‘White Silence is Violence’: White Milwaukeeans Speak Out Against Racism

Aug 21, 2017

On Saturday, Milwaukeeans rallied in response to the racial violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. A large group spread out at the end of Wisconsin Avenue and chanted “white silence is violence” … “love trumps hate” … and “black lives matter.” 

They stood between the Northwestern Mutual Tower and the orange sunburst sculpture in O’Donnell Park. Some cars passing by honked in support.

"The protesting shouldn't only be on black bodies, it should be on white folks too who are the ones maintaining this culture."

It was part of a National Call to Action, a request from the Movement for Black Lives for organizations across the country to speak out against white supremacy.

The majority of the crowd was white – spurred by the vivid display of racism in Charlottesville the other week. “This is where we should be. The protesting shouldn’t only be on black bodies, it should be on white folks too who are the ones maintaining this culture,” said Stephanie Roades.

Roades is an organizer with SURJ, or Standing Up for Racial Justice - a group led by white people that works to educate other white people about racism. The group also supports the political movements for people of color. Saturday’s rally was organized by SURJ and UBLAC, or Uplifing Black Liberation and Community.

Roades said the rally was a response to Charlottesville, but also a call to action for Milwaukeeans to address practices that lead to unequal treatment of African Americans here. She said of the location of the rally: “So a lot of the financial institutions are in this area of town which have historically been gatekeepers to racism through redlining and funding of development in this city. But I don’t see public funding going to building up black communities.”

Erin Christman says racism has no home in Milwaukee.
Credit Aisha Turner

Other white people at Saturday’s rally said it was important for the city to start having difficult conversations. Erin Christman wore her “Milwaukee Home” t-shirt and said, “I don’t go to protests much but I also think it’s important to show up. I think people think that if they ignore this stuff it'll go away.”

She explained, “It's that ‘Midwestern nice’ -- we don’t want to acknowledge a problem we don’t want to say that there’s something wrong.”

Paul, a teacher who didn’t want to give his last name, agreed. “There’s a sort of complacency in this city about racial segregation,” he said.

Paul moved here 25 years ago and said city still surprises him: “I don’t accept the city's issues in the same way as someone that's lived here a long time. You know if still kind of bugs me in the way in the way it wouldn’t bug you if you just kind of grew up with it. Like the fish know the water is wet, right? I still think it's wet.”

People gathered on Saturday to denounce hate.
Credit Aisha Turner

After about 45 minutes in O’Donnell Park, protesters moved down to Lincoln Memorial Drive to be more visible to the crowds at Irish Fest.

That’s where Kay Frederick stood, chanting to the cars passing by. Frederick is a retired schoolteacher. Her uncle was a POW in Germany during World War II. Seeing the Nazi images coming out of Charlottesville shocked her.

“I really thought by now the only people that would clutching those ideas would be people my age that just couldn’t get over it,” she said. “So when I saw Charlottesville and saw how many millennials that we were counting on were out there with torches -- it just broke my heart.”

Lisa Jones from UBLAC was one of a handful of black people in attendance. She was please to see the turnout. “If we really want to be free of white supremacy, that’s going to take working together,” she said.

During the rally, organizers collected donations for the Black Lives Matter chapter in Charlottesville. They raised over $650 dollars in an hour and a half.

Race & Ethnicity reporting supported by The Dohmen Company.