by Jim Killam | 5-minute read
Shane Heckler had a hard day Tuesday.
At his job at an East State Street grocery store, he was collecting carts from the parking lot when a man pulled up in his car, rolled down the window and unleashed a stream of obscenities.
“Are you one of those f***ing n*****s who are looting?”
Before Shane could say anything, the man drove away.
That same day, a woman angrily shoved her shopping cart into Shane without saying a word.
The killing of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer sparked a nationwide outcry, protests, violence and looting. Rockford has seen its share of it all.
“People are on edge, and some have their preconceived opinions or biases,” Shane said Tuesday evening. “The past couple of days, I could just feel a different tension. There were people on both sides. People would come up to me and shake my hand and say they are so sorry … but then today, people were starting to say (hateful) things.
“It’s not the end of the world. It sucked a lot. People just need to take some time and slow down.”
Shane’s brother, Sedric, works at another east-side grocery store. As of Tuesday, he hadn’t received the kind of hateful words from a customer that Shane has. But, he said, ugly behavior has simmered.
“Where I work, it’s very few and far between when somebody actually has the courage to say something,” Sedric said. “People just give you attitude or give you dirty looks. This morning I got there a little early, so I was sitting on the bench outside. And this guy, this white male, brought his cart back up to the sidewalk. He looked right at me, in the eye. And me knowing what’s going on, I thought, OK, I’m going to be nice. So I smiled and gave him a nice nod. And he just rolled his eyes at me and walked away.
“Did I let that affect my day? No. I just still try to be nice.”
The fact that most customers are wearing masks because of COVID-19 isn’t making things any easier.
“It gives people more courage to say whatever they want,” Shane said. “Because it’s harder to see who they are, even if you might know them otherwise, or the cameras might see them. It gives people the courage to do more of the right thing and the wrong thing.”
Test of faith
Sedric is 24, Shane 22. They come from a mixed-race family; Chris and Kari Heckler adopted four of their six kids. (Kari is First Free Rockford’s Kids Director.) From their near east-side home, they’ve heard the shouting and sirens the past few nights.
“The past several nights, it’s been a little difficult to sleep because of the stuff that’s going on,” Shane said. “Thinking about it and then hearing it outside. It’s been hard, but the hard times are meant to prove your faith. So that’s what we have to try to keep, is our faith, so that we can be proud to say we are Christians and we are actually able to live by that.”
“I always go back to the fact that God is love,” Sedric added. “In order for us to show love to the world, we have to lead by example. So I try to live that day in and day out. Sometimes it’s hard, but at the end of the day I feel better for it.”
To escape, Sedric heads to his room by himself, where he puts in headphones and listens to his worship music playlist. Shane thinks quietly about men, black and white, who have been role models. He thinks of Anthony Haynie, a friend of their family who is smart, works hard and lives his faith well. He thinks of his dad, Chris.
“Men like that who live their faith, day in and day out,” Shane said. “It’s encouraging to see. So I think about people like that. If they can do it, I can do it.”
The parking-lot racism is usually hit-and-run.
“Usually people will catch me by surprise,” Shane said. “Or, people who lash out will usually stare for a while. And then they’ll either go away or they’ll find the courage to say something detrimental or mean. There’s usually no conversation.
“When it’s something encouraging, that’s when there’s an actual conversation. But when people just believe what they’re going to believe, they’re not going to be changed by how people act or what they say. I just keep my mouth shut. Then things won’t go to where they don’t need to go.”
Sometimes, something ugly turns to hope. On Monday, an older woman glared at Shane from the checkout line. As he bagged her groceries, he politely joked with her, then told her to have a nice day.
“And then she told me what she was thinking when she came into the store and when she saw me,” Shane said. “She said most of the people in her family are racist toward black people. She didn’t really know what to think about that. But then with this whole incident and now with people looting and stuff, she said she kind of leans toward racism towards black people. Just going out and getting groceries, she was paranoid of what might happen. So she was on edge.”
After the short conversation with Shane, she told him she saw things a little differently because of the way he presented himself.
“She said it didn’t really fit the description that she had in her head. It kind of changed her whole world yesterday.”
That’s one small moment of relief in a heartache older than America itself — a heartache now being inherited by a new generation. Their long-term resolve remains to be seen, but their sense of urgency is clear.
“I hope,” Sedric said, “that we can find the solution in a loving, peaceful manner.”