Monticello protest5

Participants hold signs and listen to speakers during a ‘Demonstration for Justice and Peace’ on June 6 in downtown Monticello.

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It’s a cool morning in Birdland, and I’m mulling over the wonderful community event in Monticello yesterday.

In under a week, some local young people planned a demonstration for peace and justice. They got permits for a parade, lined up speakers and publicized the rally.

Of course, it generated a lot of discussion on social media; people concerned about violence and interlopers made their opinions known. A counter protest was even publicized briefly before disappearing.

I worried some about going, about trouble, about social distancing. But I decided to make a sign, wear a mask and a sunhat, and keep my distance.

When I arrived, the square was already crowded, and I wandered among many of my masked neighbors. The masks made it hard to recognize people, and so I sought out the shady side of the courthouse, gravitating toward some women who looked about my age. I approached them, trying to see beyond the masks and hats. They were my age! It was my friends, Mary B. and Sheree!

“We were just talking about you,” they told me.

Pretty soon, a young friend, Rachel, who went to school with all of our sons, joined us, and we stood chatting, basking in the warmth of the neighborly crowds and sunshine.

Soon the festivities began. The emcee, a young Marine Corps veteran, reminded us of our purpose for gathering and introduced the speakers.

How inspiring to hear these messages of hope that we can do the important work before us.

How encouraging to hear acknowledgment of the difficulty of our tasks.

My friends and I talked about recognizing our privilege and educating ourselves on history and current policy that oppress people. We decided that our work is to open our minds to new ideas and to listen to others. It is also to challenge policies that lead to the ongoing problems.

People wandered through the crowd offering bottles of chilled water and snacks. When the parade began, we marched and chanted, the names of a few of the dead ringing through the streets of this usually quiet town: “Say his name: George Floyd. Say her name: Breonna Taylor.”

As we walked, I reflected on why we were there. Though most, but not all, of us were white, we called for justice by saying “Black Lives Matter.” Is not everybody’s life sacred? Of course, it is. But too often we need a reminder that Black Lives Matter as much as white lives, and this is why we shine a light on policy that seems to devalue the lives of people of color.

I caught up with more friends, Barb (who sprayed my arms with sunscreen) and Marilyn, and more of the kids my sons went to school with. It seemed that everywhere I looked were people I knew.

As we took the parade route down toward the high school, we caught sight of a few folks standing in their yards, some with signs, some without. Around one corner peered two older women just quietly observing. I waved, and one of the women waved back.

I was impressed with how many businesses were supportive of our demonstration. As we took a final lap around the square, I glanced over to the DQ, and two people stood at the window, just smiling to beat the band. When I noticed one of our fliers on their door, I told myself that even though it’s not usually on my diet, the day was hot, and maybe I’d need a Blizzard when we were through marching.

The parade ended with a nice sendoff with final acknowledgment of the people whose hard work made our gathering possible and kept us safe, and an invitation from the emcee to help him clean up.

This young man reminded me of my father when he said, “Let’s leave Monticello cleaner than we found it,” just what my dad used to say about our campsite. And now I’m crying, thinking how Dad would have loved to see this demonstration of true community.

The events of this week have challenged my thinking in so many ways.

I know from experience and witness that Monticello, like many (or all?) small Midwestern towns, has had a troubled relationship with race. And now I know what a welcoming community we can have in Monticello if we chose to continue this work.

My thanks go out to the young people who organized this. The kids are all right.

March in Beauty; Chant for Peace; Blessed Be

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. If you’re missing your weekly dose of Birdland Letters in The News-Gazette, you can still read them every week in the Piatt County Journal-Republican and at letterfrombirdland.blogspot.com. Consider subscribing to support your small-town newspaper. You can follow Birdland on Instagram and Twitter @BirdlandLetters. Mary can be reached at letterfrombirdland@gmail.com or via snail mail care of this newspaper.