Before another night of unrest, crowd demands justice and change
A rally to protest the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers Monday and the ongoing institutional racism in police departments, including departments in Madison and across Dane County, drew thousands of people to the Madison Capitol Saturday.
In a city with the reputation as the most liberal city in Wisconsin, rally organizers and those in attendance painted a different picture for what living in Madison is like for African Americans.
At times chanting “Indict. Convict. Send those guilty cops to jail. The whole damn system is dirty as hell,” those in attendance marched down State Street to the steps of the Capitol and then staged a nearly two-hour-long protest outside the Dane County jail. Although African Americans make up 6 percent of the city’s population, they account for nearly 50 percent of the arrests.
“I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe,” was written across many masks and signs and chanted repeatedly throughout the rally. The phrase echoes the final words of Floyd, 46, who died after officers handcuffed him and laid him face down in the street.
One officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, the last three of which he was lifeless. The officer was charged Friday with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
Witnesses taped his death using their cellphone cameras.
“The guy who put a camera on the back of a cell phone has done more for the Civil Rights movement than Martin Luther King or Malcom X,” said Brandi Grayson, founder and CEO of Urban Triage. “Now everyone can see what we have been living with.”
Standing on top of a car with a megaphone in hand, Grayson said she appreciates all the white people who showed up but they need to continue speaking out against injustices against Black people.
“If you are complacent, you are part of the problem,” Grayson said.
Amara Goberman, 20, is a graduate of Madison West High. She stood in the crowd, holding a sign that read “We don’t need a plan for after we die. We need a plan so we don’t die” above her head.
She said she does not plan on staying in Madison much longer. She said she doesn’t feel safe, and she doesn’t feel heard in the city.
“We are more scared going into white neighborhoods than you all are coming into ours,” she said.
Sharon Irwin, the grandmother of Tony Robinson, said she initially felt anger over the reaction to Floyd’s death. The pain she feels over the loss of her grandson lingers, despite the years.
Robinson was shot by a Madison police officer in 2015 when he was 19-years-old. He was unarmed. The officer who shot Robinson is still a member of the department.
“I wanted to know where everybody was when Tony died,” she said at the rally. Protests did occur following Robinson’s death, including one attended by roughly 1,500 people.
The response, however, from the law enforcement community to Floyd’s death also has been drastically different from when Robinson was killed. Sheriffs and police chiefs from across Wisconsin have been condemning the excessive use of force by the Minneapolis police officer.
During a town hall meeting organized by Michael Johnson, the chief executive officer of the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County Thursday, the response by law enforcement was described as “unprecedented” by Black members of the panel.
Gov. Tony Evers also weighed in on Floyd’s death and systemic racism, releasing a statement Friday that said Floyd’s “family deserves justice.”
“Frustration and anger about systemic injustices are always justified,” Evers said. “Folks in Wisconsin should be able to protest peacefully and to report on these events without the fear of being unsafe or arrested.”
Rallies in Milwaukee continued Saturday, so far peacefully.
At the request of Milwaukee Police Chief Alfonso Morales, Milwaukee County Sheriff Earnell Lucas, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, and Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley, Evers on Saturday authorized the Wisconsin National Guard to deploy 125 members to Milwaukee.
“It is critical that people are able to peacefully express their anger and frustration about systemic racism and injustice, in Milwaukee, the State of Wisconsin, and our Nation,” said Evers, Crowly and Barrett in a joint statement Saturday. “This limited authorization of citizen soldiers from the Wisconsin National Guard will help protect people who are exercising their First Amendment rights and ensure the safety of the public.”
The chaos of the times, including the ongoing crisis surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, prompted Madison resident, Lauren Siech, to attend the rally “to mourn the death of an innocent man.”
“The state of things right now is just sad,” Siech said. “I just want people to heal.”