SPRINGFIELD — As the Black Lives Matter protests continue in Illinois and throughout the nation, many observers have noticed something that sets the current wave of demonstrations apart from those of previous generations — widespread participation of people of all races, including white people.
That has been true of many demonstrations in Illinois, including those held in predominantly white communities.
State Rep. Tom Demmer, a Republican from Dixon, represents the 90th House District in northwest Illinois. Dixon is the county seat of Lee County which, according to Census Bureau estimates, is nearly 92 percent white. His district also includes parts of Ogle, DeKalb and LaSalle counties —all predominantly white as well.
When video circulated last month of an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, being killed at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer, Demmer said even people in his rural, largely white House district were outraged.
“And I think people have rightly been looking for a way to express some solidarity,” he said. “And also, to express that, you know, that kind of thing is not and shouldn’t be tolerated or accepted in the United States of America. And so, I think it’s been pretty positive to see some of the reaction of people standing up and saying that kind of thing is just not permissible.”
Demmer spoke to Capitol News Illinois for its “Perspectives on Progress” series, a collection of conversations about race that until now has focused on the voices of Black leaders and members of the Legislative Black Caucus.
One of the things those leaders have stressed is that the issue of racial injustice in America isn’t just about one instance of police brutality, or even a long string of such instances stretching back for centuries in American history. They argue it’s a structural problem that reaches into every aspect of American life, from housing and education and job opportunities to access to health care and investment capital for businesses.
Many of them also say that when they return to Springfield for the fall veto session in November, they plan to propose legislation to address those inequities and hope their colleagues, including Republicans, will listen.
Demmer serves as the Deputy House Minority Leader, thereby making him the second-highest ranking Republican in the House. Demmer said he agrees that the problem is more pervasive than a group of isolated incidents, and that he and his GOP colleagues are willing to listen to reform discussions.
“I’m not going to come into this and say that I’ve got the answers for this,” he said. “I mean, I want to be in a position of listening to the suggestions and the solutions that are offered by many of my colleagues and the Black and Latino caucuses — my colleagues who have been personally touched by this, who see this in a very pronounced way in their districts. I think an appropriate role right now is for us to listen and to be supportive of, you know, things that our colleagues are telling us would improve the situation in their districts and, more broadly, in the entire state of Illinois.”
In particular, Demmer said he wants to hear ideas about ways to bring more investment into communities of color.
“I think that’s definitely an area that that I’m interested in and can be supportive of is trying to provide that spark, in some cases towards turning around the economic downturn or the pressures and the tide that have been pulling against these kind of new investments and new opportunities in those communities,” he said. “I certainly think that’s a big piece of the puzzle, is trying to provide more and higher quality opportunities for people who live and work in some of these communities who have been hardest hit by so much of this economic strife for decades.”
One of the things Demmer said he and his colleagues will be more reluctant to endorse, however, is the call that has been heard in many demonstrations to “defund the police.”
It’s a phrase that may mean different things to different people — some say it simply means shifting resources from policing to human services, such as mental health care, and economic development while others say it’s a call to completely reinvent the idea of policing and law enforcement.
“I think that it’s not, as some people have tried to paint this, this stark contrast between either supporting the status quo and everything that’s happening with police today, or defund the police and abolish police departments,” he said. “I mean, you’ve seen everything across that spectrum. And I really don’t think that that either of those alternatives is appropriate.”
“We saw just this past weekend in Chicago, over 100 people were shot in one weekend,” he added. “This shows that there’s a widespread problem with violence. Police officers have a role to play, and do so in many, many communities all around the country and around the world, in promoting public safety and a huge number of incidences. Now, it doesn’t mean that we should, you know, look the other way when people abuse that position. But I certainly think that the concept that’s been talked about in some parts of the country about eliminating police departments I think is a fundamentally wrong message and wrong solution to take out of this problem.”
Demmer said he is willing to look at a number of ways to reform policing in Illinois, such as licensing police officers and working legislatively to refine the concept of “qualified immunity,” which often makes it difficult for victims of police brutality to sue for damages. But more than anything, he said he wants to hear ideas from people whose communities would be most affected.
“You know, honestly, I think I am open and want to listen and be supportive (of) some folks who have personal experience…and have more direct interaction in their districts with the kinds of steps that could be taken that would improve the credibility and the relationship between communities and the police officers that serve them,” he said.