‘I Can’t Breathe’: Milwaukeeans Protest for George Floyd

Hundreds decry systemic racism and rally in honor of man who died in Minneapolis police officer’s choke hold.

Editor’s note: For an update on how the protests developed through the weekend, click here.

Hundreds of protesters gathered in Milwaukee on Friday afternoon demanding justice for George Floyd, who died under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer on Monday.

The peaceful protest started at a small vacant parcel in the Metcalfe Park neighborhood before those gathered marched to the police station and county courthouse Downtown, briefly blocking Interstate traffic along the way. A string of protests, marches and parades followed in the evening and continued into the night on the South, East and North sides. There were reports after midnight of tear gas being used as protesters surrounded MPD’s Fifth District police station in the Harambee neighborhood.

Earlier, the afternoon crowd gathered first at North 27th and West Center streets. Some in the racially mixed crowd carried signs with messages such as “Justice for George Floyd,” “Silence is Compliance,” and “No One is Above the Law.” The crowd grew larger until demonstrators and onlookers lined all sides of the busy intersection. Passing motorists honked their horns in support and, in a sign of the times, face masks were distributed to protesters.

Demonstrators gather Friday at 27th and Center streets to protest the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis earlier in the week. Passersby beeped their horns steadily in support of the rally. Photo by Marla Hiller

A parade of speakers addressed the crowd with impassioned messages and led periodic chants of “I can’t breathe,” repeating some of Floyd’s last words.

Shortly before the early afternoon event, word began to spread that criminal charges – third-degree murder and manslaughter – had been filed against Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, 44, who was caught on video pinning his knee to the neck area of Floyd, who was unarmed and handcuffed, for nearly nine minutes.  Chauvin had been taken into custody Friday morning.

On Thursday night, demonstrators set fire to a Minneapolis police station, forcing officers to flee, and looted and damaged several businesses in the Twin Cities.

Demonstrators gather Friday at 27th and Center streets to protest the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis earlier in the week. Photo by Marla Hiller

The Milwaukee protest, organized by Community Task Force MKE, focused on Floyd’s death but organizers had a broader message, calling on participants to remember other lives lost in the black community to what they decried as senseless and often racially motivated violence.

After a moment of silence for Floyd, protest organizer Vaun Mayes said it was important to “first acknowledge the injustice that we have right here in this city, right here in this state.”

“We cannot allow that to continue,” Mayes said.

Several speakers called on demonstrators to remain peaceful and to quell any urge for upheaval as the crowd gathered a short distance from the Sherman Park neighborhood, where demonstrators rioted four years ago, sparked by the fatal police shooting of 23-year-old Sylville Smith.

Tensions ebbed and flowed during the hourlong gathering. There was little if any visible police presence. Many of the messages were delivered with sermon-like passion.

“Right now, I can’t breathe because my brother couldn’t breathe with that foot on his neck,” yelled Caliph Muab’El, president of All of Us or None Wisconsin, a project of Breaking Barriers Mentoring Inc., a Milwaukee nonprofit organization focused on youth empowerment.

“At the end of the day, we are always the ones that get the short end of the stick,” said Muab’El. “They want us to be peaceful. They want us to be nonviolent. But they are continuing to execute violence against us. At what point do we say, enough? At what point do we say this has got to stop? We can’t afford to lose another George Floyd.”

Systemic racism continues to plague the African American community in Milwaukee and elsewhere, he said.

“I’m not promoting violence today. I love people and I love peace,” Muab’El said. “But what I am saying is that if you want us to behave like we are civil then you’ve got treat us like civil human beings.”

Protesters gather Friday outside the Milwaukee County Courthouse during a protest over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Photo by Rich Rovito

Newly elected City Attorney Tearman Spencer took the microphone and called for peace and unity.

“Black, brown, white and yellow. We have to make the change,” Spencer said.

Rayanna Corder, 28, of Milwaukee, also called for calm.

“We see all the protests around the nation, and they are starting to destroy stuff. They don’t expect us to behave,” Corder said softly. “I want us to set an example and show the whole nation how you can have a peaceful protest without tearing things up, without hitting other people, without fighting with the police. I want Milwaukee to be the example. Make a whole bunch of noise and not tear the city up, because where are you going to buy your baby’s Pampers from tomorrow?”

Corder seemed surprised upon learning that criminal charges had been filed against Chauvin, the Minneapolis officer. Although pleased that action had been taken, she admitted that she had hoped for stiffer charges.

“I don’t want this to be something where he gets five years and gets out,” Corder said. “A long conviction, that’s actually showing they are taking this seriously.”

After the event concluded, many in the crowd locked arms and took to the streets, beginning a long march east on Center Street. The chanting group eventually made their way onto Interstate 43, briefly blocking traffic.

Many demonstrators continued into Downtown, briefly stopping near the Milwaukee Police Department headquarters on West State Street before continuing around the block to the east side of the Milwaukee County Courthouse, where more speeches and calls to action were delivered. Drivers in passing cars yelled messages of support from car windows, their fists raised in the air.

By late afternoon, the crowd slowly made its way back to the Metcalfe Park site, where it all began.



Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.