On August 25, Jelani Day, a 25-year-old Illinois State University graduate student in speech pathology, went missing. His car was found on August 27th with no license plates in a forested area sixty miles away from Bloomington-Normal, next to a YWCA in Peru, Illinois, a once and current sundown town with a population of 99.4 percent white people.
Ten days later, on September 4th, a body was seen floating in the Illinois River near Peru, one and a half miles from his car and three miles from where Jelani’s clothes were recovered on the side of the road.
It wasn’t until September 27th—thirty-three days after Jelani first went missing and twenty-two days after his body was found—that the LaSalle County Sheriff’s Office confirmed the body they found was indeed Jelani Day. All these thirty-three days, Jelani’s mother, Carmen Bolden Day, agonized over the fate of her son. The FBI was slow to get involved in the case, and when they did, they investigated Jelani’s death as a suicide. Then, on October 23rd, the night before a march for justice called by the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr. and the Rainbow Push Coalition, the LaSalle County coroner ruled Jelani Day’s death a drowning.
Carmen Bolden Day does not believe that Jelani, an avid swimmer, drowned, nor does she believe Jelani committed suicide. As she said repeatedly at the march and rally in Peru, “It doesn’t add up.” One of the purposes of the march was for us, the accomplices and marchers, as well as the media, to “see for yourself” as Carmen Bolden Day said. In order to see for ourselves, we traveled the three miles from the side of the road where Jelani’s clothes and wallet were found to where his body was found, then marched the mile and a half to where Day’s car was found hidden in the woods.
The Day family and the Rainbow Push Coalition are currently calling for the FBI to investigate Jelani Day’s murder as a lynching. As of yesterday, October 28th, the Peru Police Department said they handed over all their files on the Jelani Day case to the FBI. However, the FBI will not take the lead on the case where there is no evidence a federal crime has been committed.
I took part in the march as a fellow graduate student at ISU, alongside Katari, a Black undergraduate studying communications. Later we sat down together to reflect. Here is a lightly edited record of our conversation:
Steven Lazaroff: Jelani’s mother and the Rainbow PUSH coalition say Jelani did not commit suicide in the river, that Jelani was murdered, lynched. What do you think about the state’s suicide narrative? Why do you think this points to a murder and a lynching, not a suicide?
Katari: I think what makes me believe it’s a murder and not a suicide is the history—both the past history and recent history of lynchings that have gone covered up or unpunished and attended to by the state from both police and a regular citizen perspective.
In the case of Jelani Day, a Black college student who’s been on campus for all of a week and a half goes missing and somehow ends up in a sundown town he’s never been to before. And somehow he decides to go for a swim, and he parks his car. And then he gets out of the car and moves his plates and puts some bushes on top of the car and then he happens to go on a walk in probably what’s kind of cold weather. He takes off his clothes and then walks another mile to jump into the Illinois River and kill himself.
And nobody saw him at any point. Nobody called it into the police that somebody’s walking around naked.
Silence from the police, then, somehow, the day before the march, the state finds information they haven’t had for months and say that Jelani Day drowned. . . . But there’s been a great silence throughout the investigation, and we experienced that silence as we marched through their neighborhoods.
Steven Lazaroff: Yes, the people were non-existent. And full neighborhoods of houses and tended-to lawns. They clearly have people living in them. It was like a stunt town. They were nowhere. It was like everybody in town decided not to show up for one day.
Katari: There were no kids out in the yard. There were no people at public parks. There were no people as far as I could see at any of the restaurants or markets or stores that we were near. It was like the town decided to stay inside.
Many of the folks we did see were giving us the middle finger. We saw people use white power signs.
Steven Lazaroff: We’ve heard that Peru was a sundown town, but something I’ve wondered is: is it still? And what would a twenty-first-century sundown town be like? So I asked a marcher, who I heard identify themselves as from Peru, “Is Peru still a sundown town?”
And he said, “No. But if I wasn’t white, my life would be goddamn miserable.”
What goals did you see for the march in Peru beforehand and how did the march actually play out?
Katari: I thought the goal was to go down to Peru to demand justice and take the streets. It was changed into a caravan to protect the city, and I got a sense of anxiety from not honestly knowing where the protest was going to go and not knowing who was really organizing the protests or how the cops were prevailing over the direction of the protests.
