Milwaukee’s Protest Leaders Say “This Is the Revolution”

The lives of three leaders of Milwaukee’s new protest movement have prepared them for this battle for equity and racial justice.

In Milwaukee, it started here, on a slice of land near the congested intersection of 27th and Center streets, on May 29. 

A group of protesters carrying signs – “Justice for George Floyd,” “Black Lives Matter,” “White Silence = Violence” – begins to gather in the warm afternoon, quickly swelling and stretching into the streets. In the middle of the mass gathering stands a 30-something man dressed in a black T-shirt and blue jeans over a linebacker’s physique, addressing the crowd in a calm but strong voice amplified by a speaker on the patchy grass. 

It’s veteran community activist Vaun Mayes, who takes on an emcee-like role as he brings forth speaker after speaker, each time carefully cleaning the microphone with a disinfecting wipe, a feature of demonstrating in the COVID-19 era. For more than an hour, people speak of the racial struggles they have witnessed in Milwaukee while demanding justice for Floyd, who died under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer four days before.

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Earlier that week, as protests in Minnesota’s largest city intensified, Mayes and other Milwaukee organizers quickly strategized. Mayes feared that scores of Milwaukeeans would trek to the Twin Cities to join in the protests there. He senses the importance of keeping people in their own community, concerned that they would be targeted as trouble-making outsiders. “I didn’t want our people going there and getting arrested,” Mayes explains. “Then we have no way of helping them.” 

Although deeply disturbed by the circumstances surrounding Floyd’s death, Mayes didn’t want attention shifted away from a series of people of color killed by police in his hometown – Joel Acevedo, Jay Anderson, Ernest Lacy, Dontre Hamilton, Sylville Smith. “I knew at some point protests would start in Milwaukee,” Mayes says. “I wanted to bring the conversation back to the injustices we have had here.”

Protesters near Washington Park on June 6 (Photo by Emmanuel Rios)

Those injustices are mentioned many times at 27th and Center as the protest reaches a crescendo. Then a 34-year-old named Khalil Coleman emerges from the crowd, speaking passionately of the need for Milwaukee to once and for all come to grips with its troublesome racial strife. He then leads a large group of protesters on a march Downtown to the Milwaukee Police Department headquarters and the nearby Milwaukee County Courthouse, the first of many such scenes over the following weeks.  

Coleman eventually becomes a key cog in organizing the daily protests that by the end of July had been carried out every day for more than two consecutive months by a group that has come to be known as The People’s Revolution. 

“Beating up on somebody, that’s easy. This stuff [community organizing] ain’t easy.” – Vaun Mayes (Photo by Aliza Baran)

As the early protests gained momentum, a charismatic figure emerged as probably the main face of the protests – or at least the one with the greatest social media reach. 

Frank Sensabaugh, more commonly known by his childhood nickname Frank Nitty, appears at the daily marches and rallies, almost always livestreaming the events on his phone to thousands of followers. 

Nitty is slender and sports dreadlocks that fall well past his shoulders. He usually wears a flat-bill Bucks or Packers cap, often dresses in camouflage shorts, and favors red Jordan sneakers with black trim. 

“For me, it’s about pushing the limits of everything I can do legally to make sure I get change,” Nitty says. “That’s what I consider protesting.” 

A lifelong Milwaukeean, Nitty grew up with his mother on the North Side, near 39th Street and Hampton Avenue, and graduated from John Marshall High School. 

Nitty first took on an activist role in 2016 after he and several other adults held a party for youth in the Sherman Park neighborhood, a hotbed of unrest that summer. After a gas station employee fired shots into the air with a group of young people gathered nearby, Nitty responded by leading a financially crushing  boycott of the store. Nitty would call for peace while he livestreamed protests later that summer, when Sherman Park erupted in chaos following the fatal police shooting of 23-year-old Sylville Smith.

These days, Nitty claims to sleep only a couple hours or so each night but insists he’s energized by the ongoing demonstrations and vows to keep up the fight. As the protests carry on, Nitty, Coleman, Mayes and others constantly field questions about whether these current-day demonstrations will surpass the streak established during the fair housing marches in Milwaukee in the late 1960s, led by the Rev. James Groppi, that lasted 200 consecutive days. 

