Black Youth Remade the World in Madison’s Capitol Square Last Night

by James McMaster

You’ll want to know what happened last night around the capitol building of the country’s most segregated state. You won’t hear this on the news.

At the end of a livestreamed political education session on defunding the police run by Freedom Inc., black leaders in Madison called for the members of their digital audience, over 900 people, to bring hot food and medic kits to the black youth who would be holding it down on the west side of the Capitol Building last night. I picked up tacos and burritos from a local restaurant with a friend and walked them to the protest. Imagine a world in which all food, water, and medical supplies are free. Or, if not free, then already paid for by people who can afford it—say, university professors. And there’s enough for everyone. In fact, there is so much food and water that the people in charge instruct whomever is near them to start distributing these resources to their neighbors, who will take what they need and want and pass what they don’t to another neighbor. And so it goes: from each according to their means to each according to their needs. This was the world I found myself in once I arrived at last night’s demonstration, a guest of the organizers.

It was part open mic and part party. Sometimes speakers, only black speakers of course, would take turns sharing words of inspiration and leading chants of BLACK LIVES MATTER and FUCK THE POLICE. Other times the music would be blasting and the whole place would be doing the electric slide to “Before I Let Go” by Beyoncé. I saw so much pent up joy released. I saw young people meet new people, entering into new friendships and flirtations founded in the possibility of a better world. Another way to say this is that I watched as the youth, surrounded by boarded up buildings and protest graffiti, grew a multiracial social movement for black liberation.

It was the world as it could be, a rehearsal for the world we’re all fighting for.

I chanted again, “THIS IS NOT A RIOT, ITS A REVOLUTION” and again, “DONT START NO SHIT, WON’T BE NO SHIT.” And as I walked around the makeshift altar, constructed of candles and photos of black folks who’ve been killed by cops, I ran into someone I met while canvassing for Bernie, a south Asian guy, who told me that this was the most hope he’s felt in months. One man at the demonstration wore a glow in the dark mask. Another danced with a traffic cone on his head. Some white people acted like clowns, of course, and so they were treated as clowns (and not, say, as enemies) by black folks in the crowd, which I thought was generous. At 2 a.m. I saw a family roll through, babies in their arms.

It was the world as it could be, a rehearsal for the world we’re all fighting for. It was an autonomous zone, a racial rapprochement on black terms, and a space of reparation where all sorts of usually criminalized acts were freely performed, no harm done. And it was all made possible, first, by the movement organizers whose efforts cancelled curfew, sending a clear message to the cops, and second, by the fact that every single white person in attendance, every single one, was ready and willing to link arms in a circle around people of color if the cops came for us. We practiced this formation multiple times. Every single white person in attendance was willing to stare down the barrel of a gun for their black (and poc) comrades to have a moment of silence, or just a few hours to turn up. It’s notable that in Madison—maybe because there are so many white people and so few people of color, maybe because black and Asian coalition can be pretty coherent here—black organizers tend to invite non-black poc protest comrades to share in the protection they’ve worked to build for themselves. Fellow Asians and other non-black poc, remember this: when black folks tame white supremacy, we benefit no matter what we’ve done to deserve otherwise. We are, in no abstract way, indebted to black freedom fighters. We have to act like it.

“Next,” said one of the young women who seemed to be running shit, “we’re going to make them reopen Sandra Bland’s case.” All of this was unthinkable just a week ago.

A little less than a year ago, in the exact spot of the demonstration I’m describing, I watched as an all white jazz band played to an all white audience, which was one of the least white things to happen on the square all year. But last night, black music bounced against the sky as black youth celebrated their lives and their victories: Chauvin’s second degree murder charge and the charges filed against the other three cops involved in the death of George Floyd. “Next,” said one of the young women who seemed to be running shit, “we’re going to make them reopen Sandra Bland’s case.” All of this was unthinkable just a week ago. It’s not just that the kids are alright. It’s that the kids might just lead us to higher ground. They might just save us all.

Oh, and anyone who tells you that pride is cancelled due to the pandemic is just wrong. It’s not cancelled, it’s being celebrated the way it would be every year if we actually honored its roots: under the radar and out in the open, with black queer and trans people at its center calling the shots. You should have seen the queers dancing in the streets of Wisconsin last night. I feel so grateful to have been one of them. Corporate pride could never.

James McMaster is a member of the Madison-Area DSA and a professor of race, gender, sexuality, and performance at the UW-Madison. Twitter and Instagram: @jmcmaster29.

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