In July Michael Long, owner of the Rogue Barber Co. in downtown Champaign, implemented a discriminatory “membership only” policy. The issue came to public attention on July 23, when a female Champaign resident shared screenshots on social media of a series of emails in which Long responded to her request for an appointment for a men’s-style cut for herself. Long’s reply explicitly stated, “we don’t cut women’s hair,” and the woman also noted that Long’s membership agreement included a pledge that one supports the police. Around the same time a comment (now deleted) appeared on Rogue’s official Facebook page, stating, “The shop is a private club or membership now because that’s the only way you can avoid being forced to give haircuts to people you don’t want to or don’t feel comfortable with.” It went on to state that “the new membership application asks if you are a member of any violent extremist groups” and listed “antifa” and “BLM” as examples.
This and similar exchanges sparked a series of peaceful chalking protests at Rogue that began on July 24 and continued for about two weeks, ultimately culminating in the closure of Rogue and reports that Long will be moving out of state. There is, however, a bigger story here than that of a boneheaded barber and the critics who drove him out of town. There is the story of the police and city response to the situation, which would border on comical were it not so dangerous.
On July 25, during a demonstration in front of Rogue, a burly white man wearing a Rogue T-shirt and sunglasses exited the shop, pointed at the Rogue logo on his shirt, got into his red pickup truck, and within seconds accelerated through the crowd. Several protesters were hit, and a bike was crushed. Three videos from three separate angles soon appeared on social media documenting this event. In one, the driver’s image as well as his license plate are clearly visible.
Bizarre events continued to unfold: that same evening, a white man with a gun and a walkie talkie started showing up to observe protests, and allegedly told one protester that he had enough bullets if necessary. Long himself, a former police officer, was overheard saying that his “friends” (police) were “on it” (the protesters). Over the next few days protesters became accustomed to squad cars passing by.
Tensions continued. One morning, a food pantry set up by protesters in the empty lot west of Rogue was found vandalized. Individuals tending to it were approached by Long and told not to touch anything because it was “evidence.” A woman, who made clear she was merely checking on the pantry, said that Long twice called her a “bitch.” She recorded a cell phone video in which Long and a police officer he had called to the scene insisted that the food would be thrown in the trash if she tried to set the pantry back up, citing sanitation concerns. The items were all non-perishable and sealed.
Meanwhile, no apparent progress was being made on the vehicular assault. Two protesters had filed police reports on July 26, one by the owner of the damaged bike and one by a person who had been hit by the truck. The following week, fearing the case was being buried by Champaign Police Department (CPD), another protester came forward to file a third report. She had initially declined to pursue this option because, as a Latina woman, she felt particularly vulnerable and did not want to become a police target. She later described an interaction she had with a detective as follows: “[The detective] basically was just trying to ask questions that w[ould] incriminate me or discredit me as if that’s his job to do so.” After filing her report, she left town, just to be safe.
On August 5, a flood of public comments referencing the assault were made at the Champaign City Council meeting. When Deputy Chief Shaffer was asked for an update, he said that two detectives had been assigned to the investigation and had “made progress.”
When a grown white man commits a premeditated and documented assault with a deadly weapon and CPD is handed his license plate, two weeks later they are still “making progress.” Yet when young black folk allegedly damaged property at the mall on May 31, over twenty individuals were rounded up within hours and thrown into jail in the middle of a pandemic.
The Rogue protests and vehicular assault were well publicized in local news and social media, and City Council member Clarissa Fourman (whose ward includes Rogue) visited the protests several times. On July 30, the city of Champaign responded with a press release. It made no mention of vehicular assault or the police response to it, but instead lectured protesters on the dangers of water-soluble chalk and graffiti. Ironically, in the very document the city provided along with the press release, water-soluble chalk is specifically listed as exempt from the defined list of graffiti materials. Incredibly, the release went on to treat chalking as graffiti anyway, stating that it may cause blight and decrease property values, as if racism and assaults cannot also be detrimental to property values—and those are less easily washed away by rain. Furthermore, a rule was conjured from the ether that chalk can only be used by children 13 and under and/or their guardians. That very evening, the police used the press release as an excuse to roll up to the Rogue protesters in a failed attempt to dissuade them from chalking. FOIA requests later revealed that the city has had chalk cleaned from Rogue on three separate occasions at taxpayers’ expense, spending over $1100.
In the last months there have been dozens of organized demonstrations and marches in and around C-U. Every one of these has been a legally protected event sanctioned by city ordinance, and there has yet to emerge evidence of any incident of a protester destroying any property at any of these events. (The incident at the mall was a spontaneous event, not organized by any local activist group.) However, I have personally witnessed vehicles recklessly being driven into or through crowds on several occasions. There exist videos of most of these incidents. By focusing all of their suspicion and tunnel vision on peaceful protesters demanding an end to explicitly discriminatory practices, while seemingly turning a blind eye to violent assaults on those protesters, the city and police department are risking, perhaps encouraging, violent escalation and showing that their priorities are grossly misplaced.
Lance Pittman is an Urbana resident and the Site Director for the Education Justice Project (EJP) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. EJP offers higher education to incarcerated students at Danville Correctional Center. He originally moved to C-U from Mississippi to become a graduate student, studying pure math as well as STEM education.