“For this particular fight, I’ll never stop,” Nitty says. “It might go over 200 days. It might even go a thousand days. Every day to me feels like the first day. I’m out here fighting for Black lives. I’ve got people behind me. If all these people didn’t support what I say, then I’d stop talking.”

In early August, Nitty set off on a march from Milwaukee to Washington, D.C., planning to log about 30 miles per day and arrive in the nation’s capital for the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech on Aug. 28, 1963.

Longtime community activist and organizer Andre Lee Ellis knows Coleman, Nitty and Mayes through their shared community efforts and has been paying close attention the last few months. 

“They call me Pops,” Ellis, 59, says with a chuckle, as he tends the community garden he created on Ninth and Ring streets. He applauds the trio and other protest leaders for keeping the conversation about racial injustice at the forefront each and every day. “It takes people like them who believe in what they are doing and who are willing to do the work,” Ellis says. “Young people have that energy. I’m extremely proud of what they are doing. Shame on anybody that wants to bring them down.”

Standing outside Sherman Phoenix, the restaurant and business development that rose from a bank that was set ablaze during the Sherman Park uprising, Mayes wears a black T-shirt emblazoned with the name of the organization he heads, Community Task Force MKE, and a Los Angeles Lakers cap. (He’s a big Lebron James fan.) Several people stop to greet him. Some shout words of encouragement from the parking lot. A woman rushing by, take-out meal in hand, yells that she is praying for him.

Mayes’ first protest experience dates to 2013, when more than 500 people demonstrated in Milwaukee after a Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch coordinator, of the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. “I had never seen a protest in the city in person before,” says Mayes, who was 26 at the time. “I was amazed by that.” 

Mayes worked as a youth mentor at the time of the Sherman Park uprising and had started, along with fellow community activist Gabriel Taylor, Program the Parks. The effort initially focused on calming tensions between youth in Sherman Park before morphing into a program that provides guidance, meals and activities for young people struggling with poverty and searching for direction. 

“We did everything we could to stop the uprising, but the Sylville stuff was just too much,” Mayes explains.

The upheaval in Sherman Park brought trouble for Mayes, who is accused in a federal indictment of plotting to firebomb a Milwaukee police station and houses in West Allis. Later, a charge of conspiring to intimidate witnesses was added. He adamantly denies the allegations. 

When asked if his case is nearing any type of resolution, Mayes looks down, shaking his head. “It doesn’t look like it,” he says. 

Police arrested Mayes again on June 29 after he was at the chaotic scene surrounding a house at 40th and Lloyd streets. A week earlier, a crowd, believing the house was tied to child sex trafficking, gathered outside, and vigilantes eventually set it on fire. Mayes insists that he was there to defuse the situation and prevent the torching of the house. 

As Mayes was being held for a day in the Milwaukee County Jail on charges of burglary as party to a crime and criminal trespassing, Nitty organized a party-like event outside the facility in support of his friend, complete with a poker table, tents and beds, a DJ, food and beverages, and bouncy houses for the kids. After the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office pledged to review the charges – none had been filed as of early August – Mayes got released and walked out of lockup into a boisterous crowd of supporters. 

“Frank goes overboard with things,” Mayes says with a smile. 

“They use their resources to help as many people as possible and to push the system to be accountable, especially to Black and brown people.” 

– State Rep. David Bowen

 

These are only the latest hurdles for Mayes. His mother, he says, had a lengthy and devastating battle with drug addiction. His father, Van Mayes, starred on Rufus King High School’s 1983-84 undefeated state champion basketball team and harbored dreams of playing in college, and perhaps beyond, before extensive legal troubles derailed him.

“It’s one of the reasons I added a “u” to my name,” Mayes says. “My legal name is Van, the same as his. When I was growing up, anybody who knew my dad, that’s all they talked about. They gave me a level of respect because of their memory of him. But I never really had a relationship with him, so I wanted to take my own path.”

