A protest movement demanding social and racial justice and an end to police brutality took root on barren slice of land in Milwaukee’s Central City on a warm and sunny May afternoon when hundreds of demonstrators gathered, sparked by the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.
Fast forward nearly seven months to Monday, with temperatures in the upper 20s and a trace of snow on the ground, when a crowd of about 100 protesters gathered to march for the 200th consecutive day, matching a storied milestone in the city’s long history of activism.
Protesters led by the Rev. James Groppi, a Roman Catholic priest, set the standard by marching every day starting in the summer of 1967 until March 1968 while demanding the passage of a fair housing law in the city.
Groppi would lead protesters across the 16th Street bridge, or the viaduct as it is known to many locals. At the time, the bridge acted as a dividing line for the city’s Black and white neighborhoods.
Since spring, a mixed-race group known as The Peoples Revolution has been carrying out the daily marches and demonstrations. In a highly symbolic gesture, the group on Monday marched along the same bridge where Groppi and members of the NAACP Youth Council made their crossings more than a half century ago. The bridge has been known as the James E. Groppi Unity Bridge since 1988.
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The boisterous demonstrators, marching to the beat a drummer and echoing the spirited chants that a march leader yelled into a megaphone, paused and turned silent at the north end of the bridge for an emotional and somber ceremony to remember more than 30 people, nearly all whom were Black or Hispanic, that have be killed or injured during encounters with law enforcement in Wisconsin.
As an organizer read each of the names – among them, Ernest Lacy, Frank Jude Jr., Dontre Hamilton and Sylville Smith – protesters emerged from the crowd to place roses next to a single devotional candle at a makeshift memorial set up along one of the bridge’s concrete pillars. The crowd then repeated each name, beginning with George Marshall Clark, who was lynched in 1861, until all on the list had been read. Protesters raised their fists and observed a moment of silence before continuing south along the bridge. The chants resumed and the horns of cars that encircled the group for protection blared.
As social justice demonstrations faded months ago in many other cities across the country, the Milwaukee protest group has continued to gather each and every day, through the stifling summer heat, heavy rainstorms and now the biting cold of the approaching winter.
On most days and nights, the protests have been carried out peacefully, but there have been occasional clashes with police and counterdemonstrators, and some arrests.
The tireless group operated for several months under the daily direction of a team led by Khalil Coleman before the activist transitioned out of his leadership role. Frank Nitty, a charismatic presence, became the face of the local protest movement early on, but has kept a relatively low profile in Milwaukee since making a 750-mile trek to Washington, D.C., over the course of 24 days on foot in August to deliver a speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on the 57th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
The movement also has attracted veteran activists like Vaun Mayes, a familiar presence at many of the large early gatherings, who took part in Monday’s march.
In recent weeks, 28-year-old Mariah Smith has emerged as the daily leader of the group. Smith led the crowd in chants and cheers as they gathered in the street near the West Side building that houses the Rave and the Eagles Club Ballroom. A photo posted on The Peoples Revolution Facebook page earlier in the day showed a group of Groppi-led protesters marching outside the same building more than five decades ago.
Early on, the daily marches routinely drew thousands of protesters to the streets throughout the Milwaukee area. The group also took part in the protests in Kenosha in August in the aftermath of the shooting of Jacob Blake Jr. by Kenosha police officer Rusten Sheskey. A teenage gunman shot three people during the uprising, killing two and seriously injuring 26-year-old Gaige Grosskreutz, who worked as a volunteer medic for The Peoples Revolution.
For nearly half of its protest marches, the group has traversed the streets of Wauwatosa demanding accountability from the city’s elected leaders and police officials, many centered on issues tied to police officer Joseph Mensah, who fatally shot three people in the line of duty in five years.
On a sun-splashed afternoon in early September, the group celebrated 100 consecutive days of marching with a get-together at Johnsons Park on the city’s near North Side.
Monday’s gathering at first had the feel of a street party as the crowd gathered in the evening darkness. Music blared from large speakers set up in the bed of a pickup truck as many in the group danced to the rhythms.
Milwaukee County Supervisor Ryan Clancy presented The Peoples Revolution with a citation commending the group for reaching the 200-day milestone while apologizing for what he said has been a lack of action by the County Board on issues of importance to the protesters.
“We have failed as your (elected officials) to actually promise action,” Clancy said. “You’re not out here every day demanding a piece of paper.”
The mood then turned serious as Talevia Cole, sister of Alvin Cole, one of the three people shot and killed by Mensah, addressed the crowd. An emotional Jose Acevedo spoke next and described the lingering grief his family still feels over the loss of his son. Joel Acevedo died after being critically injured during a fight with off-duty Milwaukee police officer Michael Mattioli, who has been criminally charged in the case.
The group then marched east along the edge of Marquette University’s campus as it made its way to the bridge.
Although it reached a milestone many thought to be out of reach, the group has no immediate plans to halt its daily marches.
“The Peoples Revolution has established itself as a legitimate voice for Black and brown lives. In this fight we have stood side by side through the thickness of hate and moved with a solidarity of love,” a statement on the Peoples Revolution Facebook page posted on Monday proclaimed. “This movement will not stop, because too many people see that enough is enough.”
A formal celebration of the 200-day milestone is planned for Saturday at Cathedral Square Park.