They’ve Been Protesting for a Year. What Now?

There’s been small victories, but organizers say they haven’t gotten the massive changes they’re looking for.

The Peoples Revolution, Milwaukee’s highly visible and tireless protest group, first took to the streets late last spring in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

The group has conducted some type of action- a rally, march, testifying at a public forum – every single day since.

As the sun set on Friday, group members, about 100 in all, gathered in Washington Park before embarking on a caravan and march that, over the course of several hours, traversed the streets of Milwaukee and surrounding communities to commemorate one full year of protests.

Group leaders, although admittedly exhausted at times, insist that there are no plans to halt the daily actions any time soon.

“The need hasn’t stopped. Our people are still being shot and killed and still being looked at as threats. Even children,” said Mariah Smith, an organizer with The Peoples Revolution. “I hear a new story every single day of a black man being gunned down and there being no justice. I learn a new name every day. It’s horrifying.”

The group is committed to continuing its fight against racial and social injustice and police brutality, Smith said.

“We haven’t had huge wins, but I do feel there has been some change,” she said. “It’s not as fast as we want it, but we’ll keep fighting. We can’t just stop.”

Mariah Smith; Photo by Rich Rovito

 

 

Smith said she is gratified that the protests have sparked discussions that The Peoples Revolution believes have contributed, directly or indirectly, to a few victories here and there over the past 12 months.

She noted that chokeholds have been banned in the City of Milwaukee and police officers in Wauwatosa must now wear body cameras. In addition, the 2016 fatal shooting of Jay Anderson Jr. by then-Wauwatosa Police Officer Joseph Mensah is being reviewed by a Milwaukee County judge who will decide on June 25 whether charges should be filed in the case.

Police reform remains a top priority for the group, including a push for changes to qualified immunity, the legal doctrine that essentially shields police from being held accountable in civil lawsuits.

Although change has been slow, those involved in the movement remain committed to the cause, said Percy “Godking” Hayes, a constant presence at the daily marches and protests for the past year. He often assists in organizing the gatherings and directing traffic at marches.

“The people that come out here every single day want change, and they know this isn’t going to be a one-day thing or a one-year thing,” Hayes said. “They are going to have to commit themselves to this fight. Am I discouraged? No. It’s going exactly the way I expected it to go. What has surprised me is the people’s resolve. It’s a hard fight but we’re still moving forward.”

He remains emboldened by the racially diverse group’s energy, day after day, night after night.

“We’ve seen so many different people come together and fight for each other,” Hayes said. “To me, that’s been powerful. This is not one specific group of people. This is not one demographic. This is what Milwaukee should look like.”

Isaiah Sharp, 18, has been involved in the protests since the start and has been among a committed group of young people who regularly attend the rallies and marches. Sharp also accompanied one of the early protest leaders, Frank Sensabaugh, better known as Frank Nitty, on a 750-mile march from Milwaukee to Washington, D.C., last August.

“It’s been an emotional rollercoaster,” Sharp said. “To be honest, I couldn’t control my anger at first. But now, I know how to do that.”

Sharp said he plans to remain active with the group.

“We need to get justice for the people that died,” he said.

Wauwatosa resident Erik Fanning, who is white, said he got involved with the marches and rallies early on because he had long been concerned about oppression in Milwaukee and across the country.

“It wasn’t so much of a Don Quixote thing to go out and march,” Fanning said. “I just wanted to get more involved. This kind of gave me a voice, literally. If nothing else, I’m sort of loud, so these sorts of things are in my wheelhouse. I generally end up chanting and marching the whole time.”

Smith works diligently behind the scenes along with a core of volunteers who organize The Peoples Revolution’s daily actions. She became a more prominent figure in the movement last fall, when one of the diverse group’s main leaders, Khalil Coleman, stepped aside. https://www.milwaukeemag.com/milwaukees-protest-leaders-say-this-is-the-revolution/

Smith shuns the spotlight and is quick to dismiss any mention of her being the group’s “leader,” but her presence is felt at nearly every rally and march. She delivers impassioned speeches and often leads the group’s protest chants.

Smith’s innate ability to stir up the crowd at events was on full display during the Washington Park gathering, which took on a mostly celebratory vibe. Smith grabbed a microphone and led the crowd that encircled her in songs and chants and applauded those who have dedicated their time and energy over the past year.

But the demonstrations have exacted a price, Smith admitted.

Photo by Rich Rovito

“It takes a big emotional toll,” she said. “You see the racism every single day. It’s up in your face. Boom! You march through different neighborhoods where they say you don’t belong here or go back to your side of town. You must be from the ghetto. We hear these things all the time. Even the n-word. And I think, wow. This is 2021 and hate is still out in the open.”

Smith pauses, shakes her head and stares at the ground.

“It’s heavy. It’s really heavy,” she said.

Over the past few months, the size of the rallies and marches has dwindled. In the week or two following Floyd’s death, hundreds, sometimes thousands, of protestors took to the streets in neighborhoods throughout Milwaukee and the suburbs. https://www.milwaukeemag.com/despite-heat-protests-gain-momentum-in-fifth-day/

Now, the gatherings are small, 20 or 30 people, maybe a few more at times, although Friday’s Washington Park gathering drew a significantly larger crowd.

“People have lives. The world is not the same as it was a year ago,” Smith said. “There was not a thing to do last year at this time because of the pandemic. The world was shut down.”

The 29-year-old Milwaukee resident is a paraprofessional who works with K-4 and K-5 students, but she dedicates endless hours to the work of The Peoples Revolution.

“I’m committed. If I don’t commit myself, how can I ask anyone else to commit? It’s become a family,” Smith said.

Coleman praised Smith for her dedication.

“I stand with Mariah 100%,” he said. “She understands the climate of the community and has the ability to communicate effectively with other people. But one of the things about The Peoples Revolution since day one is that it has never been about just one person. It’s been a multitude of people who have led this movement.”

Coleman said the evolution of the group over the last year has allowed it to sustain its daily actions and remain viable when protests in other cities across the country have long since ended.

“Different people have taken on roles, people with different ideas,” Coleman said. “It went from every day protesting to other actions. It may still be a protest, or it may be a direct action for that day.”

The progression allowed Coleman to step aside after leading the group through the feverish first few months.

“We have a core group and that allowed me to move to the back and allow others to step up,” Coleman said. “I always believed that the revolution should evolve. Our first days were really intense. There was tear gas and rubber bullets and harassment from law enforcement. It was a lot. Knowing that we got past that part, we started looking more into things like lobbying and trying to get more people involved through education. We’ve gotten past the smoke.”

As music blared and people danced in a Washington Park parking lot, Hayes reflected on the people he has met over the past year.

“They give me strength,” Hayes said. “Day one. my energy was different. I was angry. Then I said, ‘Let’s get things changed.’ That was based on the people that have been out here. Black, white, man, woman, gay, straight, Muslim, Atheist, Christian. It don’t matter. If you want change, you belong here.”

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.