For students at South Milwaukee High School, it’s tradition to repaint a nearby rock in honor of football games, school plays and other events. But since protests against police brutality started in Milwaukee, the rock has sported a message of racial justice — when it’s not covered with a splotch of white paint, that is.
The rock was first painted by students in support of the Black Lives Matter movement on June 4, says South Milwaukee resident Tim Wilson. This first iteration of the rock read “No Justice, No Peace” on one side and “Say Their Names” on the other, surrounded by the names of victims of police brutality.
The next day, the rock had been covered in white paint by unknown individuals. On June 6, students returned to restore the rock, this time with more members of the South Milwaukee community, only for it to later be defaced again.
Wilson says that the rock has been defaced a total of four times since June 4.
Though the rock is meant to be frequently repainted, the repeated defacement is different, Wilson says. “This is not repainting. This is someone taking white paint and just dumping it on the rock, and that’s not what that thing’s about,” he says.
Emily Odenkirk, 16, noticed the white paint on the rock while driving nearby with her mother. Odenkirk is a student at the nearby Oak Creek High School, but lives close to South Milwaukee and has friends at the school. She says she was upset by the defacement and called on some friends to help her rectify it.
“I was like, ‘Hey, guys, can you be at South Milwaukee High School in 20 minutes?’” she says. “My mom and I quick ran over to Walmart, got some paint, some brushes, and we met there and started to fix it.”
Working with two friends, Odenkirk repainted the rock over the white paint. One side now reads “BLACK LIVES MATTER” in bright red paint, and the other shows a Pride flag next to the words “Spread Love Not Hate.” Other students later added to the rock, adding red handprints and brown fists.
“We were afraid that you weren’t going to be able to see it super well from the road,” Odenkirk says. “Don’t worry, we checked — you can.”
Wilson says the back-and-forth between student painters and unknown vandals reflects a larger community problem.
“We’re in a predominantly white city, and I think there are people that have their issues with what Black Lives Matter means,” Wilson says. “That’s why you’re seeing this act of vandalism trying to silence the voices of these students and, in my opinion, telling them that their voice doesn’t matter in this community.”
Odenkirk says that the defacement points to the hypocrisy of those opposed to the protests in Milwaukee.
“They want a more peaceful type of protest, right? But when you make a piece of art, something very peaceful, and that still gets vandalized, it really shows that they aren’t actually looking for peace. They just want you to be quiet,” she says.
Students like Odenkirk don’t expect the defacement to stop, but they’re prepared to keep restoring the rock no matter how much white paint they face. “When it gets vandalized, we can just go fix it again,” she says. “We bought a lot of paint.”