Weekend rallies and nighttime unrest follow Minneapolis police killing.
A crowd of about 1,000 marched through downtown Eau Claire early Sunday afternoon in remembrance of George Floyd, an event as much about honoring the black man killed May 25 in Minneapolis when a police officer kneeled on his neck, as to prevent future unnecessary deaths of African Americans at the hands of police.
Later in the day, hundreds of Eau Claire residents attended a virtual discussion via Zoom and Facebook at which state, city and local officials discussed Floyd’s death while musicians performed songs to honor him and foster improved race relations.
Both events included anger and pain related to Floyd’s death. Both included frustration at long-standing racist policies. And both focused on using Floyd’s death to move race relations to a better place in this country.
“It’s like this relentless repeat of racial injustice,” said Jaylin Carlson, who organized the in-person rally with Eau Claire resident Daminiqus Ford. “There is a lot of anger about (Floyd’s death). But today we hope to start to get past the anger and move to a point where we don’t have these kinds of deaths happen anymore.”
The Eau Claire rallies were among many across Wisconsin and the nation in the wake of Floyd’s death, which prompted burning buildings, looting, a citywide curfew and a military presence in Minneapolis.
Protests in Milwaukee and Madison also turned violent, as have such events elsewhere in the country. Other rallies, like the one in Eau Claire, another in Appleton, and yet another in Wausau, were peaceful.
Floyd’s death has reached beyond the borders of the U.S., prompting outrage in nations around the world.
Floyd, 46, died after police officers handcuffed him and laid him on his face on the street. One officer knelt on Floyd’s 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.
After violent protests in Minneapolis and other cities in the wake of Floyd’s killing by police, organizers of the in-person rally in Eau Claire were determined to ensure that event was peaceful.
As marchers left Phoenix Park, bound for Owen Park, Carlson warned them they may encounter people who disagreed with their stance on the Floyd issue. But she and other organizers had worked with police to ensure the route was as safe as possible, she told rally participants.
Eau Claire residents had reported agitators from elsewhere in the city during the weekend, some espousing white supremacist views and posting misinformation on social media. But divisive actions didn’t occur during the rally.
“We were really hoping this would be peaceful, and I’m so glad it was,” Carlson said. “We need to spread that message of peace and love if we’re going to get things to a better place.”
While Eau Claire is generally thought of as a city without significant racial strife, African Americans, Hmong, Latinos and others face discrimination, speakers at Sunday’s rally said. African Americans make up just 1.1 percent of the population of the city of about 70,000.
Ella Budzinski said it’s important that cities like Eau Claire, and not just large metropolitan areas, to host rallies and discuss racial tensions and white privilege. The Eau Claire native lives in North Minneapolis and moved back to Eau Claire temporarily the morning before Floyd was killed.
“Racism is a problem everywhere, not just in big cities,” Budzinski said. “It has permeated our culture to the point of toxicity.”
Many attending the rally carried signs bearing messages such as “I Can’t Breathe,” “Black Lives Matter,” and “Justice for George.” After reaching Owen Park, they chanted in between speakers, and at one point knelt for one minute in honor of Floyd.
Afterward, Ford said he was amazed at the strong show of support for the hastily arranged event. People traveled from Minneapolis and elsewhere to take part.
“This is really an eye opener for the world,” Ford said in explaining reaction to Floyd’s death. “It’s sad that it takes something like this to bring attention to racial problems. But apparently that’s how it is.”
During the virtual discussion, Eau Claire Police Chief Matt Rokus condemned the actions of Minneapolis police in killing Floyd, saying he watched “in disgust and horror as George Floyd’s life was taken from him.” Through its hiring and training practices, his department strives to eliminate racist policing, Rokus said.
The department is doing a good job in terms of anti-racial practices, Rokus said, but “we still have work to do.”
After dealing with racism as an African American woman her entire life, Selika Ducksworth-Lawton, a UW-Eau Claire history professor and co-organizer of the virtual event, said she isn’t optimistic improved race relations will happen quickly because of the George Floyd incident.
But positive change on that front can occur over time, she said, given significant public awareness and continued media coverage showing riots as the work largely of white provocateurs and not black people.
“It’s going to be a really slow process,” she said. But Floyd’s death “did pull the Band-Aid off and expose the wound. Now we have to heal it.”
Charlie Brown hopes that can happen. The 37-year-old African-American man who moved from Louisiana to Eau Claire in October 2018 said he has experienced racism in his new home. He decided to speak at the rally “to do my part to get involved” and said Sunday’s event gives him hope people can come together for the cause of improved race relations.
“Let’s continue to come together,” he said. “That is how we are finally going to see change.”