? How can you live if you feel scared but ignored? I just wish I could get my education and make it out alive. 

Thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts, and thank you even more for the support. It means so much. Thank you for your time.

Amara Sheppard


Bloomington/Normal Students Preparing for Walkout Over Gun Violence?

Ryan Denham



Plans are taking shape for Bloomington-Normal high schoolers to participate in a national walkout movement this month aimed at curbing gun violence in schools.

Both Unit 5 high schools and Bloomington High School are expecting students to participate in some way March 14, though plans are still in flux. Many participants in the national protest — sparked by the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida — are planning to walk out for 17 minutes at 10 a.m. March 14. The political goal is to get Congress to pass stricter gun control legislation.

It’s unclear if walkouts will occur in Bloomington-Normal schools, or if students will turn to other forms of demonstration. Some students have expressed concern they’ll face disciplinary action if they participate, although Unit 5 and BHS administrators say peaceful protesters won’t be reprimanded.

“We want to make sure it’s appropriate in regards to behavior,” said Unit 5 Superintendent Mark Daniel, calling the walkouts a learning opportunity. “They need to re-enter and move back into classrooms immediately thereafter, (so) it’s not a major disruption. Very inappropriate behavior won’t be tolerated and shouldn’t be tolerated.”

Rachel Evans, a Spanish teacher at Normal West, said at least one of her students—a sophomore—is trying to coordinate some sort of demonstration March 14. Evans, who is politically active herself, said she’s walking a fine line in her classroom of not “unnecessarily influencing” her students while also encouraging their “ability to do what they believe in.”

The young survivors of the Florida shooting have publicly lobbied for new gun-control measures, appearing in media interviews to make emotional pleas.

“High schoolers are capable of making these kinds of decisions, and it’s time we integrate them into these discussions. Because it’s going to be important for them. They’re the ones whose lives are on the line every day in school. They’re the ones who should get to have a say,” Evans said.

Evans said some students are concerned about the prospects of being disciplined for participating. Sensing this worry, universities like Illinois State have told prospective students that “disciplinary action associate with their participation in peaceful protests will not impact their admission.”

“Some are just so concerned about what those possibilities are,” Evans said.

At Bloomington High School, Principal Tim Moore has met with student leaders who are still figuring out their plans. A joint demonstration with Bloomington Junior High School is possible, he said.

Moore said those who protest peacefully will not face discipline. Moore said he and some of his  students are interested in broader ways to approach school safety, although gun control is part of that. Students discussed what they can do to help social outcasts feel more welcome, he said.

“That’s what I want to come out of this. If we’re going to continue to keep BHS a safe place, every individual in our building has a responsibility and a role in doing that,” Moore said.


The Letter: Litmus Test for '60s Clergy, Inspiration for B/N Leaders

The Letter from Birmingham Jail, also known as the Letter from Birmingham City Jail and The Negro Is Your Brother, was an open letter written on April 16, 1963, by The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The letter defends the strategy of nonviolent resistance to racism. It says that people have a moral responsibility to break unjust laws and to take direct action rather than waiting potentially forever for justice to come through the courts.


Responding to being referred to as an "outsider," King writes, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

The letter, written during the 1963 Birmingham campaign became an important text for the American Civil Rights Movement. The Birmingham campaign began on April 3, with coordinated marches and sit-ins against racism and racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. The nonviolent campaign was coordinated by the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) and King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

On April 10, Circuit Judge W. A. Jenkins issued a blanket injunction against "parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing." Leaders of the campaign announced they would disobey the ruling. On April 12, King was roughly arrested with SCLC activist Ralph Abernathy, ACMHR and SCLC official Fred Shuttlesworth and other marchers, while thousands of African Americans dressed for Good Friday looked on.


