Protests targeting racial injustice and police brutality are spreading to include a wide swath of Milwaukee as the community struggles to resolve an often-crippling racial divide.
On Wednesday afternoon, a few hundred protesters gathered outside the Islamic Society of Milwaukee’s main center on the South Side for a march and rally organized by a pair of teenagers.
“Take a look around you. You are surrounded by people who have the same vision as you, who want to see change happen. Your voice matters,” Dana Sharqawi, 18, told the crowd. “We are here protesting for those whose voices couldn’t be heard.”
The demonstration began with a moment of silence that lasted 8 minutes and 46 seconds, matching the length of time that former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into the neck of George Floyd, who died in police custody while handcuffed.
Sharqawi and Sumaya Abdi, 19, led a group of predominantly young adults of various races, ethnicities and religious faiths on a march of several blocks along Layton Avenue to Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport and back. A rally in the mosque’s parking lot followed, where talk changed to what needs to be done once the protests fade away.
“For too long, America’s knee has been on the neck of people of color. For too long systemic racism has been choking our African American brothers and sisters,” said Ameer Hamza, a young imam at the Islamic Society of Milwaukee. “This is a wake-up call, particularly for me and the Muslim community at large. This is a time to take a good hard look in the mirror and ask ourselves, are we contributing to the problem, or contributing to the solution?”
Cultural diversity training is needed, and programs aimed at having “some very frank conversations in our own community” are essential, Hamza said.
“In a sense, what happened with George Floyd is that we are now having those uncomfortable conversations,” he said.
To further the conversation, Hamza is hosting an Instagram Live discussion on June 7 titled “I Can’t Breathe,” the name of the session reflecting some of the last words uttered by Floyd. The conversation will focus on the Black Lives Matters movement and the challenges of undoing systemic racism.
Imam Noman Hussain said in an interview after the event that the time has come to “shut up and listen to our black leaders and follow their lead.”
“They’ve been talking, they’ve been screaming, and nobody has been listening,” Hussain said. “It’s time for us to stop with our commentary on an issue we have no idea about. No matter how much we try to say, ‘We understand, we don’t understand.’”
He urged others to be a “supportive voice” for the African American community.
“We need to follow them as leaders and empower them to lead us,” Hussain said. “This is part of the racist culture that exists, thinking you can’t be led by a black person. Follow their lead and do what they ask. They know the solution, and we’ve got to be there to support it after all this hype dies down.”
It’s important to continue to focus on the challenging issues at hand long after the protests have stopped, he added.
“We’ve come together, and we’ve screamed a little bit and we’ll post on Instagram and Twitter and Facebook. It’s going to be a matter of how many of us will be willing to continue that work after it’s over,” Hussain said. “Everybody lives in their own little bubble. It’s time to break out of those bubbles. Unless you are going to listen and try to understand, you aren’t going to change.”