On Friday, a mass of Chicagoans participated in a faith community-led demonstration through Grant Park in celebration of Juneteenth.
The Chicago Bulls marched with them.
Specifically, Wendell Carter Jr., head coach Jim Boylen, assistant coaches Nate Loenser and Karen Stack Umlauf, and other Bulls staff took the streets. Behind the scenes, Boylen has taken an active role encouraging team-wide dialogue on racial injustice; beyond a team Zoom teleconference Zach LaVine and Thad Young spoke positively about to reporters, Boylen has also individually reached out to players to check in on them. As an organization, the Bulls recently introduced paid time off for Juneteenth and Election days, moving forward.
The Bulls contingent took up near the rear of the crowd. Boylen and Carter, save for a few words to those flanking him, marched deliberately. All parties donned face coverings, as did most every marcher, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But other than one passer by exclaiming “That’s Jim Boylen and Wendell Carter!” and offering a quick wave, members of the Bulls seamlessly blended into the throng of celebrators, who assembled under the leadership of Bright Star Church Chicago and Faith in Justice and Peace (FIJAP hereafter) — the latter a coalition of local faith-based organizations that have come together to address societal issues in five key areas: systemic racism, economic and community development, housing, health (mental and physical) and legislation/policy.
The march ran from the corner of Columbus and Roosevelt on the south end of Grant Park up to Monroe on the north end. Along the way, demonstrators brandished signs, sang songs and chanted the names of fallen members of Black communities, many of whom were unjustly killed by police.
The tenor of the proceedings ranged from celebratory to solemn to inspiring. Upon convening just north of Butler Field, Pastor Chris Harris of Bright Star led a stirring rendition of the Black National Anthem, followed by speeches from a litany of local faith leaders. Pastor David Swanson compelled white people to actively challenge “the systemic racism and structures of white supremacy that are being exposed,” emphasizing that Friday’s march represented not a finish line, but a starting point. Muslim, Jewish and Baháʼí faith leaders also spoke, preaching solidarity with Black communities.
Harris resided over all, bouncing the microphone from speaker to speaker, and leading prayers, chants and moments of silence — some observed, symbolically, on one knee. He wrapped the event by performing a rendition of a “Black Lives Matter” song he penned himself, to ebullient response.
“Today you saw thousands of people from faith — Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, Baháʼí, and so many others, you had elected officials, you had the police out here with us. Unity. This is what it's all about,” Harris told NBC Sports Chicago. “This march was about being solution-oriented, and so Faith in Justice and Peace is a vision that the lord gave to me, and I'm excited to have all of these partners saying we want to be involved to bring systemic change.”
Throughout, Harris lauded elected local officials in attendance using their platform to stand for action, and gave Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot special recognition for opening up Grant Park to Bright Star, FIJAP and the marchers for the demonstration.
Of the Bulls’ presence at the march, and the rapidly growing exposure of the movement, Harris expressed excitement.
“People of influence and affluence have to come and be involved in this,” Harris said. “Black people have been unheard in this country since we've been here, since we were brought over here at the bottom of slave ships and in chains. Many of our ancestors, matriarchs and patriarchs, they all died.
“But now people are paying attention. Chicago Bulls were out here, White Sox, Cubs, the Bears… they called, the owners were calling me saying we're with you, we got your back, some of them supported in a way where we were able to get all of [these resources].”
But as Swanson preached, there’s a long road ahead. Harris’ biggest takeaways from the day’s events were optimistic.
“I'm excited,” Harris said. “My hope is next year, we do Juneteenth out here again and we have tens of thousands of people if not hundreds of thousands of people. Hopefully COVID is gone and hopefully all restrictions will be gone, because we need to make sure we educate people about the lived experience of the African-American people.”