Longtime advocates for social justice in Fort Wayne reflect on the 2020 protests

The nationwide protests following the 2020 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis were personal for many people across the United States. In Fort Wayne, nearly 600 miles away, demonstrations erupted in late-May, sparking an outcry that the city had never seen.

“When I turned on the television, it was like posttraumatic stress syndrome all over again,” says Reverend Bill McGill of Imani Baptist Temple in Fort Wayne who is a native of Cleveland, Ohio. “The Cleveland riots in the 1960s were a very scary time, and last year took me back to that.”

McGill is no stranger to social justice movements. He is one of four siblings born to a single mother who made activism a priority. He lived through the Cleveland riots, and in 1964, McGill met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he was just 8-years-old. 

“He said something to me that I’m sure he said to every young person that he’s ever encountered,” McGill says. “He said, ‘I just see something in you. You’ll always march to the beat of a different drum.’ So, I heard that going forward.”

A year earlier, in 1963, Dr. King made a noteworthy visit to Fort Wayne where he spoke at the Scottish Rite Auditorium. There is now a major effort by Fort Wayne City Council and other community leaders to create a public memorial to commemorate his speech. King returned to Fort Wayne for a very brief time in 1968.

McGill says his own quest for social justice can be documented back to 1973 when he was a junior in high school. He also reflects on an early childhood memory, living in a house that was attached to a grocery store. That store was set on fire, damaging their home and causing his family to temporarily relocate while it was repaired. McGill believes the incident was racially motivated. It fueled his desire to advocate for change. Later, he was arrested in Washington D.C. while participating in protests to free South Africa.

“It is utterly exhausting being Black in America, and it has been that way for quite some time,” he says.

Protests across the nation began on May 26, 2020, following Floyd’s death. A video recording shows former officer Derek Chauvin of the Minneapolis Police Department kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than 9 minutes. Floyd repeatedly told the police officers that he could not breathe.

In April, Chauvin was convicted of Floyd’s murder. He is scheduled to be sentenced in June.

“I’m convinced that the one group of witnesses that had a greater influence than anyone else on that jury was those other police officers crossing that blue line and saying this was not acceptable behavior,” McGill says. “I think that spoke volumes to the jury because the rest of us were the usual suspects saying what we always say. But rarely have we seen a flow of police officers saying this was wrong.”

Fort Wayne residents have concerns over police brutality. However, many in Fort Wayne and across the nation had never seen it to this magnitude, says Larry Gist, President of the Fort Wayne chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

“I get a lot of complaints, but it’s not as severe as the other cities,” he says. “Most complaints we get are harassment or getting pulled over unjustly.”

Two 2020 protests in Fort Wayne ended with the police using tear gas to disperse demonstrators.

Gist says it has become increasingly difficult to hide police misconduct because oftentimes the incidents are recorded on a cellphone, street surveillance, or even doorbell cameras outside of homes.

“This has been going on for a long time, but we are finally getting to see it because of the visibility,” he says. “A lot of people would say, ‘I didn’t know this happened, or this existed.’ That (video) woke a lot of people up. Many protesters were not People of Color. They became fed up with it.”

Gist and McGill say it is too soon to determine how last year’s protests have impacted the Fort Wayne community or policing strategies. However, given the slow progression of social change, both believe it will take some time for the community to see the effects.

“America continues to only make marginal steps forward,” McGill says. “A part of me has given up on seeing Dr. King’s dream realized in my generation. If we are to use the existing evidence and America’s ongoing hesitance, it will take another 50 years to truly become the United States of America.”

Despite the challenges that some are faced with when interacting with police, all hope is not lost, McGill says.

“By and large our police officers are men and women of great character,” he says. “They really want to protect and serve. There are a few rogue individuals. That does neither side of this story any good.”

McGill encourages young people to get involved. He says to confront local leaders in a constructive manner and hold them accountable for the promises that have been made. Patience and commitment are necessary to be a part of the conversation, he says.

Representation is needed at the table.

The group “ChangeMakers” was born out of last year’s protests. Leaders within the group are doing some of this work. The next demonstration is scheduled for May 28 in Downtown Fort Wayne. The group was not available for comment until after Friday’s protests.

“Minneapolis shows that it makes a difference when we look and speak through the same lens,” McGill says. “Things are not black and white. They are wrong or right. When we start looking through those lenses, it makes a difference.”
Signup for Email Alerts