It’s Been a Month Since Protests Started. Here’s What’s Changed in Milwaukee.

Organizers are calling for continued action in Milwaukee.

Wednesday began the 34th consecutive day of protests in Milwaukee over racial injustice and police brutality, and there’s no end in sight.

Key organizers of some of the daily demonstrations said that despite some minor victories along the way, plenty of work remains. So, they’ll keep taking to the streets, demanding change.

Will the protests carry on as long as the open housing marches in Milwaukee that lasted 200 days and nights, starting in August 1967 and going until March the following year? Those marches, led by Father James Groppi, a white priest, and the NAACP Youth Council, started after the killing of four people during riots that broke out in Milwaukee. Groppi marched alongside the city’s civil rights activists, including Vel Phillips, a prominent figure in the movement.

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Flash forward 53 years. Organized demonstration in Milwaukee began in late May, a few days after George Floyd died under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. The protests have since spread to communities throughout Southeastern Wisconsin and other parts of the state. Day after day, night after night, marches are held. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of demonstrators have gathered under the banner of the Black Lives Movement demanding justice.

“They were marching for fair housing,” current-day protest organizer Khalil Coleman said. “I think our justice fight is a lot broader now. I think the strategies are a lot broader. Are we trying to beat a record? No. It’s not about beating a record of days marched. It’s really about doing what we need to do to get the changes.”

Coleman admitted that change won’t come quickly.

“I encourage people to stay on the front line. I encourage people to walk it out,” he said. “We didn’t get in this condition overnight. We aren’t going to get out of this condition in 30 days. We’re not going to get out of this condition in 201 days. But we have to find ways to take this same energy to our local Common Council meetings. To our County Executive meetings. To our State Capitol in Madison. It’s all an act of justice.”

Coleman and Destiny Monae, who has also been at the forefront of the demonstrations, spoke Monday during a virtual session presented by the Milwaukee Press Club and WisPolitics.com.

“Once we get all of our demands met, or at least a majority, once we reach everything we are asking for, then we can finally take a rest,” Monae said. “Until then, no justice, no peace.”

Coleman said demonstrators are looking to “agitate, educate and organize for a better outcome.”

“It’s been very organic since day one,” he said.

Organizing protests in the midst of a pandemic has been a challenge, Monae admitted. But she’s convinced that frustration with living under a stay-at-home order led some people to join the large protest early on.

“I feel, with the pandemic, it brought more people out,” Monae said. “They were tired of being in the house. They wanted to stand for something. It was also a rebellion thing, too.”

As the protests evolved, it became about more than just getting out of the house for all those involved, she said.

Protesters have been careful, wearing masks and using hand sanitizer.

“So many are protesting, and we are not sick,” Monae said.

The protests have achieved a few small, but notable, victories to this point, Coleman said, including the removal of Milwaukee Police Department officers from Milwaukee Public Schools. On Monday night, Wauwatosa Common Council members voted unanimously to move forward with a plan to have officers in the Milwaukee County suburb wear body cameras. The move comes as protests in Wauwatosa have intensified, focusing on three fatal shootings over the past five years involving the same police officer, Joseph Mensah.

There’s also been a call for the firing of Milwaukee police officer Michael Mattioli, 32, who faces a charge of first-degree reckless homicide in the death of Joel Acevedo, whom he is accused of putting in a fatal chokehold during a fight at Mattioli’s Milwaukee area house.  

Coleman is among the demonstrators calling for the removal of Milwaukee Police Chief Alfonso Morales and a defunding, at some level, of the Milwaukee Police Department.

The demonstrations are far more widespread than those that occurred during the unrest the gripped the Sherman Park neighborhood after an officer-involved shooting four years ago that left 23-year-old Sylville Smith dead, Coleman said.

“You are starting to see so many people, even in the surrounding areas of Milwaukee, also participating in the direct actions,” he said. “That’s what makes it so different. You are starting to see people who have never protested before protesting and participating.”

Having people of various races and ethnicities taking part in the protests has bolstered the effort toward achieving change, Coleman said.

“Yes, Black lives matter but it’s not just a Black thing,” he said. “Because when Black lives are affected, all lives are affected. All lives can’t matter until Black lives matter. It’s critical to have brown brothers and sisters join us in the movement. It’s critical to have our white brothers and sisters in the movement.”

Coleman has been actively fighting for justice since 2012, following the shooting death of 13-year-old Darius Simmons at the hands of an elderly neighbor.

“I want justice. I have been fighting this fight for a long time,” Coleman said, his voice cracking with emotion. “This has been a long fight, man.” 

Coleman shrugged off the attention his leadership role in the protests has generated, while continuing to organize and take part in demonstrations and marches. A new mural on the façade of a North 14th Street building includes the likenesses of Coleman, Frank Nitty, Vaun Mayes, Markasa Tucker and other key figures in the protest movement.

“The whole mural thing, it’s beautiful,” Coleman said. “But is that something that makes me say ‘I’m good?’ No, I want justice. I want accountability.”

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.