Youth-Led March Continues Black lives Matter Movement in Madison
Standing on the steps of the First Congregational Church on June 13, looking out over a crowd of more than 300 gathered on the green, Dylan Richmond approached the microphone.
“2020 is not the apocalypse...it’s the revolution,” he said.
Richmond, who is black, was one of a number of young activists of many races and backgrounds who spoke and marched on June 13, demanding both changes at the national level to policing and policy, and also decrying specific issues at the local level, particularly in the school system.
At the march, a predominantly young crowd chanted the names of black Americans killed by police and heard stories of racism perpetuated in their own community, and marched through some of Madison’s most affluent neighborhoods as part of a continued demand for racial justice and equality.
The brutal killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis three weeks ago has galvanized a movement across the country that has called for wholesale, fundamental changes to police and other racist systems under the Black Lives Matter banner.
“Do not try to explain to future generations why you didn’t do more to fight for what was right,” said Joaquin Fernandez-Duque, a co-organizer of the event who said he was not part of the black community. “Take action now! Make a change!”
Though Black Lives Matter has been used as a rallying cry since the killing of unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin in 2013, Floyd’s killing, along with other black Americans including Louisville woman Breonna Taylor, who was shot by police in her own home, and Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed by vigilantes in Georgia, has drawn massive support for the movement in recent weeks.
Speeches by the student activists bookended a march that led protesters in an approximately two-mile loop, escorted closely by Madison Police Department officers along Wharf Road, Island Avenue, and Middle Beach Road, circling back to the First Congregational Church, which also hosted a vigil for racial justice last week.
Chants of “No justice—no peace” and “Hands up, don’t shoot” rang out along the quiet, beachside roads, with many residents coming to the edge of their properties, filming the marchers or simply standing and watching.
In contrast to the vigil last week, which focused on a more silent remembrance of Floyd and the other victims, the march and rally this week came with a sharper edge. A handful of signs showed the acronym “ACAB,” which stands for “All Cops Are Bastards.”
Another protester told a resident playing tennis along Island Avenue, “Black people are dying, but thank God you’re working on your backhand.” A handful or younger protesters started a chant including an expletive directed at the police, but quickly quieted down.
One elementary school-aged protester, marching with his parents, shouted at a slow-moving car that had wandered onto the protest route.
“Hey!” he said. “We’re in the middle of a march!”
Hurt by Racism
Richmond, who helped organize the rally with his twin brother, Ethan Richmond, were the first and only speakers before the march. Ethan Richmond opened with a heart-wrenching story about wanting to be an astronaut as a young boy in order “to be an observer rather than being observed.”
“I remember thinking that up there, blackness is ordinary. I longed for ordinary,” he said.
He went on to describe the steady and unremitting rain of racist treatment and abuse he endured through childhood, including being called the n-word in middle school and having people constantly touch his hair “like they were entitled to it.”
“Not one of our teachers growing up looked like us,” Richmond said.
He and his brother learned the reality of “the fragile lie of liberty and justice for all” not through school curriculum, Dylan Richmond said, but in seeing how the world treated black people.
“At another time, in another place, George Floyd’s name could have been mine,” Richmond said.
Daniel Hand High School (DHHS) student Maia Minto also shared the hurt and struggles of being a young black person in Madison’s mostly white community.
“There’s a constant pressure for me to perform to the best of my abilities, because if I mess up, I’m viewed as a representation of my entire race,” she said.
Minto said she suffered mostly silently, and eventually normalized all the little racist behaviors people subjected her to—asking her where she was from, staring at her, making jokes at her expense.
“We were never taught any different. We were never taught in school about the different types of racism or how to combat them. We were never taught about microaggressions. We were never taught to be anti-racist. So how could I and those around me have known any better?” Minto said.
DHHS’s Diversity Club became a source of both education and solace, Minto said, and a place where she found her voice to speak out against racism around her and people who would listen and understand her.
Another DHHS student, Zoe Balkan, who is white, used her speaking opportunity to level criticism specifically against the failure of school systems, including Madison’s, to educate students substantially on issues of race. Her impassioned words took aim at the kind of hurt that this kind of ignorance creates, particularly in majority-white communities.
