As demonstrations against police brutality and racism entered its 60th consecutive day in Milwaukee, protesters began mulling the option of extending their voices beyond the city’s borders — all the way to Washington D.C.
For Frank Sensabaugh, who goes by Frank Nitty and is a prominent grassroots activist and a self-described “beacon of hope” within the Milwaukee community, traveling to the nation’s capital by conventional means did not suffice.
“[The other protesters] were acting like, ‘You catch the bus with us and your trip is taken care of,’” Nitty said. “I was like, ‘That’s cool. You know, I’m just going to walk there by myself.’”
After prayer and thought, Nitty hit the open road Aug. 4 with a small group of his followers. Aside from planning the route and setting a target goal of walking 30 miles a day, the group lacked the funds and supplies to sustain the 750-mile trip.
But through the use of social media and the spirit of lending a helping hand, Nitty’s march has been financed by donations through a mobile payment app and his following continues to grow — both physically and virtually — demonstrating the power a single act for social change can elicit.
Amid a summer defined by widespread social unrest sparked by the tragic death of George Floyd while in custody of the Minneapolis Police, Nitty not only aspires to send a message to all Americans that Black lives matter, he also wants to prevent his efforts from being drowned out in order to cultivate meaningful and substantive reform across America.
“[The establishment] usually waits us out,” Nitty said. “We’re not getting tired this time. We’re going to do this and we’re going to get this change that we need, and we’re not going to stop until we get this change.”
Once his epiphany surfaced, Nitty posted his decision on Facebook to his thousands of followers. His post “blew up,” but Nitty also felt doubt and skepticism toward the feasibility of undertaking such a trip.
“I don’t think people took me seriously. I don’t even know how serious I took myself,” Nitty said from Warsaw, Ind., on Day 8 of his 24-day march. “But once I posted it, I knew it was something that I had to do.”
Nitty said he raised no money. He didn’t attempt to fundraise supplies. With the company of a few individuals who Nitty said “would not let him walk alone,” an initial group of 20 participants sandwiched in between six cars acting as security began walking south toward Chicago.
After a small send-off in Milwaukee, groups of Nitty’s followers residing in Kenosha and Racine Counties warmly greeted the participants. However, Nitty remained unsure if his demonstration would be recognized once he left his sphere of influence.
He could not have been more wrong.
“All of a sudden people were joining us everywhere,” Nitty said. “All of these people knew who we were and where we were coming from. People from Chicago walked up to us and said ‘I saw you.’ I think that’s the most amazing thing I’ve experienced.”
The support, adulation and frank awareness of his march comes from Facebook Live, as Nitty broadcasts himself and his followers walking down highways and busy streets for hours every day.
In addition to thousands of people virtually experiencing his demonstration and offering their praise across social media, Nitty also pinned his Cash App account where he has received countless donations from individuals in order to buy food, clothing, supplies and even hotel rooms for every one of his participants.
“The fact that I’ve been able to take care of these people for eight days straight [by] basically riding the Cash App is [an] amazing show of support in my mind,” Nitty said. “It’s crazy that we’re literally in a world where you can take Facebook Live, frame it up to the world and have people pour in support for this movement.”
Contributions also include the addition of participants to the march. While some local residents temporarily protested with Nitty and his followers as they passed through their communities, he also said every place the group visited, another person joined with the intention of reaching Washington D.C. This includes a Kenosha woman who started walking with nothing but the clothes on her back, individuals from Chicago and a Florida man who drove up to meet the group in Plymouth, Ind.
The group — which is racially diverse — has more than doubled to around 45-50 people and the number of security and supply cars doubled to around 12 vehicles as of Aug. 11, according to Nitty.
With the necessary funds, resources and manpower, Nitty’s impromptu movement founded on a whim and planned by the organization style of “winging it,” continues to spread to new audiences with much more room for growth.
“This is a journey anyone can take. I want to call out individuals that felt like they were looking for a purpose of finding themselves to come [walk with me],” Nitty said. “We’re going to make it.”
Walking into racism
Nitty found a similar reception that he received in Wisconsin in the northern suburbs of Illinois and downtown Chicago. Residents approached Nitty and told him they saw his Facebook Live videos and the Chicago Police Department even escorted the caravan of participants “step-by-step” through the city.
