Voices of protest: Activists share the goals, hopes and fears that keep them pushing for change – Madison.com

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The police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are only the more recent high-profile examples of a long history of Black American death and mistreatment at the hands of police. Their deaths and others set off a protest movement across the country, and right here in Madison, with activists taking to the streets daily to call for an overhaul of policing and an end to persistent racial disparities. Seeking to capture the motivations, fears and hopes powering the local movement, the Cap Times spoke to nine activists. These are their words.

These excerpts were compiled from longer interviews. To read longer Q&As, which were also edited and condensed for clarity, visit go.captimes.com/voicesofprotest.

Impact Demand organizer, Ayomi Obuseh, poses for a portrait in front of the mural her Mother and Brother created, outside of Overture Center, in Madison, on Thursday, July 23, 2020.

Ayomi Obuseh thinks of herself as shy, but when someone passed her the microphone at one of Madison's early protests, another protester called out, Speak up, even if your voice shakes. Today, as an organizer with the youth-led organization Impact Demand, she advocates for changes to local policing policies and encourages other young people to speak up, too.

To be honest, I think the relationship between my community and the police there hasn't been one for a long time. The events that have been happening recently have been here forever, it's just now we have video evidence of what's been going on for a long period of time.

Growing up, you have to tell your little brother to put his hood down, for example, or to tell him how to act and talk and how to make himself appear less than he is so that somebody thats carrying a weapon cannot shoot at him, even though he's unarmed. You have to teach your siblings and your children to be scared. And it's weird because you want to build them up, but you have to teach them to hold themselves down and to limit themselves, because somebody might not know how to do their job correctly. So the relationship theres not really one there.

But another thing is with the policies. There has to be a change with those as well, because the policies in place allow for the relationship to be disintegrated.

When we start to put these (new) policies in place, I really feel like Madison will be the ideal place it claims to be. It claims to be something that I would want to live in. It claims to be someplace that's really liberal and progressive and inclusive. Unfortunately it's not. And I think that once we realize that it's not, we can start to have that future that we claim to have.

When there was the protest and everything that happened, there was a shock. When there was a riot, there was a shock. Nobody was listening to the peaceful protests being done before, but after the shock period, now they're taking the time to understand why that is.

People forget that we're going through this every day. There's so many missing BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) girls. There's so many BIPOC boys and girls that are dead, and nobody really looks into that, or the human trafficking that hits the Black communities. Nobody talks about these things anymore because it happens so often that it's not news.

I think my hope comes from the support that I've already gotten from community members and representatives, because people are reaching out. To see the motivation in everyone's eyes to do something and the hope that they have encourages me to continue to have hope.

My fear, I guess, is that things become stagnant. I think that's a lot of people's fear. But I think one thing that cures it is being a part of an organization or putting yourself in a position to actually see the change.

With so few Black men in Madison classrooms, Mendota Elementary teacher Alexis Dean thinks of his work with children as its own form of activism. Shortly after George Floyd's death, Alexis teamed up with local education and technology company Infamous Mothers to facilitate a two-day virtual conference where kids were invited to discuss their thoughts, and he participated in Sandburg Elementary School's family-friendly protest.

Seeing black men die in the streets hurts my heart so much because it could be me, it could be my brother, it could be my father. So I feel it's my duty to be using my voice somehow, to be a part of the conversations that need to be had, and a part of the fight that needs to be had for my safety, and for my family's safety and for the kids who are going to grow up to be living in this life. Also, I know how important it is to show up as an educator who cares so much about these issues, because then it shows how much we need to be talking about it in the classroom.

The kid that I nanny, he's 4 years old. And when he talks about Spider-Man and bad guys and stuff, he doesn't say, I'm going to kill the villain. He says, I'm going to catch the villain. So if you can't chase that person and catch them, then that villain is gone for another day and you catch them another time. Kids don't immediately say the answer is to kill them. They say, like, We're trying to catch the bad guy. And if we can't catch them, we will catch them another time.

That's something that constantly gets to me when people are shot in the back for running, just because they are getting away. If they're getting away, it's because the police officer probably isn't trained enough to catch the person and they took your Taser or they got you on the ground, and that's kind of your fault. You're supposed to be trained to do it. But, in your mind, you shouldn't be instinctively wanting to kill somebody. That's just like that's terrible.

