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Concerns raised over Sandwich racism protest organizer's Facebook post


SANDWICH – A Sandwich protest against racism remains scheduled this week after social media users questioned whether it will remain peaceful after a controversial post from its organizer started circulating.

A May 28 Facebook post from Presley O’Sullivan, 26, of Sandwich, organizer of the protest set for 3 p.m. Friday in the city’s downtown reads: “They should be rioting. Burn it all. Make sure they see you, make sure they hear you. You know what else isn’t peaceful? Being [expletive] murdered by people that are supposed to be protecting you.” The post remains posted and public on his page as of 7:40 p.m. Thursday.

O’Sullivan said Thursday evening the expectation is for the protest to remain peaceful and he is opposed to violence at an event he’s holding in a town he grew up in and is choosing to raise his own family in. However, he said, he was not surprised by the reaction to his post on social media.

“I can understand why people would find that post from a week ago relatively unsettling, but I believe there is a nation that is crying and it was something that may have posted out of emotional anger,” O’Sullivan said.

The update comes after O’Sullivan, the city’s mayor and city police all came to the table on Thursday morning to talk about community safety measures to be taken for the protest.

O’Sullivan said he’s received threats, including those pointed at his kids, since Thursday morning after news of the event started to gain traction. On the flip side, he said, he also has gotten quite a few messages from people who are very happy about the event being created.

“And I’m advocating for a very peaceful and safe environment for us to exercise our rights,” O’Sullivan said.

Sandwich Police Chief Jim Bianchi said he was aware of the post in question and that he anticipates having a frank conversation with Sullivan about the post before the event begins. He confirmed the event is still on for Friday and that police will still be present for the safety of protesters and others as promised per discussions earlier Thursday.

O’Sullivan said during the Thursday morning meeting with city officials and police he doesn’t anticipate the event going longer than 7 p.m. His plan was to have drinking water available for participants to prevent overheating, with the help of some local businesses.

O’Sullivan said the main goal of the event is to bring people together in a small but opinionated town to stand up against racism and to show it’s possible to do so peacefully. He said he admits he has never organized anything of this nature or potential size before.

“But it’s something I feel very strongly about and at the end of the day, also, I want everybody to be as safe and peaceful as possible,” O’Sullivan said.

During the event, participants will walk a route starting in front of City Hall on Railroad Street, turning on Terry Street, traveling west on Route 34, turning on Main Street and going back up Railroad Street.

Possible road closures include Railroad Street – similar to closures the city enacts for events like auto shows. The road closures will not include Route 34, with participants expected to use sidewalks.

Bianchi said his main concern in the event’s planning is public safety, especially considering the next few days are supposed to be hot outside. Along with protecting protesters, he said to O’Sullivan, he also wanted to address community concerns about property also being protected by having a police presence at the event.

“Because you know that all of those businesses have people living above them,” Bianchi said. “So that’s peoples’ homes, too. So we want to make sure that we respect all of that.”

The update comes after surrounding areas – including DeKalb, Sycamore and Aurora – were the sites of peaceful protests, which followed the police-involved death of Minneapolis man George Floyd on May 25. After those initial protests disbanded, arrests related to looting and property destruction later occurred in DeKalb and Aurora.

There was no apparent connection between the peaceful protesters in DeKalb and the looting occurring thereafter.

As of 8:30 a.m. Thursday, there were no businesses with boarded up windows in the downtown Sandwich area.

According to 2018 U.S. Census data, Sandwich had a population of more than 7,600 people. About 91% of those people were identified as white and less than 1% were identified as black, per the data.

Throughout his time living in Sandwich, O’Sullivan said he has been made aware of instances of racism within the community. To those who say that racism isn’t a problem in the city and are critical of the event, he said, he would argue that in itself is a reason why to organize such a protest – for people to build awareness of experiences outside of their own.

O’Sullivan said a few Sandwich police officers previous had reputations of being more aggressive in dealings with the community and being overzealous on the job. He said those officers have since left the department.

When city police officials asked if that impression of them remains within the community, O’Sullivan said he believes current city police presence has been generally positive and officers’ love for the community shows while on the job.

Bianchi said the police department has an internal investigations protocol in place for addressing complaints against police officers. Sure, he said, there might be a few usual suspects who might make those complaints to advance their own agendas.

“But we take every complaint seriously,” Bianchi said.

O’Sullivan said he was not aware of that procedure within the department to address those complaints. But he was relieved to hear it, he said.

“And that’s how you build trust in your community,” O’Sullivan said.

Bianchi said department administration would not outright object to officers participating in an event like this.

“Obviously, they still have to do their job, but there will be no disciplining” officers who choose to participate, Bianchi said.

O’Sullivan said about 40 people have expressed interest in participating in the protest via social media so far. However, he said, he wanted to be prepared in planning for a larger group.

O’Sullivan said he hasn’t received any credible threats for organizing the event, nor has he received any criticism from minority groups for organizing the event. Quite the contrary, he said, he has had the backing of people in minority groups in planning the event so far.

O’Sullivan said he did hear concerns from local businesses about looters coming in from outside of town and destroying their property. He said he also understands the concerns of those who live near the protest route.

“My number one priority is making sure everyone is safe,” O’Sullivan said.

O’Sullivan said him organizing the protest wasn’t at the request of anybody in particular, nor is it on behalf of anybody. He said he felt personally compelled to do something after seeing so much negativity in the world and that he believes the people of Sandwich are capable of protesting those wrongs in the world peacefully.

However, O’Sullivan said, part of the reason why he wanted to organize the event was to set an example for his 4 year old son and infant daughter – and that they, too, can make a difference in having their voices heard.

“I don’t want my children to grow up thinking they don’t have a voice, even in smaller communities,” O’Sullivan said.

Sandwich Mayor Rich Robinson, who also is a DeKalb County Sheriff’s deputy, was present at the Thursday morning meeting. He said he thought the Thursday meeting went well and he will be patrolling during the time of the protest.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that it will be a good thing,” Robinson said.

Source: The Daily Chronicle

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