King was met with unusually harsh conditions in the Birmingham jail. An ally smuggled in a newspaper from April 12, which contained "A Call for Unity" -- a statement made by eight white Alabama clergymen against King and his methods. The letter provoked King, and he began to write a response on the newspaper itself. King writes in Why We Can't Wait: "Begun on the margins of the newspaper in which the statement appeared while I was in jail, the letter was continued on scraps of writing paper supplied by a friendly black trusty, and concluded on a pad my attorneys were eventually permitted to leave me."

The letter responded to several criticisms made by the "A Call for Unity" clergymen, who agreed that social injustices existed but argued that the battle against racial segregation should be fought solely in the courts, not the streets. As a minister, King responded to these criticisms on religious grounds. As an activist challenging an entrenched social system, he argued on legal, political, and historical grounds. As an African American, he spoke of the country's oppression of black people, including himself. As an orator, he used many persuasive techniques to reach the hearts and minds of his audience. Altogether, King's letter was a powerful defense of the motivations, tactics, and goals of the Birmingham campaign and the Civil Rights Movement more generally.

King began the letter by responding to the criticism that he and his fellow activists were "outsiders" causing trouble in the streets of Birmingham. To this, King referred to his responsibility as the leader of the SCLC, which had numerous affiliated organizations throughout the South. "I was invited" by our Birmingham affiliate "because injustice is here," in what is probably the most racially divided city in the country, with its brutal police, unjust courts, and many "unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches." Referring to his belief that all communities and states were interrelated, King wrote, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly… Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds."

King also warned that if white people successfully rejected his nonviolent activists as rabble-rousing outside agitators, this could encourage millions of African Americans to "seek solace and security in black nationalist ideologies, a development that will lead inevitably to a frightening racial nightmare."

The clergymen also disapproved of tensions created by public actions such as sit-ins and marches. To this, King confirmed that he and his fellow demonstrators were indeed using nonviolent direct action in order to create "constructive" tension. This tension was intended to compel meaningful negotiation with the white power structure, without which true civil rights could never be achieved. Citing previous failed negotiations, King wrote that the black community was left with "no alternative." "We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed."

The clergymen also disapproved of the timing of public actions. In response, King said that recent decisions by the SCLC to delay its efforts for tactical reasons showed they were behaving responsibly. He also referred to the broader scope of history, when "'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never.'" Declaring that African Americans had waited for these God-given and constitutional rights long enough, King quoted Chief Justice Earl Warren, who said in 1958 that "justice too long delayed is justice denied." Listing numerous ongoing injustices toward black people, including himself, King said, "Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, 'Wait.'"

Along similar lines, King also lamented the "myth concerning time," by which white moderates assumed that progress toward equal rights was inevitable, so assertive activism was unnecessary. King called it a "tragic misconception of time" to assume that its mere passage "will inevitably cure all ills." Progress takes time as well as the "tireless efforts" of dedicated people of good will.

Against the clergymen's assertion that demonstrations could be illegal, King argued that not only was civil disobedience justified in the face of unjust laws, but it was necessary and even patriotic. "I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law."

King stated that an unjust law was a law that degraded a human personality. Citing Augustine of Canterbury, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Buber, and Paul Tillich—and examples from the past and present—King described what makes laws just or unjust. For example, "A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law." Alabama has used "all sorts of devious methods" to deny its black citizens their right to vote and thus preserve its unjust laws and broader system of white supremacy. Segregation laws are immoral and unjust "because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority." Even some just laws, such as permit requirements for public marches, are unjust when used to uphold an unjust system.


King addressed the accusation that the Civil Rights Movement was "extreme," first disputing the label but then accepting it. Compared to other movements at the time, King finds himself as a moderate. However, in his devotion to his cause, King refers to himself as an extremist. Jesus and other great reformers were extremists: "So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?" King's discussion of extremism implicitly responded to numerous "moderate" objections to the ongoing movement, such as President Dwight D. Eisenhower's claim that he could not meet with civil rights leaders because doing so would require him to meet with the Ku Klux Klan.