A fixture in the fight for racial and gender justice in Madison, M Adams is co-executive director of Freedom Inc., a Black and Southeast Asian nonprofit organization working to counter root causes of violence, poverty, racism and discrimination. Many know Freedom Inc. for its vocal campaign to remove police from schools, but much of the organization's work is about youth development and supporting survivors of gender-based violence.

People think about the civil rights movement as being effective in changing the hearts and minds of people, but actually the reason why the sit-ins were successful is because of the financial cost on the establishment. The reason why the bus boycotts were successful is because Black people on the busing systems were a significant portion of how the bus systems were able to operate. Yes, shifting hearts and minds is important and engaging people is important, but they were able to be successful because they had a scientific understanding of what actually was driving society.

And so when we approach these questions here, we are thinking scientifically, which is why we invest our energies and our resources into developing people power. We will not be able to out-resource the state.

I think when people are focused on how they feel about policing, then it's easy to wind up doing things that we think will change somebodys heart and hope that the changing of their heart will then help them see your humanity. A scientific perspective on the policing question would ask, What is the fundamental root that allows this thing to happen?

The fundamental issue as to why the police are able to murder Black people with impunity is because Black people do not have the power over police. Black people as a class, we dont have the power to regulate the police. If I'm here with my child and a police officer busts in here and they grab her and they beat her, there's actually nothing I can do. You can't stop them. You cant out-weapon them. The law doesn't back you up to intervene. This is the thing about George Floyd. Had one of those people intervened and tried to defend him, they would have been murdered also. That's the unspoken thing: You can't actually do anything about this.

The fundamental issue is power, which is why we have scientifically said the way that we're going to solve this issue is for Black people to have community control of the police.

The people we work with I think really (understand Freedom Inc.). I think the broader, bigger public Madison, I think they only get to see our resistance work, which we think is fine and important, but they get to see it from how it's being reported and not because they're able to talk with us, interact with us and understand our thinking. And I don't think they also see the other work that we do in addition to challenging power. For example, one of our biggest buckets of work is actually in ending gender-based violence. So we do a lot of work to stop domestic violence, sexual violence, child abuse, elder abuse and a host of other things.

And because we do this work, we actually are looking for deep solutions to some of the most heinous forms of violence. So when people say to us, You just want rapists to be free, we're like, Oh, you misunderstand our work. We are the people who work with survivors. We see the terrible violence, and we ourselves are also survivors of this terrible violence, so we don't come to this from merely a rhetorical place. We come to it from a lived experience, and we come to it as Black and brown people, as women and girls, as queer, trans and intersex people who are seeking safety for ourselves right now.

Andi Janeway splits their time between theater and activism. As a Black albino, Janeway prefers to let those who can't pass for white be center stage at protests, but you can find them behind the scenes, blocking traffic, administering first aid or handing out an extra water or cigarette to anyone who asks.

I feel right now that, at least in Madison, its falling into the very Madison-specific trap of, Well, we marched, and that's enough. We showed up, we did something, so we're done being activists today. I personally believe Madison to be the national capital of negative peace, because so much of the sentiment shared in Madison, especially by white people, is this idea that peace is better than what it takes to achieve justice, and I don't personally agree.

I feel like a lot of people are more committed to doing the pleasant thing than doing the necessary thing. And sometimes the necessary thing is to be pleasant and to be peaceful. But I feel like they're so lost in this idea of being peaceful that they don't understand that in an oppressive power system that is predicated on violence against certain demographics, any opposition from those demographics will be seen as violence, no matter how objectively peaceful it may be. And when you're playing a losing game like that, sometimes the only way you can win is to literally flip the table and run.

So at this point I'm just feeling very impatient and also, at the same time, prepared. Like, I'm ready for whatever comes next I just want it to be coming already.

As much as it would be convenient and efficient for there to be some moment that opens society's eyes and makes everyone go, Oh my God, this is terrible, that is not the case. Historically speaking, it's always been an entire generation changing one at a time and spreading that to their peers one at a time and saying, Hey, this just doesn't make sense and I don't understand why we're okay with it.

I feel like the sort of deadly combination in Madison is white liberalism and Midwest nice. Those two combine to create this idea of like, Well, I'm doing the nice thing by saying Black Lives Matter, but I'm not going to do a confrontational thing by shutting down the intersection or by telling the mayor to her face that this is a problem. So, for lack of more delicate terminology, they're kneecapping themselves by their commitment to being nice. And I think that the only way to change that is to have their peers, who they see as equal to them and who they respect on a personal level, point out the flaw in that philosophy.