“Our school cannot just be against racism, it must take steps toward banishing the ignorance that allows racism to dwell in the minds of my fellow students. Our school does not do its job in teaching its students about the racial inequality in and around us right now,” Balkan said.
Balkan went on to make a clear distinction between political correctness and a commitment to racial equality, saying that teaching racial justice couldn’t be shunted aside in the name of appeasing one political party or another.
“We as a school and a society can no longer justify racism as a political belief,” Balkan said. “I will no longer stand by as my fellow white students and I are shielded by privilege and patted on the back for ‘valiant efforts’ against racism.”
A Young Crowd
Attendees of the rally definitely skewed younger. The rally organizers had coordinated with the Town Clerk’s Office to set up a table that would help young people register to vote. Music playing from a P.A. on the church steps featured artists like Tupac and Kendrick Lamar.
Many of the younger attendees spoke about a desire for significant change. Ava Lombardi, a DHHS senior who is white, said she was there to work with her peers against the “bubble” they said existed in Madison.
“We all want a more equal and happy world right now,” she said. “We’re fighting systematic racism in our government.”
Jack Green, another DHHS senior who is white, said there weren’t that many chances in town to show solidarity and take direct action for change, and that he was there to “seize the opportunity” with his fellow young people.
Aurelia Ringer-Butsch, who was at the rally with her mother, Cindy Ringer, said they were there “because black lives matter just as much as white lives, and we should recognize that.”
Ringer said they had been having conversations about specific types of oppression and privilege at home, focusing on “all the things you can’t do while black” in America without risking violence or harassment. She said that while she was relatively new to Madison, she hoped the current movement could reach goals across the country.
Ringer-Butsch said she thought it was important that young people like herself and the other attendees show up and speak out.
“Kids are fighting to make a better future for themselves—it’s the future they will live in,” she said.
Ringer-Butsch, who is white, also said she was most excited to turn 18 so she could vote.
Not every attendee was a teenager, though. Valerie Ryan, who identified herself as a 97 year-old U.S. Navy veteran, stood along the route of the march, waving and giving a thumbs-up to the protesters.
She said she had never seen anything like this movement during her many years in Madison.
“If it’s something that helps, I want to be a part of it,” Ryan said.
Unlike other youth-led rallies around the state, which have come up with demands that focus on defunding police departments, investing in education, and government transparency and accountability, there were no specific appeals for local action by the protesters.
In particular, the police department worked very closely with the organizers, according to Madison Police Department (MPD) Captain Joe Race, and Fernandez-Duque thanked Chief Jack Drumm and the department for helping keep the rally safe and orderly. Multiple MPD officers engaged with protesters before, during, and after the march, including one officer who spent several minutes in a spirited discussion with a protester on the specific needs for police reform around the country.
The attitude of some protesters was the subject of criticism from at least a few people. Close to half of the initial attendees left after the march, before most of the student speeches.
Devan Cowles-Garcia said she felt angry during the march watching a large number of mostly older and middle-aged protesters lag behind the chanting, shouting main group, talking about their social lives instead of the issues at hand.
“They were just blatantly disregarding the movement,” she said. “They were having more of a social hour.”
Cowles-Garcia, who is Afro-Latina and attended with family member Robin Cowles, said she experienced plenty of racism attending The Country School in Madison and sees many residents shielded from the realities of racism by both their white and economic privileges.
“In this town, it’s all about social. They just want to show face,” Cowles-Garcia said, “say that they were there, then they won’t hear anything, they’ll go back to their mansions, their normal lives.”
After trying to get a chant started, Cowles said she was met with silence and angry looks by this group.
“This is not a pool party. Let’s be focused,” Cowles-Garcia said.
Cowles-Garcia said that you can’t make people hear something they aren’t willing to hear, but there needed to be a continued dialogue to engage these most privileged people in town, and find ways to take more collective action.
“I want to see more donations. Madison is a wealthy town, they can donate a lot of money and they can help organizations. I want to see them buy from black-owned businesses,” she said. “Instead of going out to your restaurant [in Madison], go out to a black-owned restaurant in New Haven.”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Cindy Ringer supported radically defunding police departments.