Protests, Racial Discussions Are Happening in Wisconsin Small Towns, Too

Even though echoes have been louder in big cities, the cries for justice and equality are present everywhere in this country.

Chris Norfleet grew up in Chicago and has spent most of his life there. But for the last five years, he and his wife have been living in Wausau, with a population of less than 40,000.

He says he doesn’t miss the gun violence and “the prostitutes seemingly on every other street corner.” But as an African American, he rarely feels welcome in Wausau and Marathon County, especially compared with Chicago. He fit in better with his neighbors there. There are only about 1,220 black residents of Marathon County, less than 1% of its population.

“It’s the biggest county (by area) in the state of Wisconsin and there’s none of us here,” he says. “We deserve a place in Wausau and Marathon County and Antigo. … Black people deserve a place to live.”

Chris Norfleet poses with an “I CAN’T BREATHE” sign in Wausau during a peaceful protest alongside another many with a sign that reads “Unity.” Photo courtesy of Chris Norfleet.

The murder of George Floyd on Memorial Day wasn’t a surprise for Norfleet, nor did it come as a shock for many black people in America. During a demonstration on May 29, he told a local television station: “I didn’t know George, but I am George.”

Media attention, like always, is focused in big cities. That’s where most of the cop cars have been set on fire, where department stores have been looted, where fears of domestic terrorism are highest. But discussions and protests aren’t only happening there, even though that’s the way the news cycle can make it seem.

  • In Janesville, organizers of a demonstration thought that fewer than 10 people might participate; hundreds showed up.
  • A highway was lined with demonstrators in Marinette, a city of only 10,000.
  • In Wausau, a Black Lives Matter protest saw dozens of people spanning the racial spectrum show up for a peaceful demonstration last week. And hundreds are expected to come out for a march this weekend.
  • In Waukesha, police knelt with protesters during a five-hour march on Monday, June 1.
  • About 200 people knelt during a nine-minute tribute to George Floyd in Burlington on Tuesday, June 2.
  • Unlike in most smaller cities, protests were held several days in a row in Appleton.

In some of Wisconsin’s smaller cities, there have been slowly increasing efforts to address racism, racial misunderstandings and to bring equity.

“The truth is, there’s complacency, complicity. People are complacent,” says Norfleet.

During demonstrations in Wausau, Norfleet has been one of many holding a homemade sign that says “I can’t breathe.” But throughout these displays of solidarity and support, “I haven’t heard one person say, ‘This is our fault.’”

Chris Norfleet poses with an “I CAN’T BREATHE” sign in Wausau during a peaceful protest. Photo courtesy of Chris Norfleet.

The median yearly household income for white people in Wisconsin ($70,632) is 70% higher than the same figure for black Wisconsinites ($41,361). Norfleet believes state and local politicians put other priorities above the well-being and support of black residents. 

“We need them (leaders) to put their money where their mouth is. They don’t just say nice things when it comes to farmers. They don’t just say nice things to police. They give them tax money,” says Norfleet, a chef at Texas Roadhouse who unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Wausau in the last election cycle. “If you support the black community like you support police … then you wouldn’t have kids dropping out of school so much.”

Although Marathon County is largely conservative, Andrea Buchacek, board president of YWCA Wausau, says she has been pleasantly surprised with the support protesters have received this past week. And there haven’t been many reports of vandalism or theft or violence related to protests throughout the entirety of rural Wisconsin, another positive sign that the turmoil seen in many major cities isn’t hitting every corner of the country.

But there is still ignorance. Earlier this week, a man was arrested in Wausau under suspicion of committing a hate crime after using a racial slur during an argument at a gas station.

“Sitting idly by isn’t going to be OK anymore in our community. We have to do better than just accepting racism exists. We’re going to have to do more,” Wausau Police Chief Ben Bliven said in a Facebook video on Tuesday, June 2. “Racism exists here. It flourishes when it goes unaddressed.”

That kind of leadership from Bliven sits well with Buchacek, especially after Hmong people in Marathon County were reporting suffering verbal and physical attacks after the coronavirus reached Wisconsin. Hmong people usually hail from the countries of Vietnam and Laos; very few feel any connection to China.

While addressing these issues too is important to Norfleet, educational seminars and support groups won’t do much to close wage gaps and blur the lines between American classes.

“Nobody is going to do anything. People are just saying the right thing, not acting the right thing,” he says.

More people need to take the perspective of “What are we going to do next?” he says, rather than focusing on being loud, noticed and empathetic.

Those conversations are still going on in Wisconsin. They just aren’t the prevailing topic yet.

On Wednesday, the African-American Roundtable of Milwaukee published a list of demands including shifting funding away from policing and more toward initiatives in public health, and adding additional oversight to police.

Still, conversations can’t be ignored, says Rev. Alvin Dupree. On Tuesday, Breakthrough Covenant Church in Appleton hosted a livestreamed panel of community leaders and the city’s police chief to talk about the issues the Fox Valley is facing when it comes to race. The discussion lasted nearly two hours and featured a platform for the chief of police to give his perspective but also honored the coordinators of the city’s George Floyd/Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

“Our purpose is to have a real uncomfortable conversation to deal with a real life-or-death situation,” Dupree said in his opening remarks. “It’s going to be uncomfortable, but I believe that un-comfortableness is exactly where we need to be in order to bring the change that needs to be brought. We have to pause and we have to deal with real issues. We have to not pretend that everything is OK, because it’s not. It’s not OK that black men are being murdered in the streets right in front of the cameras that were rolling. That officer (Derek Chauvin) didn’t wake up that day and decide he was going to kill someone. There was a system that allowed him, over several years, to be comfortable that he wouldn’t get in trouble for doing what he had been doing for years. It’s just that this time the cameras were rolling. We want to have these conversations to make sure these things aren’t happening.”

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Adam is a journalist who recently returned to his Wisconsin home after graduating from Drake University in December 2017. He interned with MilMag in the summer of 2015 and has been a continual contributor ever since. Follow him on social media @Could_Be_Rogan