HUMBOLDT PARK — At the end of May, after looting spilled into many Chicago neighborhoods, the three women who run the popular neighborhood Facebook group Moms of Beverly sprang into action.
In a series of posts, the women, two of whom are Black, made a declaration: Racist posts and comments would not be tolerated.
The notice wasn’t sparked by a specific post, but rather the ongoing hum of racism that’s prevalent on Facebook and other social media sites, the women said.
The women aren’t alone in their quest.
Racist and coded language runs rampant on neighborhood Facebook groups — watch pages, community pages and everything in between — and Chicagoans are increasingly taking steps to put a stop to it.
North of Beverly, neighbors in Humboldt Park and Ukrainian Village have also mobilized to put a stop to the bigotry and ensure these pages are welcoming spaces.
“We’re Black mothers of boys who are under the biggest threat in America,” said Lauren Kent-Brown, one of the women who runs the Beverly group. “For us to run a successful moms group during a time like this and not say anything, that would’ve felt untrue to who we are.
“It’s now or never. … We have to use this platform. People see us as leaders. We had to say something. It was imperative.”
‘With Change Comes Discomfort’
Kent-Brown and Shanya Gray started the Moms of Beverly group in 2014 to connect with mothers in the neighborhood and arrange play dates.
“We wanted a space where we could bring moms together,” Gray said. “In today’s world, it’s harder. We wanted to grow the community.”
Over the last several years, the group has gone from just a few mothers to nearly 6,000, some of them residents of neighboring communities. Before the pandemic, Kent-Brown and Gray also hosted meetups and events.
“We worked so hard to make the space very welcoming. We all have that stigma attached to moms groups, where they can be catty and not welcoming,” Kent-Brown said.
But the duo saw racist posts surfacing in other neighborhood groups in the midst of widespread protests against police brutality and wanted to fend off similar posts in their group. Kent-Brown, Gray and a third administrator, a white woman, took action at the end of May.
“Times like these show us who our allies are and who are not. I’m shaking as I type this because to have a group where we PRIDE ourselves on being welcoming and a safe space it begins to feel like it’s all in vain when there are such disparaging comments from white women during a time like this,” the women wrote in a series of posts.
“You will ABSOLUTELY be removed without explanation if you share anything that is negative in regards to the actions being taken by people of color because that means this is simply not the group for you.”
Around the same time, the women added a new section to the survey neighbors must fill out to be admitted into the group:
“Moms of Beverly seeks to be an intentionally anti-racist online moms community in the Beverly neighborhood. Please articulate your understanding of anti-racist. Please affirm your commitment to being anti-racist with us.”
The shift caused several hundred people to leave the group, many of whom felt the group had become anti-police, which Kent-Brown said is not the case. Others made posts “antithetical to what we were trying to accomplish,” Kent-Brown said. But on the whole, the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
“I do have a lot of hope. We’re seeing so many white allies speaking up and taking action, sharing resources and articles and really taking those steps and having those conversations,” Kent-Brown said.
“Yes, we’re facing some opposition, but with change comes discomfort. If we’re not uncomfortable, we’re never going to grow or progress. I feel really good about what’s being done in our community and hopefully beyond our community.”
‘Our Community Deserves Better Than This’
While the Moms of Beverly moderators moved quickly to shut down racism in their group, in Humboldt Park, it’s the neighbors who have spoken out against Facebook group leaders.
Humboldt Park Community Watch, an anonymously-run page followed by more than 10,000 people, has drawn sharp criticism for years for its racist posts. Things came to a head at the end of May.
In the wake of protests, the Humboldt Park Community Watch poster wrote: “Our f——g community was looted by savages and criminals, not by protesters. Yesterday was not a protest against police brutality or justice for Mr. Floyd. In our community, 5-6 cars full of African Americans drove around and busted out windows and stole our sh-t!”
The post, which also urges neighbors to get a Concealed Carry license or FOID card, ignited a firestorm.
One neighbor wrote: “It was destroyed by criminals not savages. As a community with such a strong Puerto Rican history, one would think community pages like this would be more aware of the verbiage being used to describe people, regardless of the criminality. Very disappointed to see on a community watch page for a community of primarily Latinos and African Americans who historically have been called ‘savages.'”
Fed up, a group of seven neighbors banded together to denounce the page.
