Gov. Tony Evers announced on Tuesday that the Juneteenth flag will fly over the Capitol building for the first time. It’s a gesture of solidarity and support during a time of Black Lives Matter marches and protests sweeping the country over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and many other people of color who have been killed under similar circumstances.
But Wisconsin legislators in the Black Legislative Caucus are looking for more than a symbolic token. On June 9, ten days in advance of Juneteenth, they sent a letter to Evers requesting that he call the state Assembly and Senate into a special legislative session on Friday, June 19.
“At this session, we wish to convene to discuss and enact pertinent legislation aimed at reforming our justice system at the state level,” wrote Rep. LaKeshia Myers, chair of the Wisconsin Legislative Black Caucus. “As a caucus we are working diligently with county and local officials to promote responsible reform within law enforcement agencies, citizen review board and procedural standards. This is an issue that supersedes political party, and has been supported by civilians and law enforcement alike.”
The Milwaukee Democrat concluded her letter, “Noting the many demonstrations in support of police reform across our state, country and the world, we have a responsibility to ensure equity and safety for all Wisconsinites.”
Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865 — the day the emancipation of all slaves in the United States was declared. It is formally recognized in 47 states — and Wisconsin first celebrated it as a holiday in 2009. Several states are currently pushing to make it a paid state holiday.
On Wednesday morning, Assembly Democrats sent a letter to Evers, adding additional pressure on the governor to act, praising the Legislative Black Caucus for its work and backing the members’ request for a special session to enact justice reform legislation in a letter to Evers.
“It is clear that the status quo is unacceptable,” stated the Assembly Democrats’ letter. “The fact is, we cannot uphold the words of our founding, that all are created equal, unless we make the needed reforms to put those words into action. As you have said often, “the will of the people is the law of the land.” There is an urgency in this moment, for action that is long overdue. It is time for the legislature to achieve justice and equality under the law for people across Wisconsin. Beyond removing barriers to justice and equality, elected officials must act now to demonstrate our true commitment to meaningful change. We must seize this opportunity no matter how long it takes.”
The letter is signed by Assembly Democratic leader Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh) and the remaining 28 members of the Democratic caucus in support of the request of Black Caucus members: Sens. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee), LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) and Reps. Jason Fields (D-Milwaukee), David Bowen (D-Milwaukee), Kalan Haywood II (D-Milwaukee), LaKeshia Myers (D-Milwaukee) and Shelia Stubbs (D-Madison).
Hintz followed up the letter with a press release in which he stated, “This moment in our state and nation’s history requires action. … In order to make the necessary, fundamental changes in our society to address the underlying issues that have allowed systemic racism to permeate in our communities, the Legislature must meet to take on these challenges. This session, Assembly Democrats have introduced proactive proposals aimed at fixing inequities in our current system. 45 states have recently enacted some measure of criminal justice reform policies to create better outcomes, reduce prison populations, and address racial disparities in our justice system. It’s time Wisconsin join this nationwide, bipartisan effort.”
Evers has offered supports for an assembly bill on use of force policies, but so far has resisted calling a special session. Evers staff did not return requests for comment.
“In addition, we have to make sure our communities are safer and stronger. This goes beyond policing, issues such as housing, education, health care, all these things are connected to it,” said Evers previously. “A special session is possible, but I want to make sure that it is something that we don’t just gavel in and gavel out, because that would send the absolute wrong message to the people of Wisconsin who care about this issue, which is the vast, vast majority of them.”
In announcing the flying of the Juneteenth flag, Evers called for moving “forward in solidarity and strength toward a more racially equitable and just society.”
Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes added, “This year, Juneteenth has particular significance as we find ourselves in the midst of a movement for racial justice and an end to systemic racism. We have won significant freedoms since 1619, but our work will not be over until all Black lives matter by way of equity and the opportunity to thrive.”