Last September, after a grand jury decided not to charge the officers who shot 26-year-old Breonna Taylor during a “no knock” raid at her Louisville home, conducted while she was asleep, protests erupted across the country. The news prompted a moment of synergy between west suburban Oak Park and the West Side, with two Oak Park and River Forest High School educators channeling their frustration in creative ways.
LeVar Ammons, OPRF’s executive director of equity and student success, penned an essay that was posted to the high school’s website on Oct. 1 that explored the indictment’s deeper historical roots.
“When it comes to the Black American experience, relative to the relationship with policing and the legal system in our country, justice has historically been an inaccessible luxury,” Ammons wrote.
The piece was accompanied by a photo of a mural created by OPRF teacher Lavie Raven, who conceptualized the idea for the mural, assembled a team artists and oversaw its creation on a wall in Homan Square all in the span of a few days.
“When the Kentucky verdict happened, I was anxious and thinking about things,” Raven said during an interview on Oct. 27. “I was tired of solidifying our hearts against those things and I thought, ‘We have to paint something.’ So I reached out to five dependable brothers and asked them if they’d be willing to help out. It took two-and-a-half days to conceive it and bring everyone together around the mural.”
Raven said the artists — Eduardo Luna, Jocorey Jenkins, Roderick Sawyer and Eric Villarreal — “felt the need to celebrate women and to send the message that it’s time to change and we’re in solidarity.”
The mural centers Breonna Taylor’s name, which hovers over the words, “Women are the Center.”
Ammons said he hadn’t known that Raven was working on his mural, but their thoughts nonetheless joined on the tragic reality of justice denied. He said Jackie McGoey, OPRF’s communications and community relations coordinator, hatched the idea to post his piece alongside a photo of Raven’s mural on the school’s website.
Raven said the Homan Square location was particularly resonant, since it’s the site of the infamous warehouse complex that, according to multiple media reports, allegedly housed a secret detention facility where many Blacks were tortured by police.
“A block away from the mural was the center of many torture allegations, as Black males were forced to settle and plea to stuff they didn’t do,” Raven said. “So it’s this centrifugal space.”
Ammons said the mind-meld between himself and Raven didn’t come out of nowhere. Raven teaches the race equity course at OPRF “and we collaborate on multiple levels. We’ve had sidebar conversations about what’s happening and about everything from equity to music. For this to happen the way it did was just organic.”
Ammons was frank about how he’s been affected by incident after incident of unarmed Blacks being shot by police officers.
“Brutality against Black bodies is nothing new in American history,” he said. “We can trace this back to the Slave Trade. The justification of this treatment is always a thing to contend with, so when I see these instances of brutality happening over and over again, I become numb, especially given the line of work I’m in.
“It’s frustrating,” he added. “It puts me in a space of rage when I see it. The breaking point for me was Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old who was unjustly gunned down in Ohio [after officers saw him playing with a toy gun in a park]. As the father of an 8-year-old boy, that one struck a chord with me. Lavie’s mural matched my sentiment exactly. We have to protect all people, but particularly our women who do so much for us. In this situation, Breonna Taylor was not protected.”
In his essay, which you can read at oprfhs.org or as a One View in Viewpoints (page 28), Ammons said Taylor’s death should prompt some tough questions for Blacks and whites alike. At the end of the piece, he lists resources on race, antiracism, equity and education for readers to explore.
“Our legal system, in this situation, failed to offer the quality of fairness that justice and equity require,” Ammons wrote. “Additionally, this outcome positioned us to ask ourselves, ‘Do all Americans have equal protection under the law?'”