Black Lives Matter in Madison and Wisconsin, If they Don’t Now, THEY WILL
A new generation of human rights activists mounted a passion-filled, peaceful march in South Madison Friday, tapping the energy around race issues sweeping the country to funnel it to local issues.
“Young black men are being murdered. It is a national problem,” organizer Brandi Grayson told the crowd that gathered at the Metro bus hub at South Park Street and West Badger Road. “It is time to educate ourselves, it is time to educate our neighbors, it is time to educate our employers. It is time, my people.”
“Black Lives Matter,” was the banner slogan and rallying cry of the action led by the Young Gifted and Black Coalition, as up to 150 demonstrators marched in traffic lanes a half-mile up South Park Street to North Ave., then back to the South District Police Station on Hughes Place for short speeches, poems and chants.
The crowd’s final march took them down Park Street up to, but not onto, the ramp to the west-bound Beltline as they held a silent vigil for four-and-a-half minutes to honor Michael Brown, whose body lay for four-and-a-half hours on a street in Ferguson, Missouri, after he was fatally shot by a white police officer in August.
The local activist group emerged following a grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson in Brown’s killing, in response to which they organized a rally and march around the Capitol Square last week. Like other race rights actions cropping up in the latest round of public outrage over the killing of black men by white police officers, the Madison coalition turned the failure of another grand jury this week to return an indictment in the killing of Eric Garner in New York City into an opportunity to demonstrate the depth of concern over civil rights.
Demonstrations over the lack of an indictment in the Garner case continued Friday in cities across the country.
The Young Gifted and Black Coalition of Madison is clearly organizing for the long haul.
The coalition points often to the disparities in education, incarceration and other aspects of life, documented in the Race to Equity report, as proof that even absent fatal police violence against blacks, racial inequities are rife in Dane County. The group is demanding an end to plans to build a new Dane County jail, immediate release of people incarcerated for crimes of poverty and investment in community initiatives.
Leaders called on demonstrators to join a planned protest Tuesday at a Dane County Board committee hearing on a proposal to spend $8 million for a study on the need for a new jail that could cost $150 million, and to participate in a community building and planning session next Friday evening at the South Madison Public Library.
“The civil rights movement brought change, but it didn’t happen because people were sitting down,” Grayson told the crowd. “Change happened because people were committed to change and were willing to sacrifice themselves and their time.”
The crowd demonstrating Friday was mixed racially and ethnically, but overwhelmingly young. Grayson said that older civil rights advocates and those whose work is enmeshed with majority establishment organizations are stepping back to let a younger generation take the lead on protests. “They can’t say the things we can say. We can take the action in the street; hopefully they will help make the policy.”
Will Williams, a long-time activist with Vietnam Vets for Peace and other local movements, watched the march take shape from the sidelines. “Old folks need to turn the baton over,” Williams said.”We have young people with the fire who understand what going on with racism overall and with cops who are murdering black people and not being held accountable.”
A handful of other older advocates were present on the edges of the demonstration, as well such leaders on race equity matters as Floyd Rose, president of 100 Black Men of Madison, and Mayor Paul Soglin.
The demonstrators chanted as they marched: “No Justice, No Peace! No Racist Police!” When they paused at North Avenue, the gathering took on something of the feel of a revival meeting where participants were called on to raise their fists and pledge to take up the fight for human rights.
“It starts with you, it starts with you, it starts with you, it starts with you, it starts with you, it starts with you, it starts with you, it starts with you, it starts with us,” Grayson shouted, pointing to individuals in the rapt and silent crowd.
“We are here to show what solidarity looks like. You are absolutely beautiful, don’t let anyone tell you anything different,” she said. “We are conditioned to fear black men; we are conditioned to think every black person is innately violent.”
Madison Police Chief Mike Koval watched from across Park Street, noted that marching in the traffic right-of-way was an act of civil disobedience, and spoke to the protesters rights to do so. “This is the First Amendment in action. This is how it’s supposed to work,” Koval said. “And the police in a free society should be here to facilitate it. This is democracy in action.”
Outside of the police station, protesters chanted slogans punctuated by trombone blasts and heard speeches and poems, one of which named many of those killed by police and lamented: “There is not enough skin to tattoo the names…We are black lives and we matter.”
The group fell into formation for the final march down Park Street just as darkness fell. “I came out to support everyone,” said one 20-something protester. “Human rights matter.”