by Evelyn Reynolds
The Champaign County Racial Justice Task Force met for the first time on Thursday, February 11 at the Brookens Administrative Center. The task force consists of 21 members, just one person shy of the number of Champaign County Board members. However, it wasn’t the size of the group that struck the attention of audience members that evening. It was the fact that there were no microphones or video recording equipment in the room. When audience members inquired about the notable absence, County Board Chair Pattsi Petri stated that the task force “has no budget”. Task force member Maryam Ar-Raheem commented that she felt the omission of microphones was a “hostile act”. Based on the nodding of several member’s heads, the sentiment seemed to be shared.
The meeting began with a motion by Ester Patt to move public comments to the beginning of the meeting instead of the end, as listed on the meeting agenda. After some discussion, the members unanimously voted for the change. Comments from the public included: outrage over the missing microphones, the lack of monetary resources for the task force, encouragement to let the members direct the group, the significance of race in all areas of analysis, and disparities in the local criminal justice system.
While the meeting was mostly method-oriented, some important decisions were made. The group decided that they would rather work together as one group (at least initially) with a focus on policing and the criminal justice system, rather than dividing into three working groups that would place emphasis on mental health, employment opportunities, and housing. Petrie suggested that a facilitator be chosen from the group to organize future meetings. Sam Byndom, Director of Urbana Adult Education was chosen as facilitator. At the start of the meeting Francena Turner of Black Lives Matter C-U had been chosen as meeting recorder. Once the power was shifted from the County Board Chair to the task force members, things started to roll! The group decided that their current mission statement was vague and not aligned with their ideas of what the task force should focus on. They decided to rescind the mission statement and write their own. One area of contention in the mission statement was that the task force would have 18 months to provide a final report. Having been enacted in October, but not meeting until February only leaves the task force 14 months to complete their work. Many members felt that a correction should be made or that additional time be given to sum the 18 months. This issue, along with the omission of microphones will be presented at the next County Board meeting.
By the meeting’s end, Pattsi Petrie was dismissed from the task force, and two Black members emerged in positions of leadership in the group which consists of nearly half Black folks. In just one meeting, the Racial Justice Task Force became what many members of Build Programs, Not Jails, Black Lives Matter C-U, and other activist groups had envisioned and requested at numerous County Board meetings. The task force includes individuals who are dedicated to justice and unafraid to confront racism. With adequate support this group can carry out important work, and provide comprehensive recommendations for racial justice.
Evelyn Reynolds is the co-founder and a lead organizer in Black Lives Matter Champaign-Urbana.