One Year Later: Report from a George Floyd Protest in Milwaukee
On Wednesday, June 3rd; I checked the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel homepage for any details on the local George Floyd-BLM protests. I read that a group was meeting at Humboldt Park in Bay View, and that at 3:00pm they would begin marching. No destination or pathway was offered.
I had already readied a backpack for possible protest a few nights earlier. I packed a winter jacket, a sweatshirt, two bottles of water, Advil, two packages of cherry Pop Tarts, and an old skateboard helmet that I’ve never used. I dressed in all black, thinking that if police started shooting rubber bullets or tear gas, this would make me slightly harder to target after dark.
I got in my car and headed to Bay View. By the time I got there shortly before 4:00pm, Humboldt Park was empty. I inferred that the protest was likely heading north towards downtown, so I headed up Kinnickinnic and shortly found the crowd at National Ave. I parked in a two-hour zone, and accepted that I would be getting a parking ticket. I quickly doused my European skin with the sunscreen I’ve yet to have the occasion to use here in Wisconsin during 2020 so far. I put on a homemade face-mask that my mom made for me, put on a fresh pair of black Nitrile gloves, grabbed my bag and headed into the crowd.
I joined the group at the back and gradually worked my way up to the front. The crowd was in a near constant state of call and response chanting. “No Justice - No Peace, No Racist-Ass Police!” “Say his name - George Floyd! Say her name - Breonna Taylor! Say their names: Which ones?” “What do we want? - Justice! When do we want it? - Now!” About half the marchers were carrying homemade signs, mostly different variations of “Black Lives Matter” or “White Silence = Violence” or “Fuck 12!” (a cute new way to say Fuck the Police!). The most aggressive sign I saw was carried by a young White man, “Slaughter the Pigs!”
As I advanced through the crowd, I was amazed to see bountiful signs of proactive protest organization in a way I’ve never before seen in my life. Throughout the course of the day, there were dozens of people handing out free water bottles, Gatorade, sandwiches, granola bars and fruit snacks. There were people handing out free face-masks, although the overwhelming majority of the crowd were already wearing them. There were people walking around with garbage bags to make sure there wasn’t any litter. There were even people handing out DIY first aid kits in Ziplock bags. It was absolutely incredible.
To my best approximation, about 70% of the crowd was White. About 25% was Black, and about 5% was a combination of Latino and Asian. I’m 32 years old. This put me squarely in the older part of the crowd. The Journal Sentinel later reported that about 400 people were part of this protest, and to my eye, I don’t think I saw more than ten people older than me. Overwhelmingly, it was the youth that was out there sweating in the humid, 84-degree heat. It was the youth that marched mile after mile. It was the youth who demonstrated the moral courage that many of the grown-ups are unwilling to show, the kind of courage to knowingly put yourself in physical danger for something that is right.
And of course, it was these same youth who had just seen this week’s fresh footage of police officers ramming their squad cars into unarmed protesters in New York City. Of police officers tasing unarmed protesters for being inside their own car in Atlanta 45 minutes beyond “curfew.” And of police officers using flash-bang grenades and tear gas on peaceful protesters outside the White House over an astoundingly crass photo-op.
We walked north several blocks before looping back to National Ave. We then went all the way west to 16th St, took the bridge up to Marquette, then turned east on Wisconsin Ave. As of this point, we still hadn’t seen a single police officer. But by the time we got to 11th St, we could see some police cars blocking the entrance ramp onto I-43. There were about six officers standing guard, I believe their faces were visible. The crowd started chanting, “Walk with us! Walk with us!” One of the officers acknowledged the olive branch. He was holding an assault rifle, but lifted one hand in a half-hearted wave, as if to say, “Thanks, I get it, but I I’m at work right now.”
The crowd kept moving without incident. At 6th St, we were joined by another large group of protesters who had come from the north. Around this time, we heard and saw a massive military helicopter circling above.
As we proceeded towards the lake, the lack of civilian spectators surprised me. It very well may be due to remaining work-from-home orders, but it really was odd to be in the middle of such a large and boisterous protest, in the largest city in the state, and then look up to the windows of downtown’s tallest buildings, and see no one looking back down.
We turned north on Prospect, and then headed down to Lincoln Memorial drive. We kept going north all the way until we gathered in a large circle in the grass across from MooSa’s. It was a welcome relief to be able to go pee in the woods, then sit down and rest for about 20-30 minutes. Several of the organizers spoke, and also offered to let anyone in the crowd take the mic for a minute if they had something to say. I sat next to a guy wearing a Sky High t-shirt. I introduced myself and we made a connection as local skaters. Several minutes later, this guy showed me a picture on his phone and said, “Be careful, there are undercover cops in the crowd.” I was skeptical at first, until I saw them for myself. I spotted two beefy White men, clearly wearing bulletproof vests under their ill-fitted black blazers.
