“It hit close to home.”
First on their hearts and minds was Quintonio LeGrier, a student last semester in the NIU College of Engineering and Engineering Technology, who was killed Dec. 26 by Chicago police responding to a call.
Some, like NIU junior Amirius Clinton, knew LeGrier. Others, such as CEET Dean Promod Vohra, felt compelled to join in the march simply because LeGrier was one of his students.
Beyond remembering the death of a classmate and engineering major was their desire to advocate for peace – for an end to violence, and for a sense of security when they return to the city to visit home.
Randiss Hopkins, an NIU senior and founder of the Remember Project, was traveling outside the United States and could not attend the Thursday march organized by Father Michael Pfleger and lead by the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
That did not stop him from rallying more than a dozen of his Huskie comrades from afar.
“At some point, we have to stand for the lives of our fellow students. Many of our students are from Chicago, and the reality is that it could have been any one of us,” said Hopkins, whose organization fosters a positive influence for the next generation of inner-city youth by bringing college students home for community service work.
“My hope is that we are now more empowered to stand – to stand for what we believe, for justice, for equality and for humanity,” Hopkins added. “I hope that we can now imagine what would happen if we fail to stand as individuals, and most importantly, as one.”
Clinton knew LeGrier through Black Male Initiative, an NIU student organization that aims to graduate as many African-American males as possible through programs in academic achievement, community service, mentoring and leadership development.
The political science major, who was serving as BMI’s director of marketing when LeGrier attended an orientation session, said he “needed to be at the march.”
“We hear about it so much in the news, and in the newspapers, but when it’s someone on the same path as you, and a little younger, something has to be said. If we come together as human beings, we can effect change,” Clinton said. “Treat others the way you want to be treated. That’s what my grandmother taught me.”
Bernadette Chatmann, a fourth-year student majoring in special education with a minor in Community Leadership and Civic Engagement, took her 65-year-old father, Larry, to the march.
She and her father did not know LeGrier, but that did not matter.
“It still affected me. It hurt me,” said Chatmann, who admires the work of the Black Male Initiative.
Touched by the deaths of Chicago youth in recent months, and as the cousin of someone who fell victim to gun violence, she has questions.
Who’s going to stand up for these people? Who’s going to be their voice? And when will this plague end?
“What’s been going on in our society is really heartbreaking,” said Chatmann, who is from suburban Plainfield. “It needs to stop. It’s not OK.”
Chatmann is proud of the New Year’s Eve march, which she said inspired some onlookers to stop what they were doing to take part.
“It was so beautiful to see a mixture of races come together, a mixture of genders. This is not just affecting the black community. It’s affecting the Chicago community,” she said. “To my father, it was an eye-opener. He said it was so beautiful to see young people caring about each other, caring about making a change.”
Vohra, who spoke with the Rev. Jackson during the walk, said he heard a similar mandate delivered to the police: “Be cautious. Respect everyone’s life.”
Like the others, he found the participants polite. He observed their concern about the dire statistics: Chicago suffered nearly 470 homicides in 2015 while more than 2,900 people were shot. He saw their agreement with Father Pfleger’s insistence that “this cannot be tolerated.”
“The marchers want the community to be safer. They want an opportunity for all children to succeed in life. There should not be a difference between the north and south sides of Chicago. All of Chicago should be safer, with equal opportunities for everyone,” Vohra said.
Similarly, he added, universities pursue goals of empowering communities to grow – something LeGrier sought from NIU.
“We pray for his family’s strength,” Vohra said, “and for a peaceful community.”
Vernese Edghill-Walden, senior associate vice president for Academic Diversity and chief diversity officer at NIU, is not surprised that students felt drawn to the march and its opportunity to join in a larger movement.
“Our students come from all over Illinois, but we have many who come from Chicago. They come to NIU to fulfill their dreams and to be successful,” Edghill-Walden said.
“Because this violence has been happening in Chicago, it hits home. It’s part of their community. It’s a reality check. This is not a problem that happened in someone else’s community. This is not something they’re reading about nationally. This is someone they know.”
She urges students to support their classmates, rally around important issues such as peace and non-violence, to remain persistent in their beliefs and to take advantage of opportunities to make their voices heard.
Discussions on social justice will continue on campus during the week of Jan. 18 during NIU’s Martin Luther King Celebration Week.
The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial March steps off at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 19, at the Stevenson Towers residence halls and ends at the MLK Memorial Commons. Hot chocolate will be served afterward. A think tank called “Justice or Else,” which will explore social activism and the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March, then will begin at 7 p.m. in the Duke Ellington Ballroom of the Holmes Student Center.
Katrina Caldwell, assistant vice president for Student Affairs, walked with the Huskie delegation in Chicago.
Although she and her partner have worked to build a comfortable lifestyle that seemingly shields their teenage children from what’s happening in many large U.S. cities, the march nipped at that notion.
“I was reminded that I am part of a larger world, and that we all have a social responsibility to make positive changes happen in that world,” she said. “I have a 17-year-old son. I was reminded that it could have been him. I have a 19-year-old son. I was reminded that it could have been him. It felt personal. Being there made it hit home for me.”
Caldwell said the NIU students were “empowered” by the experience.
“When these types of things happen, you sometimes don’t feel like you can do anything other than grieve and support the family,” she said. “This gave them another outlet.”
(For those who are grieving – and for those students who want to point their friends in crisis to professionals who care – help is available through NIU Counseling & Consultation Services, located in Campus Life Building 200. Walk-in appointments are available from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Most services are free. Call (815) 753-1206 for more information.)
Hopkins hopes that the outcry will grow. “We not only want change, but we demand it,” he said. “The peace march was definitely a step in the right direction.”