by Tobias Baldwin
The Black Lives Matter and Justice for George Floyd movement has started to spread to small towns in Wisconsin demanding justice. McFarland, Wisconsin, is a town of a little over 9,000 people located outside of Madison. Only two percent of the population identifies as African-American. Despite this, on Wednesday, June 3rd, about 500 people came out to Arnold Larson Park to attend a speak-out organized by members of the Black Student Union (BSU) at McFarland High School (MHS).
Inspired by the spreading protests around the country, Laëtitia Hollard from the BSU planned a speak-out within 48 hours. Normally, an event organized for Black Lives in an overwhelmingly white small town might only hope to draw double-digit numbers, but in this political moment the results were quite different.
The event quickly spread among students via social media on short notice. The event featured African-American students and community members discussing their experience in school, the communities and how they are reflected in the curriculum.
The event organizer, Laëtitia Hollard, spoke about how she was one of only a few students of color in her school. She said, “I thought black was a bad word up to the fourth grade. It was a word that no one liked, that no one would use, because we thought it was offensive.”
Emmanuel Aweay, an MHS alum who was one of the founders of the MHS BSU, spoke about the importance of learning black history. He highlighted how he has learned more about black history on social media than he ever did in school.
He went on to say, “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. And in the metaphorical chain of the United States, the black community has been weakened by the hands of our oppressors for far too long.” Playing on Trump’s MAGA slogan he went on to say, “If we truly want to make America great, we need to strengthen our weakest link. Once that is accomplished, we can accomplish anything. There is strength in numbers.”
Community member Robert Robinson tried to explain to the mostly white audience what it is like to talk to his son about racism.
“I had to explain to my son that one day you will be judged by the color of your skin – not because you’re smart, not because you can bring things to this world – and that you may be killed by the hands of someone wearing a badge that serves to protect you.”
These experiences are reflected in recent studies about the African-American population in Wisconsin and the midwest. In Dane County, nearly 50 percent of African-Americans live below the poverty line and Wisconsin was deemed the worst state for African-Americans to live in. This list also countered the common narrative that racism is exclusive to the south.he top five worst states for African-Americans were in the north;Minnesota, where Geogre Floyd was murdered, was number two.
During the speak-out white community members were clearly listening to the messages and trying to understand how to stand in solidarity with African-Americans and call out racism when encountering it.
Later in the speak-out Jewel Sherchok, an MHS student who has been attending the protests downtown, led the crowd in a “say their names” chant—reciting the backgrounds of those killed by the police before chanting their names—that mentioned George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Madison’s own Tony Robinson, who was killed by the Officer Matt Kenny in 2015. Jewel is of Asian descent and stressed the importance of other people of color standing in solidarity with African-Americans and against racism.
Following this there was a 9-minute kneel, which was the amount of time that it took for Derek Chavin to murder George Floyd. The speakers made it clear that this was a time to reflect on the injustices and what they can do about them.
Wrapping up the event, Laëtitia Hollard promoted a resolution that she worked on with a member of the Village Board on how McFarland can combat racism in the community, schools and throughout the country. Hundreds lined up to read the resolution and sign a petition in support to convince the board to vote in favor of these actions. The Board is set to discuss and vote on the resolution Monday, June 8th, at 7pm.
In addition to the Board resolution, MHS and Dane County Equity Consortium, which represents school districts across Dane County, sent out a strong message in support of the Black Lives Matter Movement, African-American students and the recent protest.
The events in a small village in Wisconsin show the widespread influence that this movement is having around the country. The fire may have started in Minneapolis but it’s spreading quickly and every day people are taking action and questioning the common narratives they have been fed. People’s ideas have changed more this past week than we have seen in recent memory. This is the power of movements.