“It’s always you difficult ones.”
Those were the words a Verona Area High School staff member directed at recent graduate Tamiya Smith earlier this school year while Smith attempted to comfort her younger sister, who was visibly upset at something happening in the school.
“That stuck with me,” she said to the crowd. “You know, what is she trying to say? I’m difficult, you’re talking about my skin color, it’s always you difficult ones? You talking about us Black people?”
Her words echoed around Veteran’s Park on the evening of Wednesday, June 17, as hundreds of people sat on the grass and stood in the parking lot around the shelter to hear the experiences of Black community members who want to see an end to racism and not fear for their lives.
The March for Racial Justice started with speeches from Black community members, many who work with the Verona Area School District or the City of Verona. From there, hundreds filled the streets as protesters marched up Lincoln Street to East Verona Avenue before turning onto South Main Street and looping back to Veteran’s Park.
Protesters carried signs, proclaiming “Black Lives Matter,” “No Justice, No Peace” and “Am I next?”
The protest in Verona and others around the United States were in response to the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and have referred to numerous others who have been killed during interactions with police. Here, speakers asked white people to educate themselves on the injustices toward Black people, have difficult conversations about race and asking white people to be better allies by using their privilege to amplify Black voices and experiences.
Smith said she talked to other school staff members about that comment. But as far as she knew, nothing had been done about it.
Smith continued to see the staff member who made the comment on a regular basis, she said.
“That small incident just shows you how racial injustice is a real thing, and it’s happening to these students every day,” Smith added. “It’s happening to more than students, Black people, period, every day.”
Prior to the start of the march, Smith asked the white people in the crowd to continue to advocate for the Black community and prevent Black Lives Matter from being just a trend, rather than a movement.
“We don’t need you to just show up,” she said. “We need you to use your voice, is what we need. If you choose not to speak up, if you choose not to use your voice because you’re afraid, you’re uncomfortable, imagine how we feel. Imagine how Black people feel going outside the house.
“We’re uncomfortable, we’re afraid,” Smith added. “That’s no excuse – there’s no excuse.”
A second pandemic
Tamera Stanley held back tears as she told the crowd that she had thought and prayed about what she was going to say at the March.
Stanley, a Black woman who works as the administrative executive assistant for VASD and who introduced speakers, said the world is in a time of crisis, as COVID-19 has disrupted every part of normal life.
“I need to let you know that we’re also in a time of crisis of racial injustice,” she said. “But we’re also dealing with a pandemic of racism and racial injustice that is challenging the breathing of our people of color in our society. And it needs to stop.”
But Stanley encouraged people in the crowd to know there is hope that racial injustice and hatred based on the color of one’s skin will end, because it starts with them.
“Hope can begin with us,” she said. “But we need to come together as a community, and we can show the world how it needs to be done.”
‘Don’t brush it off’
Debbie Biddle said the recent events have caused her to feel despair, anger and frustration.
While Biddle, the founder and owner of diversity and inclusion consulting business The People Company and member of the Verona Area Board of Education, has seen racism and injustice her entire life, she said, she’s worked to not become numb to repeated events.
She said she is aware that she, her husband or sons are no different from some of the other Black people who have been killed in the last decade.
“I’m glad about the outrage, and the interest, and the protest of people – people who don’t look like me,” she said. “But I’m conflicted about the fact that it took seeing a man murdered in broad daylight for people to engage.”
Biddle asked people in the crowd to play a part in ending racism by putting their egos aside and acknowledging that they might not have always been right when it comes to race.
“Forget yourself just long enough to lend a helping hand to somebody else,” she said. “Make those hard choices, take those tough actions – agree to think better, agree to do better, agree to be better.”
Chad Kemp, a lifelong Verona resident and alder in District 1, asked for the people in the crowd who came back to Veteran’s Park following the march to consider how the world moves on from racism.
It starts with empathizing with one another and understanding the human condition, education and being accepting of difference, Kemp said.
“When someone’s telling you that something’s happening to them, don’t brush it off,” he said. “Question it; ask why they feel that way.”