Early in his life, Mayes’ parents sent him to live with an uncle in Greenwood, Mississippi, where he attended Catholic schools and enjoyed advantages that he knew he wouldn’t have experienced in Milwaukee, given his difficult family situation. 

He returned to Milwaukee as a teenager to live with his grandmother. The relative calm of Mississippi a memory, Mayes had to confront the dangers of living in a neighborhood plagued by poverty and violence. “I had to go from not having to worry about nothing to having to worry about everything,” Mayes says. He reacted with quick-triggered aggression. Fist-fighting became his calling card. After being expelled from three high schools, Mayes landed in Project Excel, a school for juveniles on probation.

Today, Mayes has shifted his fights. “I finally realized that I fought with a lot of people that looked like me and who had their own traumas and issues. These people are my brothers, not my enemies,” he says. “Beating up on somebody, that’s easy. This stuff ain’t easy.”

He now sees his role in the community as a “de-escalator.” His Community Task Force MKE takes on a wide range of issues. “We have created safe housing programs and we pretty much have our own witness protection program,” Mayes says. “There’s also pantries. Meal delivery. Suicide prevention.”

Mayes, 33, lives in Sherman Park and is raising three children. “Two biological and another one that I have raised since he was born. All the same mom,” he says.

He has moved around a lot and has been homeless for periods. “It’s just poverty. Not being stable financially,” he explains. “That’s why I’m so good at addressing issues like that because I know them so well from firsthand experience.”

He carries out his work for Community Task Force MKE without pay, for the most part. He survives on others’ generosity. 

“Somebody bought me my vehicle,” he says. “A lot of times we are in more debt than we can cover, and sometimes people just bail us out. I’ve had people pay my rent and my phone bill. People are investing in taking care of us because they see the work that we do. Right now, I’m trying to turn the work into something where we can employ people and we can self-sustain.”

“I can only imagine the tremendous impact he would have if he was financially secure,” says the Rev. Ellen Rasmussen, who met Mayes shortly after she moved to the area to become pastor of Brown Deer United Methodist Church when both spoke at a Sherman Park church during a conversation on race.

“There were a couple times that I got to be at Sherman Park and was able to witness how the youth responded to him,” Rasmussen says. “I witnessed him defusing situations in the park and am just really impressed by his compassion and care. He’s going to raise awareness about issues and speak out against injustice. He’s going to gather people but he’s not going to incite riots. He’s not going to be involved in people causing harm to one another. That’s not who he is.”

“I never would have thought that people would stand behind what I’m doing.” – Frank Nitty (Photo by Aliza Baran)

Nitty effortlessly weaves his way through a tightly packed crowd outside Milwaukee City Hall as the Fire and Police Commission meets inside to weigh the job status of embattled Police Chief

Alfonso Morales. 

As usual, Nitty is livestreaming the action. A constant presence on social media has gone a long way in boosting all of the organizers’ profiles. “People know our faces, know our names,” Mayes says. “But Frank has that to the extreme. For whatever reason, he has gotten a lot of people zeroed in on him.”

Several young people flock to Nitty requesting a picture. Nitty wears a T-shirt and a face mask created for him by an 11-year old girl. A collection of necklaces drape around his neck. “Supporters have given me everything I have on,” he says. 

A pendant of a phoenix dangles from one of the necklaces. A rose quartz crystal, a stone of unconditional love, hangs from another. “I wear this for protection,” he explains.  

At many protests, he also has other, more tangible protection. He has often marched with a security guard at his side, including one who has openly carried an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, over fears that white supremacists were plotting to kill him.  

Nitty, 39, lives Downtown and describes himself as a Christian and “very, very single. … I’m married to the movement right now,” says Nitty, who has a 21-year-old daughter and 20-year-old son.

Nitty says he’s able to keep his sole focus on the marches and demonstrations because of small donations made through CashApp. “That’s it. I don’t have any other help,” Nitty says. “And then I have about 50 people that rely on me to make sure they are OK in their life. It’s funding from the community because they believe we have a righteous cause. It enables me to help homeless people, to help people pay their rent, electric bills, put gas in people’s cars and make sure they are safe.”

