If not us then who?-Activists fight against police brutality

By Oreoluwa Ojewuyi, Staff Reporter

The Black Lives Matter movement has influenced social and political change in the United States and confronts issues of police brutality and racism. 

The movement has received support from activists of all different backgrounds who seek out justice in a multitude of ways for Black and Brown communities affected by the impacts of racism and police brutality. 

SIU alumnus and grassroots activist, Travis Washington, created “The Hands Up Act” to pass a law that would punish officers with a 15 year prison sentence for shooting unarmed citizens. 


Nancy Maxwell is a community organizer, and member of the Southern Illinois Unity Coalition, an organization aiming to end gun violence and racism in the Southern Illinois region. 

Lonita Baker, attorney for Breonna Taylor’s family, helped the family receive a $12 million dollar settlement from the city of Louisville. 

Travis Washington-“If Harriet Tubman can run 180 miles to freedom, I can deliver the Hands Up Act.”

 “I’m at 2.7 million signatures.  In 2020 when George Floyd, Shawn Bell, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor were murdered, the petition reached about a million signatures within a day,” Washington said. 

Washington was inspired to create the petition because of a disconnect between the police and Black and Brown communities. 

“The criminal justice system has been shaped and warped to protect the predator instead of protect the prey,” Washington said. “If you’re a brown or Black person being abused and you look on the internet and see the police killing unarmed Black people you’re not going to call the police.”

Washington’s petition has received support from the mothers of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Antoine Rose. The Hand’s Up Act has not been made into a law, but Washington said activism and protest have influenced change already.


 “Louisville banning no knock warrants is a wonderful thing because that tells me that change happens when people come outside to protest and do whatever they can to be heard,” Washington said.  

Washington said he believes demilitarizing the police and voting will also begin discussion on police reform.  

“Black Lives Matter voices are being heard. If you’re not listening, you will be voted out,” Washington said.

Washington credits protests for raising the level of social consciousness throughout the United States. 

 “It makes us realize systemic racism on all levels not only in the criminal justice system. It’s a universal sign of truth that brutality happens in every single form of government or organized positions,” Washington said. 

Nancy Maxwell-“We can’t help people all over the country until we fix where we are at.”

Maxwell said quite a few towns in Southern Illinois are sundown towns, the goal of the Southern Illinois Unity Coalition is to address racism in the Southern Illinois area first. Maxwell said she believes activists must start at the local level in order to create social and political change. 

“When I first moved down here, it felt like I had been transported to the past. Things have improved but some things are still the same and some places make you say a prayer before you step foot inside,” Maxwell said.  

The Coalition is currently planning a “Stop the Violence” event to combat racism, police brutality and gun violence in the Southern Illinois region.  

One city from each county in Southern Illinois has been planning their own Stop the Violence events.  On October 23 the Southern Illinois Unity Coalition held a candlelight march in Carbondale to commemorate the lives lost to gun violence. On Saturday October, 25 community members enjoyed painting, free food and prizes. The weekend ended on Sunday October, 25 with a prayer vigil. 

Maxwell said allies are an integral part of organizing events and creating change in the Southern Illinois community. Allies visited Vienna, Illinois prior to a protest organized by the Southern Illinois Unity Coalition to ensure the town would be safe for Black protestors to march without danger. 

“Allies can support us by standing back and helping us spread our platforms and messages. They can also provide protection,” Maxwell said. 

Maxwell said she doesn’t want the momentum of the protests to die down.

“There are always protests and outcry and then it goes quiet and the cycle begins again. Here in the southern Illinois area we’re going to keep it going. This time George Floyd is the last straw. This time we don’t want to stop. We have planned events all through the winter,” Maxwell said. 

As a former police officer, Maxwell said the four months she spent in the police academy cannot adequately prepare officers for the things they will encounter in the communities they’re meant to serve. 

“By no means does the police need to go all the way away. We need to add people to deal with the extra stuff that [police officers] aren’t even trained for. I’m a rape crisis counselor and advocate, I would love to be on call for the police and give them that relief,” Maxwell said. 

Maxwell said diversifying the police force is important. 

“Not having officers of color is a problem. If you haven’t walked in a Black person’s shoes you will never know what they go through. A Black person doesn’t have time to explain their whole struggle to you. But if I’m a Black officer or counselor there’s no need to explain the added struggle [of race],” Maxwell said. 

Maxwell said if people don’t vote they won’t be able to bring about any change in their communities. 

 “I feel like I owe it to the people who gave up their lives, to go out and vote today. They suffered so much so that I can go to the polling place and put my ballot through and make a decision to help a person who can help make changes in our communities,” Maxwell said.

Maxwell said it takes everyone being a spokesperson for change in order to combat racism and violence in the United states. 

“At the end of the day everyone will have to come together for this to end. It can’t just be some of us it has to be all of us,” Maxwell said

 “Get out there advocate boots on the ground understand what it is you’re fighting for”

Legal activism is an integral part of forming police reform. Months of protests following the death of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor resulted in one of the largest wrongful death settlements for a victim of police brutality. 

Baker built up an aggressive civil case to receive the historic settlement for Taylor’s family.

“In March we immediately began to investigate the night that Breonna was killed. We started interviewing neighbors, taking pictures, investigating the scenes, and requesting records from the city and police department,” Baker said. 

 Taylor’s legal team has been aggressive in how they pursue the case, according to Baker. 

“We retained experts in the law enforcement field as it relates to how search warrants are executed, excessive force experts as well as economists to project the loss of income Breonna would’ve made over her life,” Baker said. 

Although Taylor’s legal team was successful in receiving the settlement on September 14, Baker was disappointed by the ruling to not charge the officers involved in Breonna’s case. 

“I am a former prosecutor so I know that the law was incorrectly applied. It’s our belief that Daniel Cameron didn’t even present charges on behalf of Breonna Taylor,” Baker said. 

Baker said police officers are discriminatory in who they receive no knock warrants for, like the one that resulted in the death of Breonna Taylor. 

 “The vast majority of no knock warrants are gotten for Black and brown individuals. They’re too dangerous for both the law enforcement officers as well as the individuals they’re looking for and bystanders,” Baker said. 

Baker is continuing to fight for justice for Breonna Taylor by requesting for a different prosecutor to be assigned to the case. 

“Double jeopardy isn’t applied to a grand jury decision. Further, the grand jury was never asked to determine whether or not the officers should be charged. So no, her case is not closed in our eyes,” Baker said. 

Baker credits protests for helping get legislation introduced, like Breonna’s Law, that was passed that banned no knock warrants in Louisville, Kentucky. 

Baker said her life experiences have made it possible for her to relate to the people she is representing and to be a more well rounded attorney.  

“My father was murdered when I was ten years old. I grew up raised by a single mom and had to overcome those obstacles. I’m able to relate more to certain individuals who may not make the best decisions in life,” Baker said. 

Baker said everyone should be given a shot at rehabilitation.

Baker said protests have provided a platform to get people to understand the criminal justice system, the importance of elections and down to ballot races.

“Without those protests our elected leaders may not be as responsive to change,” Baker said. “We have to look at the overall political landscape and picture and know the roles that everyone plays. All the way from city hall down to the president.” 

Baker said people who support the cause should get on the ground and understand what they’re fighting for. 

 “We are important because we can’t stand by and continue to allow unarmed black and brown and marginalized people to be unjustly treated by the justice system. If we truly want change we don’t have to like politics we have to love it because that is the only way we can get true change,” Baker said.

Reporter Ore Ojewuyi can be reached at [email protected] or on twitter @odojewuyi

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