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Who is Leading Milwaukee’s Black Lives Matter Movement?

Apr. 4, 2017
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Black Lives Matter started in 2013, as an online campaign in the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal for the Trayvon Martin shooting. It wasn’t until a year later, however, with the April 2014 police shooting death of Dontre Hamilton, an unarmed 31-year-old man sleeping in Red Arrow Park, that the movement truly took root in Milwaukee.

Since then the city has repeatedly found itself at the center of the national debate about law enforcement’s treatment of black men and women. In August 2016, the conversation intensified following the fatal police shooting of 23-year-old Sylville Smith, which led to two nights of violent unrest in the Sherman Park neighborhood and fires that torched eight businesses. Those burned buildings serve as daily reminders of the turmoil. Meanwhile, Milwaukee is also the home base of one of Black Lives Matter’s most outspoken antagonists, Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke. A frequent Fox News guest and a speaker at the 2016 Republican National Convention, he’s labeled the movement a hate group and “the enemy,” and even likened it to ISIS.

Yet, for as deeply as the movement resonates here, unlike Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis, Cleveland and even Kalamazoo, Milwaukee doesn’t have its own official Black Lives Matter chapter. Instead, the cause has been picked up by a network of loosely allied organizations, activists and faith groups, all working toward similar goals, but not necessarily with the same priorities. Contrary to the image that detractors like Clarke present of Black Lives as a top-down political operation, in Milwaukee, at least, the movement is about as grassroots as it gets. Every organization involved is free to break ranks or fine-tune its messaging as it sees fit.

That decentralized structure comes with some tradeoffs, though. As evidenced by a sold-out racial justice summit last weekend at Alverno College—presented by the Wisconsin Unitarian Universalists and featuring organizations as varied as Milwaukee Inner-city Congregations Allied for Hope, America’s Black Holocaust Museum, the ACLU, RidRacism MKE and Ex Fabula—the movement has plenty of community support, yet many of its key players are working around scarce funding and organizational challenges.

The energy around Black Lives Matter is abundant, organizers say. The resources to capitalize on that energy, less so.

Red Arrow Park’s Wake-Up Call

If there’s an unofficial face of Milwaukee’s Black Lives Matter movement, it’s Maria Hamilton, Dontre’s mother. After her son’s death, she founded the organization Mothers For Justice, and has become a kind of first-line responder following police-involved shootings, speaking on behalf of the victims’ bereaved families. It’s a life she never expected, but one that she adjusted to quickly. Along with other mothers of police shooting victims, last year she campaigned with Hillary Clinton and spoke at the Democratic National Convention. Her son Nate, meanwhile, co-founded the Coalition for Justice, which has led peaceful protests throughout the city.

Dontre’s family members weren’t the only ones mobilized by his death, however. The Red Arrow Park shooting served as a wakeup call for citizens from all corners of the city, including Markasa Tucker, a member of the Coalition for Justice and the lead organizer for UBLAC (Uplifting Black Liberation and Community), a coalition of women and trans activists.

Tucker says UBLAC is focused on creating awareness, and giving people the tools they need to create political change. “Some people are not politically engaged,” she says. “They don’t know what their county supervisors do, or what their aldermen do. We want people to know we have the power to put these people in office and work for us.”

Although she speaks with the fluency in social justice issues of a lifelong organizer, Tucker only became active in the cause after Dontre’s death. It has since become something of a full-time job for her—behind motherhood and her actual, paying 9-5 job. “It gets dicey,” she says of her schedule, explaining that many of her peers in the movement face the same challenge. “Let’s say an activist works at a school,” she says. “During the day they’re a teacher, and during the afternoon they’re an activist, but because they have a full time job their capacity is reduced.”

Since funding for community organizations is already scarce, and since many organizers work out of their own pocket, Tucker believes it’s unlikely Milwaukee’s civil rights groups will ever come together under a completely unified umbrella.

“We would love to see a central body that can come together and connect people,” Tucker says. “That’s always been a challenge in Milwaukee. People try to do it, but there are so many issues here that we have to deal with that people get stuck on the one issue they are working on, whether it’s trying to feed people, addressing criminal justice reform or working on youth outreach. There hasn’t been the research or the funding to try to pull together one organization to do all that work.”

