On Oct. 23, we spotted a pickup truck with large flags driving in Campustown. One was a desecrated American flag, cut in half and attached to a Confederate flag. The truck also had a black flag. It appeared to have the word “amendment” on it.
Our car, and the truck, stopped at Fourth and Green streets. We both heard the driver yell profanity at the top of his lungs, followed by a racial slur. He yelled twice.
The driver was a white male. We estimate he was 20 to 25 years old. He appeared to be dressed in a camouflage outfit.
He was screaming at a dark-skinned pedestrian who was walking in the street-crossing area a few feet from the front of this late-model Ford pickup truck.
We were terrified, even though this hate message wasn’t for us. We are white. But we are also Jewish. This driver’s hate could extend to us.
The intersection of Fourth and Green is two blocks south of the Chabad Center for Jewish Life, and two blocks northwest of the Cohen Jewish Hillel Center. Jews gather to pray at both locations.
We would not have called the police to report a Confederate flag. What we saw and heard was more than speech. It was a verbal assault directed at a person of color by an angry white man who was dressed in camouflage.
The scene reminded us of James Alex Fields Jr., a young white nationalist. He drove to Charlottesville, Va., to participate in the Unite the Right rally. He did not go to that university town to murder anyone. But in a frenzied moment, he weaponized his car. He struck and killed Heather Heyer, a pedestrian.
His white-supremacist free speech that weekend served as a legal predicate to a murder and hate-crime conviction after he stepped on the accelerator and took a pedestrian’s life.
Beyond the free-speech controversy, a broader issue confronts all of us in Champaign-Urbana. Our community’s reputation is being degraded every time a noose is hung, a swastika is spray-painted and a Confederate flag is openly displayed.
At the intersection where we witnessed this incident, there are three major high-rise projects. Up and down Green Street, more than a dozen major building projects are in progress or were recently completed. That street alone has tens of millions of dollars of new construction, all premised on the assumption of a safe community.
Building trade workers who earn good paychecks and benefits are financially tied to Green Street. So are their families. A mile south, there are major sports and entertainment venues. Nearby, a research park is a magnet for investment and innovation. A mile north of the incident, there is a vibrant downtown with nightlife. More generally, the university depends on a climate that is welcoming to all people.
Even if you believe this incident is simply free speech, we believe that you, your children and your grandchildren would not be safe in that terrifying moment that we observed.
The incident has made our city poorer. Champaign is less safe for blacks and other minorities. Champaign is less inviting for businesses to locate and stay here. Champaign is a less attractive place to bring friends and families for sports, entertainment and downtown nightlife, no matter our race. The “free speech” we witnessed that Wednesday night has cost everyone.
Michael H. LeRoy is a professor in the School of Labor and Employment Relations and the College of Law at the University of Illinois.