CHAMPAIGN — Chants of “No justice, no peace” rang out from the front of the group of mostly Illinois athletes, coaches and administrators that stretched along First Street during Monday’s Black Lives Matter march in Champaign.
From the back came chants of “This is what community looks like” for a group that included athletes from multiple sports — Black and White alike.
Illinois football player Marquez Beason held a sign that read “Don’t love our culture if you can’t love us.” His teammate, Verdis Brown, carried one asking “Does my complexion scare you.”
Traffic stopped along the route included an older White community member in a van at the corner of First and Springfield with a fist raised in solidarity out the window. Further down First Street sat a solo occupant in a car with Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” blasting from the sound system. Hope Whitman, the wife of Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman, passed out water at the halfway point on both First and Fourth streets.
Monday’s march brought hundreds of Illinois athletes, coaches and administrators together for a single cause not related to the field of competition. A cause event organizer Kendrick Green wanted to draw attention to given his platform as an Illinois football player.
“We were supposed to be getting ready to go to meetings and practice right now,” Green said before the march started. “Instead, we’re going to step out here and give the community an opportunity to come together.
“This is an every day thing — a real problem in our society today. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but this is a small step and a step in the right direction.
“We’re athletes. We have a platform in our community — especially here at this university. I think that speaks volumes. We need to use our platform in the right, positive way, and this is a great way to do it. I feel like we should have done something like this a long time ago.”
Green was joined by dozens of his Illinois football teammates. What looked like the entirety of the Illinois volleyball team also participated in support, along with athletes from soccer and men’s and women’s basketball.
“Black people have been protesting for years, so I think the most important part today is that it’s not just Black people here,” Illinois senior safety Kendall Smith said, seizing the opportunity to speak to the group when the stopped at the Champaign Police Department. “I appreciate you guys who are not Black who are here and who are supporting us and who are helping us fight. That’s when the change is going to happen.”
Nate Hobbs also spoke to the group during the stop in downtown Champaign. Hobbs is from Louisville, Ky., and took part in a march there earlier in the summer in response to the death of Breonna Taylor at the hands of the Louisville police.
Hobbs also noted that the Illinois football players were supposed to be in practice when the march was happening.
“Practice don’t matter,” Hobbs said. “Football games don’t matter compared to a life being taken away and a life being undervalued. There’s probably been some stuff that happened to ya’ll, but none of that stuff happened to us. We’re here for other people. You feel me?
“If we all can keep doing this and bring other people along, that’s how we stop this. That’s how we stop systemic racism. That’s how we stop people getting killed for the color of their skin. I don’t care what anybody says. Love will always be stronger than hatred. This right here is love.”
The Illini men’s basketball contingent included Adam Miller.
The freshman guard just barely made it back to Champaign for the march, but wanted to make sure he could participate. Miller has been outspoken in sharing his thoughts on race-related social issues the last several months.
“Some people are like, ‘Watch what you say,’” Miller said. “I feel like everybody should have equal rights, so I’m not going to be afraid to say anything. Martin Luther King did it and he wasn’t afraid. Malcolm X did it and he wasn’t afraid. It’s our time to come around now.”
Green coordinated with the Champaign Police Department in advance of Monday’s march, setting up a preset route running north on First Street from Grange Grove outside Memorial Stadium to the police department and back to the south end of campus on Fourth Street. A preexisting relationship with Cobb — who is also a Omega Psi Phi fraternity brother — aided in the planning.
“The last three days I’ve been on the phone so much,” Green said, noting that Illinois football coach Lovie Smith was the first person he apprised of the idea other than his teammates. Green also spoke with Josh Whitman and multiple people from athletics communications in the DIA.
“I never thought something like this would take this much planning,” Green continued. Fliers for the march were also shared on Twitter. “Social media is a powerful thing. A few tweets, and here we are. It also shows that all the people see there is a problem in society that needs to be addressed.”
Monday’s athlete-driven march was one of many that have taken place both in Champaign and across the country in response to multiple incidents of police violence. What has stuck with Green the most as those incidents have continued is the fact police are “supposed to protect us.”
“All cops aren’t bad cops, obviously, but there are bad seeds,” Green said. “Bad seeds need to be removed. We need to raise awareness. Police need to protect everyone.
“Black lives matter is not saying that your life doesn’t matter or anybody else’s life doesn’t matter that’s not black. It’s saying we matter just as much as you guys. We deserve to be protected by the police just as much as you guys. That’s what I feel like this march can accomplish.”