Fred Royal, president of the Milwaukee chapter of the NAACP, sees the movement’s problem less as a leadership vacuum and more as a leadership traffic jam. “I think that is part of Milwaukee’s challenge, that we have a lot of folks that want to be leaders, and we don’t have enough folks that want to collectively rally around issues without being out front,” he says.

The Milwaukee NAACP has been leading its own push to improve relationships between police and the black community. Along with more than a dozen local organizations calling themselves the Community Coalition for Quality Policing (CCQP), the group has requested that the Milwaukee Police Department adhere to a problem-oriented approach to policing, which encourages data-driven police tactics and working with the community to fix the root problems of crime hotspots. “If you can’t get buy-in from the organization that is charged with enforcing public safety, then you’re kind of at a standstill,” Royal says.

Royal describes the CCQP’s conversations with the police department as a negotiation, and says so far it’s been a cordial one. “They’re receptive to the idea of having community input on a public safety plan,” he says, “and they’re very receptive to improving police-community relations.”

Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn has endorsed problem-oriented policing, but the CCQP’s hope is to have the department assessed by Michael Scott, Director of the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, to see how effectively and faithfully it’s implementing these practices.

“Our police chief feels that he is doing problem-oriented policing and says he’s getting recognized for it, so he feels like he’s going above and beyond,” Royal says. “That’s why we want to bring in Michael Scott to verify whether he is or not.”

Where White People Come In

Presciently, the First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee purchased two Black Lives Matter banners. The first was stolen shortly after the congregation hung it in early 2015. The second one was slashed at the cords, but not so badly that it couldn’t be re-hung. The church raised it to prevent vandals from getting at it again.

The congregation didn’t make the choice to endorse Black Lives Matter lightly, explains Mary Devitt, the Justice Building Innovator for Black Lives Matter through the National Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (yes, she knows her title is a mouthful). Some First Unitarian members had marched with the Coalition of Justice, and a few had been arrested at those protests, but it was only after considerable discussion that the predominantly white church opted to take an official stand on the issue.

“So we made the decision to work within the white community for education on anti-racism,” Devitt says. “We find a foundation in the theology, values and principals of our Unitarian faith, which believes in justice and dignity for all lives. Of course, we would never say ‘all lives matter,’ but if all lives are ever going to matter, then black lives need to matter, and right now they do not have the same value in the country given the way they are treated by the system.”

Their outreach requires a stomach for uncomfortable conversations. “I think there’s a lot of fear,” Devitt says. “We’ve been addressing that in our workshops. It’s a lot of different kinds of fears, including fear of the unknown. If you live in a community like Milwaukee with the kind of segregation we experience, people just don’t have familiarity with people who don’t look like them.

“And people are afraid to be clumsy, to say the wrong thing, or to make things worse,” Devitt continues. “They’re afraid of being confronted by very righteous anger and what to do about that. They’re afraid of being confronted by their own imperfections and injustice, and having to learn that maybe they’re not as good as they hoped they were.”

Perhaps the most important thing about being a white ally to Black Lives Matter, Devitt says, is not making the movement about yourself. “White people are not leading the cause, nor should they be,” she says.

It was at the request of black leaders that organizer Stephanie Roades started a local chapter of Showing Up For Racial Justice (SURJ), a predominantly white group aligned with Black Lives Matter. The benefits of having a separate group are two-fold: It spares black organizations the burden of having to educate white people—and, let’s be honest, having to continually re-explain the distinction between “black lives” and “all lives”—while also giving white allies a safer forum to be more open about their own thoughts and biases, even if it means putting their foot in their mouth sometimes.

“Whether it’s consciously or subconsciously, we’re all at some level racist,” Roades says. “The simplest thing is to just get over it. Sometimes people compare it to an AA meeting, where you have to admit that, ‘Yes I am white, and yes, I benefit from white supremacy.’ It’s not about whether you’re good or bad. We’re not interested in that binary. It’s about acknowledging the fact that there’s a system that’s been in place for a long time that benefits whiteness.”

For newcomers who may be resistant to that message, Roades has adopted a blunt icebreaker. “The first thing I like to say people,” she says, “is, ‘Look, I’m racist, too.’”


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