It’s the city’s 4th rally in a nation that has seen 11 days of protests and unrest since George Floyd’s murder
A protest rally and march Friday evening in Eau Claire included heartfelt speeches calling for justice for people of color, an end to police brutality against African Americans, and soulful music that prompted an audience estimated at more than 2,000 packing Phoenix Park to simultaneously raise their fists in the air.
The most famous musician at the gathering, Grammy Award-winning Justin Vernon, frontman for Bon Iver, didn’t perform, but instead was one of the event’s six speakers. Vernon urged event attendees to learn more about social justice issues and to engage with people of color.
Police brutality must come to an end across the United States, Vernon said, and white people must be willing to engage in difficult conversations about racial issues.
“If you’re fighting with your friends and you disagree about something, first off, look at the color of your skin and remember one thing,” Vernon said. “This feeling you have, the shame, the embarrassment, not knowing everything, compare that feeling to having a knee on your neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds.”
Those protests and others across the country were sparked by the May 25 killing by Minneapolis police of George Floyd. Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, the last three of which Floyd appeared lifeless after saying he couldn’t breathe.
Chauvin and three other officers at the scene were fired. Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, and the other officers are charged with aiding in the killing.
The protest is the fourth in-person rally in Eau Claire since Sunday; each event has attracted more than 500 people.
Protests against Floyd’s death and police violence against Black Americans have occurred in cities across the country. Most have been peaceful, but some in larger cities, including Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Madison, have included incidents of looting and damage to property.
Events in Eau Claire and elsewhere across western Wisconsin have been mostly peaceful. During an hour-long march through Eau Claire after the Phoenix Park rally, police escorted two men from the route after they shouted derogatory terms at protesters. But that appeared to be the only disruption to the march.
Selika Ducksworth-Lawton, an African American professor of history and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at UW-Eau Claire and the president of the group Uniting Bridges, praised Eau Claire police for working with protesters but said that hasn’t been the case in many locations.
She called on those at the rally to contact their elected leaders to demand changes to police policies, such as making de-escalation training mandatory and banning the use of rubber bullets.
“We need you to call these politicians and put the fear of God in ‘em,” said Ducksworth-Lawton, wearing a black shirt emblazoned with the word “Resist” in white. “If they don’t do this stuff, we’re going to vote them out. I don’t care what party they’re from.”
Other African American speakers discussed racist acts against them in Eau Claire, how they sometimes live in fear of police acts against them. After the first three speakers, the musician Naalia sang two songs, and during one of them, “Rise Up” by Andra Day, the audience stood in unison, fists raised. Many held up signs bearing messages such as “Black Lives Matter” and “Silence is Compliance.”
A short time later the audience left the park and headed onto Eau Claire’s streets, forming a caravan many blocks long that traversed the city for more than an hour. Bystanders, some holding signs, cheered them on.
Marchers chanted throughout the walk, yelling out such phrases as “No Justice, No Peace” and “Say His Name: George Floyd!” Jaylin Carlson led the chants in one section of marchers, holding aloft a cardboard sign stating “Protest, Then Vote.” She helped organize Friday’s protest and others earlier in the week.
Earlier, at the park, Carlson told the audience about challenges growing up Black in Eau Claire, how she was often told she was too loud, too disruptive. “All I wanted was to be seen and heard in a world that refused to hear me,” she said.
As she started chants with fellow marchers, Carlson had found her voice.
“This is my time to make my voice heard, for all of us to make our voices heard,” she said. “It’s what we have to be willing to do to demand change.”