At their core, the protests are about “resetting the system” and working to eliminate oppression, Nitty says. “If you give people equality across the board, if we get the same benefits as the white privileged people, then you’ll see change. People coming together shows you that they want change. There is a lot of hurting people out here: Black, white, Hispanic, LGBTQ. They are all hurting because the system has done all of us wrong. You can be an older, white person over the age of 65 on prescription drugs, and it’s going to be hard for you. Sometimes the system is designed to make life hard for everybody except for people who are rich.” 

State Rep. David Bowen, D-Milwaukee, has marched alongside Nitty, Coleman and Mayes this summer and admired their direct intervention in the city’s problems over the past few years. “I’ve seen their passion and their ability to focus on community issues and people,” Bowen says. “They use their time, energy and resources to help as many people as possible and to push the system to be accountable, especially to Black and brown people.”

This trio are far from alone in driving Milwaukee’s protest movement, which isn’t tied to any centralized or national group. Many men and women are deeply involved away from the public eye or with little or no recognition. With that in mind, a group of artists collaborated to create a colorful mural on the facade of a building at 14th and Vliet streets. Portraits of Nitty, Coleman and Mayes run alongside the sidewalk, along with renderings of Sam Alford, Jeremiah Thomas, Elle Halo, Tommy Franecki, Markasa Tucker, Tory Lowe, Sedan Smith and Monique Liston.  

This mural represents how quickly the community has rallied around this group of activists, and others. “This shows you don’t have to be a basketball player or a doctor or die to get your face on a wall,” Mayes says. 

“It’s not a chase-the-cause moment. It’s a build-the-cause moment.” – Khalil Coleman (Photo by Aliza Baran)

Carrying out the daily and nightly protests, marches, rallies and demonstrations is no simple task. And each day, Coleman works with a group of eight to 10 people to set the day’s agenda and the logistics needed to carry it out – traffic and crowd control, medical support, supplies, chants. 

“We want complete, constructive change to the current system and the current policing we have,” Coleman says. “People’s whole lives have changed because of the protests. I think people are out there because they generally care about what’s happening in their world. It’s not a chase-the-cause moment. It’s a build-the-cause moment.”

While his behind-the-scenes work has been crucial, he’s also quick to grab a megaphone and deliver impassioned speeches at rallies. He has a youthful look, with closely cropped hair and a beard. He often wears a black bandanna draped around his neck.

Milwaukee’s history of protesting injustice set the groundwork for this latest, long-term movement, Coleman emphasizes. “This isn’t by accident that this movement popped off in Milwaukee,” he says. “This is not a fly-by-night thing. This wasn’t a situation where we all woke up one morning and George Floyd was dead, and everybody just took to the streets. These were strategically planned and executed to be sustainable.”

Coleman points to a list of wins that he says have come about, at least in part, from the protest movement: The termination of Milwaukee Public Schools’ contract with the Milwaukee Police Department. The city of Cudahy declaring racism a public health crisis. The Wauwatosa Common Council looking into policing and systemic inequities, including a potential ban on chokeholds and no-knock warrants, and the city’s suspension of police officer Joseph Mensah, who has fatally shot three people in the line of duty in five years on the force. The Milwaukee Common Council unanimously approving a resolution urging the Fire and Police Commission to adopt a policy addressing any “I can’t breathe” plea by an individual who is in police custody. A Milwaukee resolution directing that police purchases of crowd control and military-grade equipment be approved by the council.

But much more remains on the protest leaders’ list of priorities. Mayes pulls out his phone, on which he keeps what he calls a “living, rolling document.” The wide-ranging checklist includes pushing for penalties, and possibly a hate crime charge, for motorists who intentionally drive into groups of protesters. The firing of Milwaukee police officer Michael Mattioli, who has been charged with reckless homicide for allegedly using a fatal chokehold on 25-year-old Joel Acevedo in an off-duty incident at his house. The dismissal of Chief Morales. A defunding of the Milwaukee Police Department, to some extent. Reinstatement of a requirement that police personnel live in Milwaukee. A ban on chokeholds and the use of tear gas and pepper spray by police. The firing of Mensah.

