This summer, the Black Lives Matter movement gained the nation’s attention after the tragic murder of George Floyd was captured on camera. Millions turned out for protests in the U.S. and across the globe, despite risks presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.
This summer, after Floyd’s murder, communities nationwide expressed a renewed focus on police brutality and emerging movements to defund law enforcement institutions and implement criminal justice reforms.
Protests and riots prompted businesses across the country to board up their windows — including many in Madison — and artists in town used these boards to advocate for Black lives, which included phrases like “our existence is resistance.”
Those boards represented the wider issues at hand — in Wisconsin, a state with massive racial achievement and economic gaps in just about every measure, these topics hit close to home. And when statewide Black representation in local government and higher education is limited, how exactly can the disenfranchised regain that lost ground?
Liberty and justice for all
The Pledge of Allegiance — recited in our schools, our sports and throughout our lives — ends with the familiar phrase “liberty and justice for all.” But state Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee), said the authors of the Constitution didn’t include her. As a Black woman, Taylor wouldn’t even have been afforded the right to vote for another two centuries.
Taylor said while Black women proudly marched alongside other women when advocating for the right to vote, today, racial disparities still exist within voting that cause people of color to have lower overall turnout.
And that’s the antithesis to what principles the U.S. was supposed to be founded on.
“[Justice] means fair and just,” Taylor said. “Liberty and justice for all means for everybody, not some of us, it’s not dependent on something special — who you know, what you know.”
Taylor said while the American dream looks the same for many people, some groups have better access to it than others. In her own city of Milwaukee, Black people make up about 39% of the population, but only own about 7% of homes.
Freedom Inc.’s Youth Justice Director Bianca Gomez said liberty and justice for all means access to housing, resources, quality food, healthcare and restorative justice programs that hold others accountable.
For many advocates, equality for Black lives is a social justice issue, not inherently a political one. But this summer revealed a deeply entrenched divide between liberals and conservatives regarding support for the BLM movement.
UW Professor Emerita of Sociology, Pamela Oliver, wrote in an essay that protests can be polarizing, forcing people to choose sides. Case in action — this year, liberals and conservatives hotly debated the effectiveness and goals of protests and riots nationwide.
Many local businesses across the U.S. were damaged and while many on both sides of the aisle said they don’t condone violence, liberals and conservatives disagreed on why people were protesting.
Gomez said it’s far more complex than partisanship.
“Liberals and conservatives and Democrats and Republicans; I think all of those things are anti-Black,” Gomez said. “All of those things will not do anything in favor of Black people unless they are pushed to do it.”
That push can take the form of pressure on officials, direct action, demonstrations and policy recommendations, Gomez said.
And some constituents are trying to do exactly that. This year, many emailed the Dane County Board of Supervisors, asking them to stop the construction of the new county jail and instead urged supervisors to invest in alternatives to incarceration.
In July, the Dane County Board of Supervisors declared racism a public health crisis. The Board rejected a proposal to defund the Dane County Sheriff’s Office and passed a motion to add funding for a mental health ambulance as an alternative to law enforcement intervention during the 2021 budget deliberation process in Nov.
Part of the defunding project included suspending the use of chemical munitions until Jan. 2021, when a study by the City of Madison Police Department on the use of tear gas would be completed. This amendment failed with an 18–18 vote.
Oliver said the BLM movement found success in adding policy reform to political agendas and persuading reform. Oliver noted that movements almost never achieve all of their goals — and sometimes, a countermovement takes away the goals they achieve.
In another essay, Oliver said protests can be a tool for the disempowered, call attention to grievance and create pressure for policy change. She added that many protests produced large-scale social change in the past.
“That a group is protesting at all is usually a sign that it is in a weak or at least defensive position,” Oliver said. “People who already have power and privilege usually don’t protest because they don’t need to protest to get what they want.”
Collectively, Black elected officials don’t hold a sizable margin in the state legislature. The Wisconsin Legislative Black Caucus is composed of seven members — Taylor, Sen. LaTonya Johnson, Rep. LaKeshia Myers, Rep. Kalan Haywood, Rep. David Bowen, Rep. Jason Fields — who all represent Milwaukee districts — and Rep. Shelia Stubbs (D-Madison), who doubles as a Dane County Supervisor.