Founder and CEO of Urban Triage, Brandi Grayson, addresses protesters as they gather around the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, on Saturday, May 30, 2020, to demand justice in the latest high-profile death of a black person at the hands of white law enforcement officers; George Floyd, in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Brandi Grayson is founder and CEO of Urban Triage, a nonprofit on a mission to empower breakthroughs and transformation in Black families and Black communities through education and community support.

As a result of existing in this system of white supremacy racism, there's a hierarchy created that has white men on top, and they're creating policies and practices that are incongruent to the well-being of the people who are most vulnerable at the bottom of this hierarchy. So in order to flip the hierarchy, you have to change the power dynamic. You have to bring the people who are most affected by policy to the table and have them really be the folks who say, This is what I need to feel safe. This is what I need to feel whole. This is the kind of services that I need in terms of my health care, in terms of public education, in terms of policing.

I see the change (lately) in Black people, specifically this burning desire for liberation, this burning yearning for freedom. That energy, that drive fills me with hope, because history has taught us that any revolution or push for change is only possible if the folks who are most impacted are front and center.

So that's where my hope lies. I'm not as hopeful in political officials or elected officials. I think, because of the design of our systems and political terrain, there isn't a lot of space for politicians to be radical. And what history has taught us is that change does not occur because politicians are willing to take the risk. Change comes from the pressure of the people. Through education and building our analysis together as a community and across our country, a fire and yearning for change will continue to grow. And then the fire will really force our local officials to take heed, which hopefully creates a ripple effect.

Things change slowly. That's just what it is. So I'm pretty confident that what we're doing right now is planting the seed and creating the ripple effect that will eventually turn into a tsunami.

It would be amazing if 10 years from now we're looking back, and I'm like, The rebellion took off, across our country and across the globe, for Black lives, and Madison responded in a radical way. We elected Black officials, and not just Black officials but people with the appropriate analysis, because white supremacy isn't about color it really is about the mental conditioning and societal conditioning of living in this culture.

So, for me to be proud (of Madison), itd be like, looking back in 10 years, we have bars and restaurants on State Street owned by Black people. We have liquor licenses that aren't restricted by music. We have mental wellness services, and community centers owned and operated by Black people for Black people. We have youth programming that's really focused on empowering breakthroughs and transformation within our community. We would have a reparations fund that's specifically for empowerment and building Black people and vulnerable people up to be present in their lives and self-sufficient.

We will have conversations rooted in not just equality, but real equity, where we're looking at what's required to to service people and meet people where they're at, and a public education system that no longer has the worst educational gap in the country. That would make me proud to be a Madisonian.

Marquon, who goes by Sire Gq, is an organizer with What's Next Forum, a group focused on thinking through solutions to police violence and other social problems, including at Sunday afternoon think tank gatherings. He spoke to the Cap Times in early June. Three weeks later, Madison police arrested him on a suspected probation violation and said he was a person of interest in the June 23 firebombing of the City-County Building. He has been in Dane County Jail since June 30 but has not been charged.

Protests are good, but eventually we're going to be yelling to deaf ears and they're not going to hear us anymore. Today we went to different stores all along State Street. We passed out letters and we explained what we're doing. We allowed people to read the letter and choose for themselves if they're going to fight this cause with us, or stand by and be a problem. So weve just got to stay active, stay knocking on doors, stay inviting people. There's no leadership here. We are all one. Everyone has their own say. If you have an idea, bring it to the table. We're all going to talk about it. We're going to break it down together. We're going to fix the problem together.

Protesting is usually the same thing over and over and over and over and over. This right here actually gets things done because it gets your mind working. What can we do? How can we fix that? I want to get their brains rolling so we can all figure out a plan and execute it. Im just so happy right now, its ridiculous.

A lot of people are so tired of being sick and tired of being sick and tired. But right now, how many people are coming together is showing that there can be a brighter future. Everyone has come together. It is so overwhelming the support from all these other countries and all these other states protesting together. It shows you that hope exists. It shows you that a great future can possibly be there, but we have to unite and stay on the topic at hand.

We have to finish what we start as a community, as a country. We have to finish what we start and stick to our words. But yeah, the hope is there. It's a hard time, but we can see the light at the end. So that's all that matters. As long as I can see that light, Ill be out here fighting.

Local activist, Johanna Heineman-Pieper, poses for a portrait before the start of a protest on Williamson Street, in Madison, on Friday, July 17, 2020.