Before the march was turned into a car caravan by police, it was honestly kind of rejuvenating, seeing the family arrive and people form a crowd outside the Peru Police Department, around Jesse Jackson, Sr.
Once people got out of their cars and we congregated, I felt good. We took in the scene. Family members spoke; we felt their experience. And then they told us just exactly what the site was: it was where his clothes were found. And so we kind of had to take in their life, take in the circumstances of Jelani’s death.
According to the state this man, a few miles away from where his car was found, took off his clothes on the side of the road in a wooded area. That’s the first thing I feel like we all took in together as an experience.
Then we got in our cars and drove to where his body was found at a juncture in the town that kind of comes that kind of dips down below these train tracks. We all took it in together with the family.
Then we went to the spot where his car was found, where you have to go off the trail to get to that that specific area by the YWCA. And that is the place where the state claims that he left his car to go and take a dip in the water miles away, but first stopping to put his clothes on the side of the road.
His coat and other articles of clothing were found in different places. And his phone and wallet have not been found. Like Carmen Bolden Day said, “Two plus two does not equal five, any day of the week.” And you need to see it for yourself. And you need to understand it for yourself that the same government that we pledge allegiance to is hiding something that they don’t want us to find out, in the same way they didn’t want Mamie Till Mobley to show her son’s open casket, which escalated the Civil Rights Movement. And I want people to know about the absurdity of what the state is saying about how Jelani died.
Steven Lazaroff: So how does this struggle emerge at Illinois State University (ISU in Normal, Illinois) in particular? How does ISU treat Black students?
Katari: I mean, Illinois State University by its nature is a function of the state. It receives state funding. Its Board of Trustees is appointed by the governor. It exists as a multimillion-, half-a-billion-dollar corporation. By its nature it’s going to be oppressive. And that’s pretty much the defining feature of my experience here: the lack of compassion that professors have and lack of racial awareness that our professors have, and the university tries to cover up its shortcomings, because racial crises occur pretty frequently here. But we have won struggles almost every year in the three years I have been here.
Steven Lazaroff: So, ISU has a history of anti-Blackness?
Katari: ISU has a history of anti-Blackness and also a history of resistance. Going back to the ’60s and ’70s. There’s always been solidarity between Black and other oppressed peoples, when there was the antiwar movement going on. And then after the assassination of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, ISU students responded and lowered the flag to half-mast. Then the local fascists responded with violence. We also saw in 1970 the old Student Union Building was going to be named the Malcolm X Student Union Building. And students voted overwhelmingly, yes. Faculty voted for it narrowly. But admin vetoed it.
Steven Lazaroff: Yeah, that led to thousands of people on the quad and martial law being instituted in the city of Normal—a few months after the Kent State massacre.
Katari: And then back in 2019, you had the issues with Black homecoming being canceled to make way for volleyball game. In August 2020, Athletic Director Larry Lyons said, “All Redbird Lives Matter,” and the student athletes went on a short strike. And then in 2021, Jelani Day disappeared, and we continue to see the devaluation of Black life. They haven’t been able to solve the problem of racism, they haven’t been able to solve the problem of student poverty, they haven’t solved the problem of sexism and sexual assault. They haven’t been solving those problems, yet they still continue to raise the prices and take out those millions of dollars. I just want to ask why. And I think when people start asking why we’ll see why all these problems need to be abolished.
Steven Lazaroff: A hundred percent. These aren’t problems they’re interested in confronting. Like you’re saying, they’ve built a university where abolishing those things you named would mean abolishing their success because they’ve built a university on exploitation, oppression of already vulnerable people—people who have been generationally violated. And ISU benefits from it every day.
What’s the political climate like on ISU’s campus this fall, right now?
Katari: We’ve had accomplices show up and perform, I think, very preliminary acts of race treason. We’ve seen the beginning stages of something like that forming. And we’ve seen a lot of solidarity when Black students and Black student leaders stand up and put forth causes that we’re fighting for.
There literally is no peace until we get justice.
Steven Lazaroff: An injury to one is an injury to all.