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Rocky few weeks at OPRF culminate in march

The Nov. 11 demonstration, prompted by swastika incident, was second in two weeks

November 13th, 2018 1:29 PM

Marchers rally in front of Lake Theater on Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018, during a Unite Against Hate March down Lake Street in Oak Park, Ill.. | ALEXA ROGALS/Staff Photographer

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

For the second frigid Sunday in a row, student activists and community members demonstrated outside of the main entrance of Oak Park and River Forest High School to demand the implementation of policies and procedures that might help calm the high school's volatile atmosphere of racial hostility.

In less than a month, at least three separate cases of racist and anti-Semitic graffiti have been reported on campus, a teacher has been disciplined for allegedly saying the n— word multiple times during class and an OPRF student has been charged after allegedly using Apple's AirDrop feature to send the image of a swastika to the phones of students during a school assembly on Friday.

At least 300 people converged outside of OPRF's main entrance on Nov. 11, many dressed in layers and holding signs, one of which read, "Hate doesn't make America great."

Omar Yamini, an Oak Park resident who was among the throng of demonstrators, linked the rhetoric of President Donald Trump to the recent racial incidents that have happened locally and across the country.

"There are some things that some parents aren't nipping in the bud, some of these attitudes," said Yamini, who is a parent of a future OPRF student. "A lot of this is related to the vitriol that the White House has stirred up in a lot of people. That's what makes it dangerous. Donald Trump called himself a nationalist [and some days afterward] a nationalist went into a house of worship and slaughtered a bunch of elderly people worshipping. That's where we are. Words influence behavior."

Paul Ivery, 19, said that he attended Sunday's demonstration "to show my support, but also to show that OPRF is bigger and better than this. People need to learn to accept one another."

After a brief rally at the high school, the hundreds of demonstrators then walked down Lake Street toward the forest preserve near Lake and Harlem in River Forest, where the march ended with another short rally.

Anthony Clark, the OPRF teacher and founder of Suburban Unity Alliance who helped organize Sunday's demonstration, urged the adults to let the young students lead the rally.

"We're here today because as adults we have failed our young people," Clark said. "While they're expending their emotional energy, which they should not have to do in 2018, think about what you are willing to risk as an adult to make change."

Michala Anderson, a student-activist with Students Advocating for Equity, or SAFE, has been at the front of many of the recent demonstrations that have happened at the high school in the wake of racial incidents. She said that she had never seen a crowd of supporters as large as the one that formed on Sunday.

"It's not often that the crowd turns out like this," she said. "This is amazing to me. And it's not just one demographic here."

Oren Jacobson, a Jewish activist and organizer, said that the mass shooting that happened on Oct. 27 at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue, prompted him to have a moment of reckoning.

"I've never considered deeply religious, though I am incredibly proud of who I am. "After the Tree of Life shooting, I decided that it was time for me to start wearing my kippah again," Jacobson said.

"I did that to honor them," he added. "I do that out of proud for who I am and who we are as a people. But I also do that because as a white man in America, I get to walk around hiding if I choose to the thing that people hate most about me. I felt like I owed to folks like Anthony, who don't get to hide who they are and the reasons that people hate them. I am Jew."

Sunday's march attracted people from around the Chicago area, such as Camilo Medina, a sophomore who attends high school in nearby Forest Park.

"I'm here in solidarity to support students who, like me, are Latino, black, Jewish and minorities, and who feel intimidated by symbols of racism," Medina said, speaking to the large throng at OPRF's main entrance.

"I don't know how to describe the individual or individuals who sent these images of hatred," Medina said. "There are simply no words for what they have done. These individuals who sent these images of hatred and white supremacy reflect a flaw in our community — that's what that I am here to address."

Clark urged the adults present to look beyond Trump and address the hatred in their own backyards.

"It's easy for us to go downtown, it's easy for us to look at the TV and sit at home and yell at Trump," Clark said. "I want you all to understand that the conversations of hate did not start in the oval office, they started in our living rooms. Everything we face is systemic, so ask yourself what are you finally willing to risk and sacrifice to push for systemic change in our community."

Sunday's demonstration was the result of a student air-dropping the image of swastika from somewhere in the high school's auditorium to other students' cell phones during a Tradition of Excellence ceremony on Friday.

Oak Park Police said that the image led to a second incident, "when a student reportedly told a parent two students were talking about shooting up the school, prompting the parent to contact police. The report turned out to be a misunderstanding."

On Monday, Oak Park police announced that a 14-year-old OPRF sophomore had been charged with the dissemination of an obscene message and was scheduled to appear in Cook County Juvenile Court on Nov. 14.

Prior to the Friday incident, on Nov. 2 and Nov. 7, school officials discovered racist and anti-Semitic graffiti on school property. And a teacher was reportedly disciplined for allegedly saying the n— word during class.

The incidents prompted students and parents to stage a peaceful protest outside of the main entrance on Nov.4, an hour before a town hall-style forum on the documentary series America to Me hosted by the New York Times, and other local organizations, was scheduled to start. The students interrupted the forum roughly 30 minutes into the event as many in the audience applauded.

And last week, after the graffiti was discovered, the school, along with Suburban Unity Alliance, hosted a community meeting on hate speech. More than 300 people packed the school's South Cafeteria for that event.

The students have been demanding a series of policy changes at the school, including the hiring of more teachers of color and the addition of a racial equity unit of instruction to the school's curriculum, among other demands.

District 200 Supt. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams, who was at the Nov. 4 rally, told students and community members on Nov. 11 that the district is listening to the students and working to implement those changes.

"Our students are our future — whether they are black, Latino, Jewish, muslim, transgender, white — it's about them," she said.

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com    

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  • Teresa Powell (Facebook Verified)

    Posted: November 13th, 2018 3:24 PM

    There is no funding to speak of, though some people have made donations. Through social media and other local networks people show up, make and bring signs, sing, clap, speak and listen. This has been my observation since the earliest days when SUA first contacted my office about a permit for a march several years ago. Teresa Powell, former Village Clerk

  • Raymond Aikens from Oak Park (Facebook Verified)

    Posted: November 13th, 2018 2:49 PM

    I'm interested in who is the Suburban Unity Alliance - Searched their credentials with not much success. "Why isn't this organization rated?" The Form 990 N does not provide the needed information to complete a rating "What does it mean that this organization isn't rated?" It simply means that the organization does not meet our criteria. A lack of a rating does not indicate a positive or negative assessment by Charity Navigator Still curious about how the money is generated to fund this activity, like where it's coming from. I prefer transparency, and since the founder is a teacher at the school, I assume his operation considered a worthwhile activity. Still, who paying this?

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