Johanna Heineman-Pieper describes herself as a pretty big onion a transracial adoptee who grew up in a well-off white family in Chicago and later went on a racial identity journey to meet her birth father and learn about what it meant to be biracial. Today, she's a regular at Madison's protests and drives a BLM-mobile emblazoned with statements like White silence is violence.

It gives me goosebumps every time I hear the youth (at the protests) speak with such eloquence and passion. And I really hope they're not saying similar things in 70 years.

As much as I want to be optimistic about it, change is hard. I'm not a huge fan of change. However, I am a fan of change when it improves the quality of life for people, animals, environment, all of the above. The problem is that we are so set on our ways in a society. I have had to unlearn so many things already and I know I'll continue to. It's an ongoing process, and the problem is that everyone's at a different place in their own personal processing. And what that means is that the average processing time for the nation is pretty darn slow because you have some people that just won't do the research, they won't do whatever. And it's like, OK, great. So you're at zero, and I'm probably at like an 80. And that just means that the national average is going to be quite low, so change is very unlikely to happen as quickly as we need it to.

And I'm reminded of that every time I talk to my grandmother. My birth grandmother was a Black Panther. Shes an inspiration. The problem is that we shouldn't have all these inspiring people who are decades and decades older than we are that have been doing the same work. We should be inspired by them to do something different, to do another kind of innovative thing, not just fight the same battle over and over in a different way.

I'm in training right now for my electrical apprenticeship, and there's this one white man and I really hope to kind of have conversations with him who said that he's frustrated with all of the news headlines. He's tired of hearing about all the issues that are going on right now. And I'm like, You know what? I'm tired of them fucking happening. We shouldn't have to have these conversations about race and racism. We shouldn't have to, but we do because of all the systemic issues. So I'm feeling all sorts of ways right now.

He's feeling frustrated. I feel some type of way that he feels frustrated, but he's feeling frustrated and that's OK. It is okay to have feelings. It's also important to realize where they're coming from, and if they're coming from a place of privilege, then that needs to get in check. So it's okay to feel your feelings, just know where they're coming from, and keep an open mind.

We need to normalize conversations about racism in order to have as many brains on this coming from a human heart perspective to actually make change. Who knows, maybe there's some guy driving a tractor in Texas right now and let's just say he learns all this stuff and maybe he has a great idea about community control of the police. Who knows? I think that'd be amazing. We just needed to normalize the conversation of race and racism and social justice so that people can talk about it without clamming up.

High school students, Sodia (15) and Cilena (17), pose for a portrait outside of the Freedom, Inc. office in Madison, on Friday, July 24, 2020.

Sodia, 15, and Cilena, 17, who asked to withhold their last names, are youth leaders with Freedom Inc.'s Freedom Youth Squad, which led a four-year campaign to remove police officers from Madison schools. The group achieved that goal in June but it continues to push for transformative justice, accountability for teachers and school officials who call police on students, decision-making power for youth and trusted adults, and investments in youth leadership.

Cilena: Teachers are always calling (security guards) or cops on the students for just any behavior problems, but that behavior problem is normal for teens. You shouldnt call the police for that situation. That just shows a lot of anti-Blackness in our schools. Also, in the hallways, the securities are always harassing Black students. Thats why were trying to take cops out of school because cops are not trained to build relationships with students. They're trained to use deadly forces. Way before the George Floyd situation, people were against our campaign work. After the George Floyd situation, people have been more supportive.

Sodia: Before, if people weren't against it, they were iffy about it. They weren't absolutely sure about taking cops out of school because they have their worries about it and they thought cops were really helping us. You could just tell from the stares. When you're talking about it with the School Board members, you can tell they didn't really care much about what we had to say by their actions or their body language.

Cilena: We've been attending these School Board meetings for four years. And it took four years for them to finally understand us. Theres still a lot of ignorance going on, but I do feel like theres a lot of supportive energy and feedback. What I worry about is, with this pandemic going on, when we go back to school, how would that look? Are there still going to be security guards harassing the students? Are there going to be teachers calling the cops or security guards on students?

Sodia: I think this is a really good time where a lot of people are hearing our voice because of the situations that are happening. We're saying it loud and clear and people are listening a lot more. But there are also people who decide to disagree and ignore what we do. The change I see is, a lot of students who didn't really have their education about (consequences of policing), they know it well now and they supported a lot. And it's getting out there and people are trying to learn about it and trying to understand what's happening around us instead of just being oblivious to it. What I'm worried about is just that the violence that the police are doing to people who are protesting is just going to get worse.

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