King expressed general frustration with both white moderates and certain "opposing forces in the Negro community." He wrote that white moderates, including clergymen, posed a challenge comparable to that of white supremacists, in the sense that, "Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection." King asserted that the white church needed to take a principled stand or risk being "dismissed as an irrelevant social club." Regarding the black community, King wrote that we need not follow "the 'do-nothingism' of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist."

In closing the letter, King criticized the clergy's praise of the Birmingham police for maintaining order nonviolently. Recent public displays of nonviolence by the police were in stark contrast to their typical treatment of black people, and, as public relations, helped "to preserve the evil system of segregation." Not only is it wrong to use immoral means to achieve moral ends, but also "to use moral means to preserve immoral ends." Instead of the police, King praised the nonviolent demonstrators in Birmingham, "for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes."

King wrote the letter on the margins of a newspaper, which was the only paper available to him, and then gave bits and pieces of the letter to his lawyers to take back to movement headquarters, where the pastor Wyatt Tee Walker and his secretary Willie Pearl Mackey began compiling and editing the literary jigsaw puzzle.

An editor at The New York Times Magazine, Harvey Shapiro, asked King to write his letter for publication in the magazine, but the Times chose not to publish it. Extensive excerpts from the letter were published, without King's consent, on May 19, 1963, in the New York Post Sunday Magazine. The letter was first published as "Letter from Birmingham Jail" in the June 1963 issue of Liberation, the June 12, 1963, edition of The Christian Century, and in the June 24, 1963, issue of The New Leader. The letter gained more popularity as summer went on, and was reprinted in the July Atlantic Monthly as "The Negro Is Your Brother." King included a version of the full text in his 1964 book Why We Can't Wait.

IWU Students Silently Protest Racism

Lenore Sobota

The Pantagraph

Pantagraph photo by Lori Ann Cook-Neisler

Pantagraph photo by Lori Ann Cook-Neisler

More than 40 students at Illinois Wesleyan University staged a silent protest before the first faculty meeting of the semester on Monday, calling for greater attention to inclusiveness and diversity.

A mixed group of students lined both sides of the hallway outside of the meeting room, holding handwritten signs with messages such as, “Stand against ignorance,” “I won't stand for silence,” and “I should feel accepted in the classroom.”

Most of the faculty and staff members who walked down the hall on their way to the meeting — including IWU President Dick Wilson — stopped to read the signs and many made supportive comments to the students.

Among them was history professor Tom Lutze, who said faculty members needed to hear their message.

“There have been instances of racism on campus,” Lutze said. “We need to create an atmosphere in which all of our students feel welcome, especially our students of color. That's what we're all about.”

Although the protest was triggered by an incident just over a week ago when the N-word was found written on a campus sidewalk, organizers said it was about larger issues, such as students experiencing “microaggressions” in classes, when comments are made that are offensive or make students feel singled out or uncomfortable.

Not In Our Town's Angelique Racki applauded the student's proactive but peaceful approach to the slur, noting "the students didn't riot, they didn't damage property, they didn't cause a dramatic pointless scene." "They made their case and their presence known in an important meeting," Racki said. "To me, that's a win."

Christy Cole, a senior in philosophy and French major from Freeport, said, "To me, this goes beyond race" and includes gender, sexual orientation, and religion.

Senior Ashley Spain, an elementary education major from Chicago, said the university puts “a lot of effort into diversity” but more needs to be done.

“Diversity is in our mission statement at IWU,” said Kitty White, a senior in sociology from Chicago. “If it's in your mission statement, it has to be your mission.”

Reading each sign in the hallway, Wilson told the students, “It takes courage to do this, and I'm proud of you.”

The students asked for and received permission for two students to speak to the meeting on behalf of the others. The students were greeted with applause as they entered the meeting room.

The first speaker, Emani Johnson, a sophomore in sociology from Chicago, said, the students were not there to discredit the school, but “there's always room for improvement.”

