These Young Wisconsin Activists Aren't Backing Down in the Fight for Change
Jaylin Carlson marches with several thousand other participants during a June 5 rally in Eau Claire. Carlson is among people in their teens and 20s across Wisconsin who have played active roles in organizing protests and other events since the May 25 death of George Floyd. (Photo by Julian Emerson)

From Eau Claire, to Dodgeville, Milwaukee, and Monroe, BLM protests often coordinated by those in their teens or early 20’s.

Daminiqus Ford never saw himself as a leader on racial justice issues, never thought he would one day organize a march protesting police brutality.  

But after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police on May 25, the Eau Claire resident felt compelled to do just that. He was frustrated by Floyd’s death, outraged at the countless instances of systemic racism he and other Black people have endured.  

Five days later, Ford, 24, made a Facebook post letting people know he was organizing a rally in his hometown to protest Floyd’s death and advocate against racist policies. He didn’t know whether many people would attend the event, but he felt compelled to make it happen. 

“When I made that post, I didn’t really care if anyone else showed up,” Ford said. “If it was going to be just me marching with a sign, then I was ready to do that.”

On the following day, May 31, Ford quickly realized he would be far from alone. About 15 minutes before the event began at Phoenix Park in downtown Eau Claire, about 150 people had gathered there. A short time later that audience had doubled, and by the time the group left the park to march through downtown and to nearby Owen Park, it had swelled to about 1,000. 

“I never thought the turnout was going to be like this,” Ford said, gazing out at the audience that day. “This is amazing.”

Ford is among the young people who have organized many of the protests that have occurred across Wisconsin and elsewhere in the United States. The movement that has sparked a renewed awareness of systemic racial injustices and has prompted calls to reform and defund the police has gained much of its organizing energy from people in their 20s, and in some cases, in their teens. 

Daminiqus Ford speaks during a June 5 protest at Phoenix Park in Eau Claire. Ford didn’t envision helping organize a protest but felt compelled to do so after learning of the death of Geroge Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. (Photo by Julian Emerson)

Examples of youth-led organizing are readily available in Wisconsin. Some of those events in the state’s two largest cities, Milwaukee and Madison, were started by young people. In addition to Eau Claire, protests in such locations as La Crosse, Green Bay, Appleton, and others have involved youth organizers.

Young people played a role putting together protests in other smaller communities across the state too. For example, high school students organized protests earlier this month in Dodgeville, in southwestern Wisconsin. Similarly, high schoolers organized multiple events in Monroe, in southern Wisconsin. 

Protests occurred at sites across central and northern Wisconsin too, including some in nearly all-white communities populated by as few as a couple thousand people. Locations such as Hayward, Woodruff, and Minocqua were sites of protests that attracted people holding signs and marching on behalf of racial justice.

At the national level, youth activism took another form when TikTok users and fans of Korean pop music groups claimed to have registered potentially hundreds of thousands of fake tickets to President Donald Trump’s June 19 campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

The campaign had prepared for thousands more than the 6,200 people who actually attended the event, according to Tulsa city officials. Trump’s campaign had said more than one million had requested tickets.

Prompted to action

Ford and other young people involved in organizing protests said they were motivated to do so by Floyd’s death. Footage of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, the last three of which he appeared lifeless, sparked nationwide outrage and protests.

As soon as she viewed the video of Floyd’s death, Nicole Sutton knew she had to get involved. Recent well-publicized deaths of Black men and women at the hands of police nationally heightened growing unrest about ongoing system and racial injustices against communities of color in the United States. Floyd’s killing lit a fire under many young people unwilling to live in a world where such actions are acceptable, said Sutton, a 26-year-old Black woman who lives in La Crosse.

“Protesting these kinds of actions has been something I felt I have needed to do for years,” Sutton said, noting a number of killings of Black people that have garnered significant media attention since the 2014 death of Michael Brown. “I didn’t know how to get involved before, where to go. Now I had an outlet. I knew right away this was something I needed to be a part of.”

Kade Walker was among thousands of people taking part in multiple protests in Madison in recent weeks, demanding police reforms and an end to systemic racism. Walker, a 22-year-old communications director for the political action committee NextGen America, said he and other young people are tired of unfulfilled promises and continued racist policies in this nation and are stepping up to demand change.

“We’re seeing that this isn’t the kind of world that we want,” he said, “so young people are getting involved and demanding change ourselves.”

That thought process motivated Jaylin Carlson to get involved in organizing protests in Eau Claire. A recent UW-Madison grad, she joined Ford in organizing the first protest there, then was part of three others that occurred in the city during the next week. Racial inequality and injustices occur not only in large, multi-ethnic cities, she said, but in places such as Eau Claire, a mostly-white city of 70,000 in west-central Wisconsin, where he endured numerous instances of racist behavior while growing up.  

Young people hold signs during a protest in Dodgeville in southwestern Wisconsin earlier this month. High school students have organized protests there and elsewhere in the state. (Photo courtesy of Kriss Marion)

“We just decided that we couldn’t sit back and not do something,” Carlson said.

Similarly, Taylor Jacobson, a 15-year-old who just finished her freshman year at Monroe High School, said Floyd’s death sparked her to protest racial injustice. She said she was afraid of pushback for helping to organize the protests, but got involved anyway. The response was more positive than she expected. 

Jacobson, who is biracial, said she has experienced racism “and I didn’t want to be silent about it anymore. Nothing will change if you are quiet.” 

She said she plans to remain involved in fighting racist policies and actions and will help facilitate upcoming public discussions about the topic in Monroe. 

Carlson has already been active, using the success of the first protest in Eau Claire as a springboard to an activist role. She was a featured speaker at protests, leading chants of “Black Lives Matter!” as marchers made their way along Eau Claire streets. 

She discussed racism as part of multiple virtual events during the past several weeks and helped organize a food collection effort for people in the Twin Cities who could not access closed stores in the wake of protests, there. 

Carlson said she was surprised at the number of people who took part in the protests and is motivated to use that momentum to prompt lasting change around racial issues and social justice.

“I am very passionate about human and civil rights issues and want to continue to leave the world better than I found it,” she said.

Dodgeville resident Shirley Barnes, 78, attended a protest there. She praised high schoolers for organizing the event and said she hopes their actions lead to lasting change on race relations. 

“To see these young people get involved was so heartening,” she said. “It is the young people who are making so much of this happen, and it is giving the rest of us energy.”