We then headed up Water Tower Rd, then west on North Ave. We walked all the way to MLK Dr, then headed north. At this point the sun was setting fast, and few people in the crowd started lighting off fireworks. To me, and seemingly to many others, this was more nerve-racking than festive, as firecrackers sound an awful lot like gunshots. Word murmured though the crowd that there might be some armed Alt Right group coming to confront us. Thankfully this did not transpire.
The organizers had been exhaustively clear throughout the day, this was a peaceful protest only. They told us to personally confront and stop anyone who started vandalizing property, or instigating violence in any way.
As we approached Locust St, the organizers told us to gather in the Burger King parking lot on the southeast corner of the intersection. Kitty corner to Burger King is the Fifth District office of the Milwaukee Police Department. When I looked over in that direction, my adrenaline level ramped up even higher than it already had been.
Across the intersection from us, I saw a line of policemen, shoulder to shoulder. They were adorned in full riot gear. Helmets, face-shields, batons in hand, clear plastic shields at the ready. They were silent. I would guess there were about 60 of them. Parked on the street in front of their office were two desert-camouflaged Humvees, appearing to have been intended for use in Iraq, not Wisconsin.
As our crowd spilled back into the intersection, the organizers were diligently yelling at people to stay back and not get too close to the police.
Two very possible scenarios came to my mind in this moment. One, the police, as they have been filmed doing across the country this very week, could just charge us. Tear gas, rubber bullets, flash-bang grenades, batons, tasers. The use of any of these weapons on peaceful protesting citizens is now 100% completely within the realm of possibility.
For my entire life, America has proclaimed to occupy the international moral high-ground with respect for 1st Amendment rights such as freedom of speech and peaceful assembly. But something has changed.
The second scenario, of course, is that if even one or two people in our crowd of hundreds so much as hurls a water bottle towards the police, then we are likely right back into scenario one. Should I put on my helmet? In full transparency, I decided not to mostly just because I didn’t want to look like a nerd. But if the situation changed quickly, I knew I had it on me.
And then, in the moment in which it was precisely necessary, came the music. Someone had a speaker and started blaring Michael Jackson’s “Black or White.” People started dancing in the middle of the packed intersection, some on top of their cars. Probably 3-4 songs total were played, capped off with Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.” The police laid down their weapons and joined the crowd, and in a moment of existential catharsis, danced the night away with the protesters.
Just kidding! The cops remained in maximum intimidation mode. But the music and the dancing lightened the moment, for a moment, then we kept walking north.
I was walking in the middle of the street near the front of the crowd. Then I looked left and my adrenaline pump started cranking again. There’s a large vacant lot in between the Milwaukee Public Library at MLK building and the Greater Philadelphia Church of God in Christ building. From the library wall to the church wall was an additional flank of riot police, shoulder to shoulder just like before. This time they were two or three lines deep. I angled my way towards them, and walked on the sidewalk immediately in front of them. They were probably two yards away from me. I walked calmly, but tried to make fleeting human eye contact with as many of them as I could while in motion.
That would be the last of the police we would see that evening. We walked all the way up to Keefe, then I believe south on Holton, then finally east on Locust again. It was well into the night at this point, but on just about every block, one or two families, mostly Black, came out onto their porches to cheer us on.
We made a final pause at the intersection of Locust and Humboldt. Encircling the intersection, the organizers shared some final words, and had us kneel in a moment of silence for the victims of police violence. It was now 12:30am.
My legs were completely shot at this point. I’m currently very much out of shape, and checking my phone, I saw that we had walked 10.5 miles, with only one 20-30 minute break in the middle. For the last two hours of the march, I had been not so much walking as limping, trying to ignore the stabbing pain in my hip. Because of this, I was increasingly apprehensive about having to walk all the way back to my car down in Walker’s Point. At this point, according to my phone, it would take a full hour and a half to get back to. I would take a ride-share service under normal circumstances, but my credit card info was not up to date, so that wasn’t an option. I considered calling my sister in Bay View or my sister in Wauwatosa, but I didn’t want to bother them and they’d probably be asleep already anyway.
So all of this is going through my mind when the protest officially ends, and then two seconds later, someone yells, “If you need a ride back to your car, get in this van!” I was right there and asked, “Which direction are you headed?” Someone behind me said, “Just get in!” So I did. And all of the sudden, this miracle woman driving the van proceeded to give about 10 complete strangers a ride back to their cars all over the city, it’s now after 1:00am. Absolutely extraordinary.
I got back to my car and went to collect my parking ticket. It wasn’t there.
I drove home, showered, and collapsed.
For the first day in America in the year 2020, I felt optimistic about the possibility of feeling optimistic.
Note: This essay was written in June, 2020.