Gomez said lack of representation forces individual Black government officials to try to shoulder mass change on their infrequently appearing shoulders — and it’s difficult to create change that way.
“One Black elected official can’t do it on their own,” Gomez said. “Individual leaders and actors are not the solution to our problems. Collective decision making, collective power and collective healing are the solution to our problems. Not one president or another, or one political party or another.”
Being an ally
Gomez said people need to be taught to use their voice within education in order for communities to have a seat at the table and gain decision-making power.
In her fight to make this happen, Gomez works with young Black girls in Freedom Inc.’s Black Girls Matter program, teaching them how to fight against white supremacy while giving them a space to receive support and be themselves.
As a UW alum, Gomez said the university needs to put students over profit.
“The students who are most impacted [need] not just a seat at the table but decision making power over what keeps them safe,” Gomez said.
Gomez said UW tokenizes Black students by putting a few Black students on websites and letting those students give speeches and attend meetings. And she doesn’t think giving only a few students a seat at the table is enough.
So for those trying to get involved, there are different ways to show up, Gomez said, acknowledging that not everyone can march. This may include donating food and supplies, talking to friends and family, driving cars to protect protestors and utilizing social media.
“All of those things create a movement,” Gomez said. “The uprisings, demonstrations, rebellions, speeches, Facebook posts, donations, food trucks, housing … It’s not just one or the other, but it’s a combination of all those things. It’s okay that somebody can’t show up to a protest. I do think that people should reflect on why they can’t show up to protest or action.”
Many turned to social media this summer to share information on local protests and resources to demonstrate support. On Instagram, accounts such as #DiversifyOurNarrative and soyouwanttotalkabout created shareable graphics outlining resources and explaining concepts, such as how to start conversations with friends and family about defunding the police.
UW’s Associate Vice Chancellor for Identity and Inclusion, Gabe Javier, said people need to stay vigilant and informed, engage in consistent conversations with friends and family and continue to pay attention to racial injustice.
Javier said being an ally includes listening to students of color and their needs.
“Listen to students of color, listen to what their needs are, understand your own positional power and spheres of influence and where you’re able to affect change and then work on learning about your relationship to power,” Javier said. “Don’t put the burden on your friends of color, or disabled friends or queer friends to educate you.”
Many UW students showed up for the fight this summer. Current and former students petitioned to change the UW crest from white to black on student-athlete uniforms to represent the underrepresented students on campus. UW sophomore Djamal Lylecryus created the rising Instagram page BIPOCatwisco, where BIPOC students can share their experiences in hopes of engaging students with racial justice issues on campus.
Javier said people must continue to engage in conversations and we can’t afford to get comfortable.
“We all personally, and as an institution, have room to grow,” Javier said. “When we talk about racism and anti-Black racism, it’s never finished … It’s constantly people in their own spheres of influence understanding how to affect change … We have to recognize everything we build and then push to build more.”
UW’s Our Wisconsin is an inclusion education program with the goal of raising awareness and creating an environment where students are free to express their identities and experiences. The program is now mandatory for all incoming students, Javier said.
The learning goals of the program include awareness of diversity on campus and appreciation for how individual actions and systems impact an individual’s experience. The program also includes how to engage in constructive dialogue about diversity and inclusion and gain a greater sense of connection with the campus community
Law enforcement and criminal justice reform
After the country watched Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin take the life of Floyd, people across the nation began to question the integrity of law enforcement agencies. Practices used by police — especially the use of force — and hours of law enforcement training received a lot of attention.
The Associated Students of Madison, UW’s student government, shared the nation’s distrust of law enforcement and passed a vote of no-confidence in the UW Police Department.
“This vote signifies a lack of confidence and trust in the UWPD due to their presence at the protests off campus, failure to comply with the #8CantWait standards, and unwillingness to meet all or most of the reforms requested by ASM leaders and students,” ASM wrote in a press release.
According to the release, The UW BIPOC Coalition, the Teaching Assistants’ Association, the United Faculty and Academic Staff and University Labor Council supported the decision.