She said there can be no improvement without faculty involvement.

“We're here to recruit you as allies,” Johnson said.

The second speaker, senior Catherine Carini, a music major from Chicago, told faculty members, “We look to you to start the conversation” about incidents such as the word written by he fountain and to be as loud about social justice as they are about classroom subject matter.

Carini is involved in “Engaging Diversity,” a three-day program for white, incoming first-year students that began five years ago. Participation grew to 35 students this year.

Cole said students would be back at a later time with more specific suggestions of what the university could do.

Among ideas some students are contemplating is a semester-long general studies course on diversity issues, rather than just the pre-orientation “Engaging Diversity” program.


Angelique Racki,

NIOT:B/N Raises Awareness of Public Palestinian Slam

Not In Our Town: Bloomington/Normal protesters took to the street this month in front of a Twin Cities taxi business, they raised awareness that stereotype-based humor, especially in public, is a form of bigotry. 

"The message was heard," NIOT:B/N leader Willie Holton Halbert maintained after the hour long protest

A sign outside of Checker Cab, 1513 S. Main St., Bloomington, read "Things I trust more than Obama, a Palestinian on a motorcycle."

"Checker Cab's sign is a passive-aggressive use of a racial and ethnic stereotype to promote a political agenda," said Marc Miller, one of those protesting. "We do not care about political views. We do care about stopping the promotion of hate."

Miller said Aaron Halliday's sign is a form of bullying. After receiving complaints, Halliday posted an explanation on Facebook that stated he had no intention of offending anyone. He said the idea for the sign came from a friend who sent a list of slogans from Facebook.

"Now when I read this, the only thing I could think of was action movies where the hero is trying to get away and is chased on a motorcycle by a man (typically) who is wielding a knife or a gun. Picture Indiana Jones being chased through the desert. This is what I thought of when I read this. It was not meant to offend anyone. It was in my opinion, humor," Halliday said.

A local woman with connections to Palestine is among those upset by the sign.

"I am very grateful that people feel this is wrong," said Adrianna Ponce, a professor at Illinois Wesleyan University's School of Music. "We are against bigotry and I think that it's a pity that this sign is up."

Ponce is originally from Venezuela but is now married to a Palestinian and her son was born in Palestine. She also spent five years teaching music to Palestinian youth. Her son told her about the sign.

"I have seen a number of comments on Facebook and have talked to a few people and am glad that there are a lot of people taking a stand against this sign," she said.

NIOT:BN's Darlene Miller noted support in the form of passers-by honking their horns.

"We also spoke to Mr. Halliday about our very diverse populace in B/N due especially to three universities and State Farm," she related. "People from all over the world come in and out of Bloomington continuously. His signage would rightfully cause fear in some of these visitors. He seemed interested in that thought. We’ll see."


NIOT:B/N to Lead Protest of Cab Sign

Not in Our Town: Bloomington/Normal is helping lead a protest against a standing display in front of Bloomington's Checker Cab that has carried political messages among other things conveying Mexican and Palestinian stereotypes.

NIOT:B/N is inviting area residents to join them from noon to 1 p.m. Tuesday on the sidewalk in front of Checker Cab, 1513 S. Main in Bloomington, at the corner of Main and Lincoln. The sign, under the premise of what the owner purports to trust more than President Obama, has listed "Mexican tap water" and, currently, "a Palestinian on a motorcycle."

"Checker Cab in Bloomington has posted a racist sign for all to see," NIOT:B/N leader Marc Miller related. "We have tried to convince him to take it down, but his response is a wink-and-nod that the words are really inoffensive and misinterpreted, and besides he has free speech.

"The core principle of Not In Our Town is: Intolerant words should not go unchallenged. Declare 'I object to these words and the damage they cause. They have no place in our community. Bigotry should not go unchallenged. Silently tolerating bigotry is wrong. It has no place in our community. We improve our lives and our community when we refuse to tolerate bullying, hatred, and intolerance.'"

