MOMENCE — As the Momence City Council conducted its meeting inside city hall on Monday, a Black Lives Matter protest went on outside on Washington Street near the intersection of Dixie Highway.
The protesters, many of whom spoke at the council meeting during the citizen forum portion of the agenda, had issues with statements Mayor Chuck Steele had made regarding an earlier BLM march on June 9 in Momence.
In a From the Mayor’s Desk letter in the Momence Progress Reporter published July 1, Steele was critical of council member Rebekah Cope-Evers, who participated in the June 9 march.
In the letter, he wrote, in part: “What should happen to people who have no evidence or facts simply criticizing a community and charging racism without any evidence? In my view, such charges should not be supported by elected officials. For that reason, I ask for the resignation of Alderwoman Rebekah Cope-Evers. She supported demonstrations which unjustly criticized our community and its police.”
Those who spoke during the citizen forum voiced their disapproval of Steele, while voicing their support for Cope-Evers.
Julia McDonald, of Kankakee, spoke and said she’s supported festivals and businesses in Momence in the past.
“I feel welcome here,” she said. “If my skin was a different color, or darker, I wouldn’t feel welcome. From what’s been coming out of the mayor’s office, I’d almost feel fearful.”
Cope-Evers wrote a recent letter to the editor to the Progress Reporter about her treatment by Steele at the June 16 City Council meeting, saying, “The mayor shouted at me, threatened me, and made false accusations. I was elected to my position; so, it is not under the authority of the mayor to ask for my resignation. I have no intention of resigning.”
Cope-Evers was at Monday’s council meeting, but Steele was absent.
Cope-Evers read a statement at Monday’s meeting: “The last few weeks have been very stressful for me and my family. I was very discouraged by the letter from the mayor’s desk in the Progress Reporter this week that continued to ask for my resignation.
“One of the reasons my family moved to Momence five years ago was because we saw that Momence had a diverse population to be proud of, and we embraced that. I could never have imagined that joining a small peaceful event with my 8-year-old daughter would be so misunderstood and provoke such a strong reaction.
“Like many people across the world I was horrified by the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. It is unconscionable that these things are still happening in 2020. It’s time for everyone to acknowledge the extent to which racial inequalities still exist in this country. This is why I went to the event on June 9.
“I also wanted to stand up and let every black child in our town know that their life matters to me. It is unfortunate that my attendance was misinterpreted as an attack on Momence. It is very disheartening to be misrepresented, but I will keep seeking the good for our city, regardless of what anyone thinks of me and my family.”
About 25 to 30 protesters remained outside City Hall during the duration of the meeting, chanting “Black Lives Matter” and “Rebekah, Rebekah” in support of Cope-Evers. Mya Hendryx, of Momence, was the organizer of the Monday protest and the march on June 9.
She said she was very accepted in Momence when she moved there two years ago but began “speaking up and standing up for what she believes in” recently.
“Ever since then I’ve been very unwelcome here in this town, and I’ve gotten a lot of looks and a lot of negative comments on Facebook,” Hendryx said. “It’s just been ridiculous, and I’m not going to stop fighting for what I believe in.”
Hendryx said the protesters came Monday to bring the #8cantwait principles to city council, fighting for police reform and to show their support for Cope-Evers. The #8cantwait principles are aimed at police reform that bans the use of choke holds, provides de-escalations tactics and other initiatives.
Travis Miller, of Kankakee, was one of the protesters and also spoke at the council meeting. He said he is a community activist.
“We’re not saying that white lives don’t matter, we’re not saying that all lives don’t matter,” he said. “What we’re saying is Black lives matter just as well. For [Cope-Evers] to stand with us, we wanted to come out here and show our support.”
Momence Chief of Police Brian Brucato said there has been no incidents between police and minorities during his tenure as chief since 2017. He was at Monday’s meeting.
“We just listen to what they had to say and take it into consideration,” Brucato said. “We’re part of the NAACP, and we do meet once a month with the president, Theodis Pace. ... We’re here for the people.”