UWPD Chief Kristen Roman wrote in a statement she was “disappointed” UWPD was not given the opportunity to engage in the process.
“A vote that cuts to the chase and bypasses any opportunity to engage — to share information, to listen, to learn, to clarify, to contextualize — undermines trust-building,” Roman said in the statement.
UWPD plans to implement a Racial Equity Initiative within the next academic year. UWPD already closely aligns with the demands of the #8CantWait Campaign, but states “we recognize and embrace the need to push further.” The influx of concern and questions prompted UWPD to create a webpage describing the ways in which the department aligns with the movement.
The #8CantWait campaign uses absolute language, such as banning use of force in all situations. UWPD, however, bans uses of force except when no other alternative is available to neutralize a situation.
UWPD’s Executive Director for Recruitment, Diversity and Inclusion Louis Macias said the goals of these demands are removing officer discretion by outlining how police behave in situations. But Macias said this isn’t realistic.
“There needs to be some level of discretion that we give to police officers to do the right thing,” Macias said. “As someone that does diversity and inclusion work, as a person of color … I feel like bringing police closer is more the answer than to keep them separate from me and understanding me and knowing my values and who I am.”
Roman worked for the Madison Police Department for 27 years and has now worked at UWPD for three years. Roman noticed differences in the needs of both departments and said the absolutist language of the #8CantWait campaign doesn’t reflect those differences.
Roman acknowledged this is a gray area, but said community partnerships, relationships and collaboration exist here.
“These policies and these demands boil down to trust and the absolutes are an effort to remove any of that gray, and gray requires trust, but effective community policing requires that we have that gray and that’s where community partnerships and collaborations become essential, that’s where we work it all out,” Roman said.
She added demands that are all or nothing can create unintended consequences and she doesn’t believe discussions around the middle ground should be viewed as inherently defensive or resistant to change.
Policy alone, no matter how obsolete, isn’t the answer, Roman said.
“At the end of the day, it’s the philosophy, the training, the approach, the expectation, the culture of the organization, the relationship with the community,” Romain said. “All of those layers are going to factor into what an officer does.”
She noted UWPD weaves de-escalation into all training exercises, which means de-escalation training hours aren’t distinctly stated in UWPD reports.
UWPD recently came under fire for spending about $6,500 on certain items — like pepper spray — in the early summer during protests. Roman said this spending doesn’t differ very much from previous years because the department spent most of the money on new equipment, such as replacing old guns, though UWPD did buy items like pepper spray as a precautionary measure to prepare for the protests.
UWPD did not use tear gas or a less-lethal impact weapon, like foam bullets, during the protests and Macias said the use of pepper spray is not commentary on how UWPD feels about racial justice. UWPD wrote on Twitter officers deployed pepper spray when explosives or objects, such as bricks or bottles, were thrown at officers.
Many social media users came out against the use of tear gas and pepper spray, however, and some claimed to be pepper-sprayed even when demonstrating non-violent behavior at Madison protests.
When it comes to showing support for police, counter-protesters changed the familiar “Black Lives Matter” chant to “Blue Lives Matter” in a movement gaining traction across the nation. These counter-protesters called cops committing violent acts “bad apples” in an attempt to protect the reputation of the police.
“The Blue Lives Matter and the bad apple argument, to the extent those things are leveraged to undermine and try to cancel out the notion that racial injustice exists within policing is absolutely wrong,” Macias said.
In the fall, UWPD posted a photo on Twitter and the ‘thin blue line’ flag can be seen in the background. The flag is characterized by a blue line on a black and white American flag and Blue Lives Matter advocates have used the flag in their movement in recent years.
The flag increasingly became associated with white supremacist ideals, though many argue its original meaning was not rooted in racism.
It’s a complex issue and Macias said others should lean into the complexity. Neither pro- nor anti-police advocates will be able to find a solution to racial injustice without working together and finding common ground, he said.
Roman encourages community members to assess the services UWPD provides and engage in discussions with UWPD about changes they seek.
“People are the police and police are the people,” Roman said. “If we’re grounded in that, and in the humanity of it and in the core values that we’ve laid out in our reaching higher, then I don’t think it’s possible to go wrong if that’s what we’re living every day.”