Protesters rallied in Madison and around the state Tuesday demanding reforms to the Dane County’s criminal justice system following a grand jury's decision not to indict the officer who shot 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in August.
Madison Police Department Chief Michael Koval estimated the crowd in Madison at approximately 250 participants. He addressed the events in Ferguson at a press conference Tuesday.
“Respect for all lives, underrepresentation in government processes [amongst minorities] and education are primary areas that must be addressed across the nation to prevent another Ferguson happening anywhere else,” Koval said.
Also at the press conference was Floyd Rose, president of 100 Black Men of Madison, a group devoted to improving the quality of life for African-Americans and other minorities. He criticized what he views as institutional failures.
“We need to take a very serious look at policy over procedures,” Rose said. “We often look at the situation in Ferguson as someone who didn’t behave properly, but if you look at the underpinnings, in many cases Ferguson was a debtors’ prison. It was a situation where democracy was not in place.”
Protesters took to Capitol Square carrying signs and chanting “hands up, don’t shoot” and “black lives matter,” the two refrains of protests in Ferguson and other protests nationwide. While peaceful and orderly, there was no lack of frustration among the participants regarding what they perceive to be an unjust criminal justice system.
“There are stereotypes in every police department, and they contribute to the problem,” said Nada Elmikashfi, a UW-Madison freshman who attended the protests.
Though the protest took place off campus, many students found the protests to be an avenue to express their opinions and emotions regarding the decision.
“There wasn’t really an avenue to talk about this issue on campus,” explained Naman Siad, a senior at UW-Madison. “Other campuses informed their students through email and whatnot about what was going on in Ferguson, and this campus completely ignored it.”
Protestor Fawn Brigere, a Madison resident, noted that while Madison’s situation is different than that of Ferguson, it still needs improvement.
“Madison isn’t Ferguson—the Madison Police Department tries hard, but they have still have a long way to go,” Brigere said.
Contrary to some of the unrest reported in Ferguson since Brown’s death, organizers and participants in the protest had clear intentions to protest peacefully.
“A small subset of the population is being presented as if it represents the overall cause,” said Dontrell, a student protester who wished to withhold his last name. “We’re not here to loot and riot. We’re here to deconstruct the system and show that we do matter.”
Following the rally, protesters moved to Madison City Hall, where they sat in on a Dane County Public Protection and Judiciary Committee meeting. The group of protesters urged committee members to not approve the construction of a new county jail, a project that has estimated costs of up to $168 million, according to the county’s plan.
“If you build this jail then you are supporting a new Jim Crow,” protester Brandi Grayson told the Committee.
District Five Dane County Supervisor Leland Pan said the protests are crucial for focusing local politicians’ attention on issues of race in Madison.
“It is vital that elected officials remember that they serve everyone in Madison, and the demographics of people you see here are people that have historically been cynical of government, and with good reason,” Pan said. “I think it’s important that the folks here show elected officials their opinions, that they care and that they are watching.”
Milwaukee police reported a parallel protest in the downtown area, where two officers were injured while preventing protesters from entering the BMO Harris Bradley Center unlawfully, according to a press release. Their injuries were not severe and police are seeking the assailants.
Police departments in Kenosha and Superior also saw protests, according to Kenosha local news station WITI and Minnesota Public Radio News.
Grayson promised that protesters would continue to make their voices heard until government addresses their demands.
“This will not be the last time we show up,” she said. “If you make a different decision, we will disrupt and shut down things every single week until you hear our voice. We are committed to change, we are committed to action and we will no longer stand for the status quo.”