NIOT:B/N is supplying signs for protestors. The demonstration will be peaceful, and protestors will be instructed neither to block traffic nor the entrance to the business.

If the sign pictured here is removed during the protest, the protest will end. Come a few minutes ahead of noon -- off-street parking will be necessary.


Kelley: 'Make a Way for Shalom'

"We can pray for peace and still love and support the men and women who have to look war in the face everyday. God, make a way for shalom."

Bloomington First Christian Church Associate Minister Kelley Becker, a Not In Our Town volunteer, in response to the Disciples Of Christ Church's message of support for the families of slain New York Police Department Officers Weinjan Liu and Rafael Ramos. "Their profession put them at risk and yet they served with courage," national Disciples General Minister and President Sharon Watkins wrote. "Lord, give us the strength and motivation to address the fragmentation in our culture and the brokenness of your people. Show us the way of wholeness, following the Prince of Peace, we pray."

The social movement #BlackLivesMatter, which has inspired multiple protests regarding reports of police abuse, publicly condemned the shootings, calling the act "senseless."

“An eye for an eye is not our vision of justice,” the group said in a statement. “We who have taken to the streets seeking justice and liberation know that we need deep transformation to correct the larger institutional problems of racial profiling, abuse, and violence.”


Police Reviewing Responses to Protests, Poverty

As the City of Bloomington and Bloomington Police officials prepare to ramp up efforts to improve community relations, police departments across the nation are taking alternate tacks to addressing protests and community concerns in the wake of recent law enforcement-related incidents.

Following a grand jury's decision not to indict Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson in the recent shooting death of Michael Brown, protesters in Nashville, Tennessee, decided to block a highway, as protesters did in cities across the U.S. that night. Rather than responding with arrests or an armed presence, Metro Nashville Police Chief Steve Anderson shut down Interstate 24 to allow demonstrators to safely stage their protest.

“In Nashville, if you want to come to a public forum and express your thoughts, even if they’re against the government, you’re going to get your First Amendment protection, and you’re going to be treated fairly by the police officers involved," Anderson said. "That’s what we do here in Nashville."

In Richmond, California, Chief Chris Magnus actually joined protesters this week. When about 100 demonstrators assembled downtown on Tuesday, Magnus stood with them, in full police gear, carrying a sign reading #BlackLivesMatter.

"I spoke with my command staff, and we agreed it would be nice to convey our commitment to peaceful protest and that black and brown lives do matter," Magnus related. Deputy Police Chief Allwyn Brown described the protests as "an opportunity for all police departments, including ours, to look inward and examine our approaches and get better."

Bloomington Police Chief Brendan Heffner and Assistant Chief Gary Sutherland attended Tuesday’s relaunch of the Not In Our Town: Bloomington-Normal anti-bigotry/anti-bullying campaign at the McLean County YWCA, while mingling with residents, students, and community leaders. Heffner and Sutherland had attended a recent NIOT summit at the University of Illinois-Chicago to learn about developing civil rights and related matters

"It's important for our residents to know that we are vested in communicating with the public so that we can all live in a safe community ... where we talk to each other and not at each other," Heffner stressed.

Meanwhile, when Tarrant, Alabama, Officer William Stacy was called to a Dollar General store on a shoplifting complaint, he responded with an act of kindness to Helen Johnson, 47, who’d been caught attempting to steal eggs for her niece, daughter, and two grandchildren who’d gone two days without food. Johnson reportedly was short 50 cents for a dozen eggs, and after hearing about her situation, Stacy made a deal with Johnson that if he bought the eggs, she won't shoplift again. Johnson hugged the officer in response.

Another Dollar General customer posted video of the encounter to Facebook. "All across the U.S., law enforcement officers do stuff like this on a daily basis," Stacy said. "I felt like it was the right thing to do."

Since then, the Tarrant Police have received food and household donations from strangers for Johnson's family and others in need.