Born in Brooklyn, Coleman arrived in Milwaukee as an infant, along with his sister and mother, after his father was extradited to Wisconsin to be returned to prison. Coleman says his father escaped from the state prison in Waupun and had been living in New York under an alias when he met Coleman’s mother.

“It’s a really important cause, and they are making things happen.” 

– State Rep. Jonathan Brostoff

 

He has troubling memories of growing up in a Near West Side apartment plagued by violence and located near the building where Jeffrey Dahmer lived and carried out some of his gruesome murders. 

“My mom would leave at 4 in the morning to work at the JCPenney warehouse and we’d leave this building, which was a rough building like in New Jack City,” Coleman recalls. They moved to a South Side duplex, where they stayed for about 10 years, until his mother bought the family’s first house near 54th and Burleigh streets. Coleman describes his mother as a “beautiful woman.” His father died in 2015. 

He now lives on the North Side and speaks excitedly about his “precious” infant daughter, Kai. He’s also father to an 11-year-old son, K’Manuel.

He bounced around to several schools before eventually graduating from the New School for Community Service, a Downtown school built around community-based learning internships. He has attended Milwaukee Area Technical College on and off and worked as a surgical greeter at Aurora Sinai Medical Center before taking on a role as an educational consultant.  

Coleman’s community work has included educational initiatives at Neu-Life Community Development Center and Be the Change, an intervention program for students struggling with literacy and absenteeism. 

He’s also a “social entrepreneur” and a writer, self-publishing two novels. The first, Time & Place: In the Life of B and K, follows two young boys and the peer pressure and life choices they face growing up in the inner city. One is fatally shot by a police officer, sending his friend into a spiral that ends with street violence. Coleman’s 2018 Time & Place: Keylanda’s Story follows a teenage girl – friends with the boys from the first story – who speaks out against the violence that claimed B and K and becomes an activist for social justice. 

In 2010, Coleman founded Changing Lives Through Literature, a sole proprietorship dedicated to positively redirecting children’s lives through reading, writing and speaking. His books are included in a curriculum, which he has supplied to school districts, juvenile facilities and youth organizations. 

Lori Vance, a Milwaukee psychotherapist and former executive director of Express Yourself Milwaukee, first met Coleman when he was a teenager and a participant in the arts-focused group’s activities for “high-risk” youth. She chose Coleman to recite to a group of potential donors a poem he had written stressing unity among people of all walks of life. 

“What I appreciate about Khalil is his can-do spirit,” Vance says. “I like how he’s able to work with a diverse group of people and see how we need to work together and yet still stay true to his core mission of Black Lives Matter. I feel like he’s been delivering a pretty positive message even when he’s in challenging places.” 

Last year, Express Yourself Milwaukee adapted Coleman’s Keylanda’s Story into a four-act play incorporated into the group’s annual performance at the Miller High Life Theatre. “Khalil’s book also became the backbone of some of the work we did with youth in corrections,” Vance says. 

She smiles as she recalls Coleman as a youth. “There is an edge to Khalil that always made me think, ‘Is he going to show up?’ But he always did,” Vance says. “I do feel that Khalil has a core in him that knows the path he is on and he is following that.”

It’s hard to see what path the movement will follow, but state Rep. Jonathan Brostoff, a Milwaukee Democrat who has attended most of the daily marches and rallies, has been impressed with what its leaders have been able to accomplish and sustain.  

“It’s been incredible to see the level of sophistication, precision and dedication,” Brostoff says. “It’s a really important cause, and they are making things happen.” 

Nitty, Coleman and Mayes pledge to keep up the fight until racial equity is gained and police are held accountable for their actions.   

“At the end of the day, that’s going to be the bottom line,” Nitty says. “This is the revolution.” 


This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s September issue.

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.