“What brought us all together is a feeling of necessity that we had to speak out because this wasn’t tolerable any longer, and that there were real-world consequences,” said Ingrid Sagor, one of the Humboldt Park residents who fought against the Facebook page.
“Implicit in a lot of those posts was that Black people are coming from the South and West sides into our neighborhood and Hispanic folk should then defend it. I could see clear as day that was race baiting or a race war they were trying to further.”
Eva Lopez, another neighbor, said, “Personally, that was a turning point for me where I [couldn’t] be quiet anymore. It got worse to the point where something was going to happen.”
Sagor, Lopez and their neighbors started keeping track of each time the poster used racist or coded language and asked Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th), whose ward includes Humboldt Park, for help shutting down the “racist vitriol,” as Sagor put it.
“We’re better than this. Our community deserves better than this. We deserve to feel connected and curious about each other. We deserve to know what’s going on in the neighborhood and feel safe and understood,” Sagor said.
Maldonado heard the neighbors’ call and on June 4 condemned the page.
The alderman posted a screenshot of a recent post, writing on Facebook, “This type of hate speech has absolutely NO PLACE in Humboldt Park or the 26th Ward. Posts and Pages such as this one has one mission, to divide us and cause trouble.
“Our community is home to all ethnicities and will remain that way. African Americans and Latinos must join together to bring about true systemic change, fighting racism and an unequal justice system.”
The alderman posted again on June 8, praising residents who spoke out against the page.
“I was proud to see people of all races, genders, socio-economic backgrounds, and sexual orientations, ban[d] together to fight hate head-on and let the administrators know that Hate Has No Place in Humboldt Park.
“We are a diverse community but NOT a divided community.”
Maldonado didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment. According to neighbors, the page has improved since the alderman denounced it, but only somewhat.
The neighbors’ effort did raise awareness about the prevalence of unverified crime posts and racist posts on Facebook, which is meaningful, especially with racial tensions playing out in new ways across the country, neighbors said.
“Some people take these pages as gospel,” said neighbor Alberto Colon, who also fought against the page. “You see some of these pages and you see the shares — some of these things get shared 85 or 90 times.”
Lopez said “most community watch pages seem to just be pages so people can racially profile” and her group’s overall goal was to help people “watch out for these pages because they may be problematic.”
“That’s what scares me the most — that people would would stumble upon the page and not know anything about it and take it as fact,” she said.
‘We Gotta Get A Broader Array Of Voices’
In Ukrainian Village, the crackdown on racist posts started about three years ago.
The Ukrainian Village Neighborhood Watch page, which has 15,000 members, was mired in divisive debates and racist posts for years. The moderators, all of them white men, brought on a few new neighbors, specifically people of color, to help oversee the page.
“Essentially my attitude was like, ‘I don’t know that I can actually articulate or identify what’s offensive versus what’s not offensive from my position.’ … We gotta get a broader array of voices,” said Neal McKnight, one of the longtime admins of the page.
Lauren Do was one of the neighbors brought on around that time. Do, who is Black, said neighbors were regularly posting about suspicious people in the neighborhood without providing detailed descriptions, a form of racial profiling.
“The first six months or so was exhausting,” Do said. “It was pretty emotional and triggering because there was a lot of blatant and coded racism. … I found myself speaking more directly and letting people know why you don’t use certain words.”
The page has improved since Do and other Black admins came on a few years ago, according to neighbors. That put them in a good position to prevent some of the racist rhetoric prevalent in other pages during recent protests.
“Thank God [the newer admins] were involved in the page when the protests came out because I feel like we were in front of it a bit. There was a lot less of those coded comments about what Black Lives Matters means, what the issues were,” McKnight said.
Still, it’s impossible for admins to control the tone of every post, nor do they want to, they said.
“There’s only so much that a moderator can do. This is the community’s page and moderators are just one part of it,” McKnight said.
People are increasingly looking for ways to engage with their neighbors amid the coronavirus pandemic and widespread uprisings against police brutality and racial injustice. The Ukrainian Village Neighborhood Watch Page was recently drawing hundreds of new members a day.
“There’s been a real vacuum created by the loss of local newspapers, newsletters that you used to get in communities across the country,” McKnight said.
“These Facebook pages have filled some of that void. The place where you share news, information about new restaurants and the schools closing and opening — it runs the gamut. I think it’s important in that context that the page actually includes everybody.”
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