However, once they crossed the border into Indiana, a state with historical ties to racism and the Ku Klux Klan, the atmosphere soured.
Residents cussed out the participants, using racial diatribes and tropes alluding to white power to deride their movement. Some locals stood with shotguns pointed at the demonstrators and shouted at them to go home.
Hotels kicked out the demonstrators while they packed and required them to leave their premises. A Walmart store accused a female participant of stealing during a supply stop and did not even check her receipt before calling the police.
Still, Nitty said participants kept their heads up and refrained from engaging in confrontations to maintain their peaceful disposition.
“This group has been really resilient, and we haven’t responded, we don’t respond,” Nitty said. “We realize we’re marching for a lot more. We’re marching for Black people across the board.”
At the same time, certain law enforcement officials in Indiana have accentuated this hostile environment. Nitty said police officers would block the entrances to gas stations and convince the owners to close their shops under the false pretense the demonstrators would destroy their property.
One police officer exited his vehicle, pounded on one of the security vehicles' car hood and accused the female driver of hitting her. The incident streamed on Facebook Live and the officer has since been disciplined. The officer was also forced to escort the group that same night, according to Nitty.
“It was kind of frustrating with the police of pushing this narrative that Black people are just wild animals that break stuff,” Nitty said. “But one of the sheriffs and the businesses have said nothing but praise for how we’ve been polite and humble.”
Nitty did highlight the Valparaiso and Warsaw communities as bright spots in being excellent hosts. However, he called the passage between the two cities as “the most racist experience I’ve dealt with in my life.”
“Racism definitely still exists and until we change our country will have a lot of problems,” Nitty said. “I think as we go through all these things the most important is to tell people we won’t stop for nothing.”
The road to D.C.
As the protesters march down crowded interstates and highways with their security vehicles serving as their only protection, Nitty finds solace in blocking traffic, even as honking cars speed by and angered motorists look on.
Asserting his “constitutional right” to protest, Nitty’s civil disobedience, however, took a turn for the worst one afternoon.
On Aug. 12, the Indiana State Police arrested Nitty and another protester for disorderly conduct. The state police complained the caravan was disrupting the flow of traffic. Nitty was out of custody by 8 p.m. Eastern time, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.
While rests in local communities and hotels provide refuge for the protesters, the physical toll of maintaining the 30-mile per day goal also adds up. One protester went to the hospital with an infection. The group marched through rain, 100-degree heat and even walked through the middle of a tornado. Nurse practitioners in Warsaw were kind enough to treat ailing feet.
Nevertheless, the passion and enthusiasm the group walks with ultimately mitigates some of the pain.
“Your knee hurts, your ankle hurts, your feet hurt, everything hurts at the end of the day,” Nitty said. “But we march with spirit and energy. You don’t even feel like you’re walking, you kind of feel like you’re floating, and the next thing, you’re almost at your destination.”
The group must keep pace in order to reach Washington D.C. by Aug. 28., which symbolically is also the day the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial.
The group will also join a broader protest beginning on the same day to honor George Floyd, whose death captured on camera served as the “smoking gun” for demonstrations advancing racial justice across America, according to Nitty.
Emulating the famed “March on Washington” — which Dr. King led in 1963 — and protesting for racial equality in George Floyd’s memory underpin Nitty’s protest.
“This fight in Washington D.C., it doesn’t end there, it begins there. [The march] was just something I wanted to do to bring attention to what was going on with George Floyd, and what better way to honor Dr. King than by marching there,” Nitty said. “People need to say that all Black lives matter.”
This disruption of the status quo, of not returning to the world before Floyd’s death, requires the continued presence of public demonstrations, according to Nitty. Nitty, who quit his job four years ago to be a full-time leader in the Milwaukee community and who has two murals that commemorate his work, sees the current environment “as a sign that the country can change.”
“Black people in this country need to be treated fairly for good. I don’t want my grandkids to march for the same thing my grandfather marched for,” Nitty said. “For me this is the beginning of a revolution. This is the time for change.”