Wisconsin’s small towns join call for racial justice

Whitewater Protest
Protesters at a march for racial justice in Whitewater. (Contributed by Marjorie Stoneman)

For years the script was familiar. 

Act one: Heinous act of police violence against a person of color in a major U.S. city goes viral. Act two: Community members in that city march and protest against the violence — perhaps charges are filed against the officer involved. Act three: Other major cities may have a march in solidarity but active protests eventually lose momentum. 

None of that is to say there wasn’t organizing and activism happening the whole time, but the most visible aspects never spread very far for very long. 

But following the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, the response has been different. The response has been sustained and global. It’s stretched from big cities to small towns.

The move to small towns shows that systemic racism isn’t just a big city problem. 

“In rural places it will be imperative that local leadership, rural leadership start to engage their people more,” says Dr. Veronica Womack, executive director of the Rural Studies Institute at Georgia College and State University. “Because they can, you’re not the mayor of New York City, you’re in a smaller community. 

Whitewater Protest
An elderly woman joins a march for racial justice in Whitewater. (Contributed by Marjorie Stoneman)

“I’m very excited about rural places being part of the discussion for a change,” she adds. “I’m excited about what can come out of this. When we get on the other side, I believe we’re embarking on some substantive changes we really need to make.”

While much of the attention in Wisconsin has been on the movements in Milwaukee and Madison, the state has seen protests in small — mostly white — towns across the state, from Whitewater to Superior, Tomah to Sturgeon Bay. 

In Whitewater, a protest has been held every day for two weeks. The city has a population of about 14,000 people that is about 80% white and 10% Latinx. 

“One of the words I’ve appreciated hearing in my town is referring to these protests as ‘fed-uprisings,’” says Meredith McFadden, an organizer of the Whitewater protests and a professor at UW-Whitewater. “With protests that have stayed in big cities, the rest of the nation hasn’t not noticed. There’s been a boiling point for so long across all communities. When something small is happening like in Whitewater, you still can feel like you are a part of the protests happening in the big cities. You want to show your town that at least something is happening here.”

For two weeks McFadden has had between 20 and 50 protesters in the streets every day. A separate group, Whitewater Unites Lives, held a march with 320 attendees. Because these protests have been sustained in places like Whitewater, it’s harder for local leadership to look away. 

“Be part of not just marches in solidarity, but how does this national conversation relate to what’s going on in our small town?” McFadden says. “Part of the pushback is ‘none of that big city systemic racism touches us here.’ It helps so much for the community here, often there are just pockets of people who are upset, but they feel alone in their pockets.”

Whitewater is a college town, but with students away from campus the typical activist population is largely gone, leaving McFadden’s 20 to 50 daily protesters on their own. But she still says she thinks a daily event can be sustained at least until July. If it can continue until students come back in August, she’s not worried about momentum at all. 

More than 360 miles northwest, the City of Superior has also had community members take to the streets. But each town has its own flavor of activism and Superior Mayor Jim Paine says protests against racial injustice aren’t new there. 

Protests are baked into the city’s DNA, Paine says. 

“The people leading protests now, we’ve built them into political leadership here, into the governing process at every level,” Paine says. “We’re focused on the work and protest is a very important part of the movement. The people leading the protests in other cities are leading the city up north.”

As a Wisconsin city with a regional relationship with Duluth and the Twin Cities, Paine says this movement’s start in Minneapolis meant it hit harder in Superior, which has a lot of “Minneapolis expats.” 

As a neighbor of Duluth with a population of 27,000 that is 90% white, Paine says Superior has to be progressive when it comes to its police department.

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To achieve what he calls fair and equal policing, Paine says the city leadership has developed relationships with the community’s organizers. If someone has a complaint, he says, they can speak with someone in charge. 

“Our police chief maintains direct relationships with every organizer top to bottom,” Paine says. “The incidents we’re watching nationwide are shocking, major incidents. But minor incidents of racism and injustice happen in every community. We have a strong network that can plug people directly into people of power. The police chief is likely to take a call from someone who is a victim.”

Back in Whitewater, the protest organizers have been working to change their local police department’s culture. McFadden says she’s met with city leadership to ask for more accountability and transparency around investigations of the use of force and complaints against officers. 

On Tuesday, the Whitewater Common Council approved a resolution in support of racial justice that commits the city to “reforms and culture change.” 

Around the state, local leaders and organizers in places such as Ashland, Sun Prairie, Kenosha and Rhinelander are having similar conversations after protests sprung up in the days and weeks following the death of George Floyd. 

Womack says she believes protests started in small, rural communities for a variety of reasons. 

The COVID-19 shutdowns played a large role, she says, partially because people are afraid of and frustrated by what’s happening in their own communities and partially because society’s racial and social inequities were highlighted by the pandemic and its effects. 

Social media and the connectivity of our culture also helped, as did the energy and activism of young people and the hard work of Black Lives Matter organizers building an infrastructure since the protests in Ferguson, Mo. in 2014, according to Womack. 

All of these things came together into a “perfect storm” that allowed for rural protests to spread across the country — even in largely white communities in places such as Wisconsin. 

Now, leaders in those communities need to step up and listen because “the young people in the streets are wanting systemic change and I don’t hear them saying they’re going to wait two or three generations for this to happen,” Womack says.

Whitewater Protest
A protest in Whitewater drew more than 300 people, organizers said. Contributed by Marjorie Stoneman)

The massive protest movement has already resulted in changes at the local level across the country but so far it’s been mostly in large cities. Womack says that doesn’t have to be the case. 

“We’re going to have to have a unique way of doing this in small towns,” Womack says. “We can’t take what they’re doing in Atlanta, D.C. and New York City, that’s just not going to work. There’s going to have to be engagement in the discussion. If I were a small town mayor or small town city council person or small town chief of police, I wouldn’t wait until something happened in my community.” 

“Those people out there protesting, I would engage them in a conversation,” she adds. “In a small town, you have the opportunity to know people and have a great dialogue about policing within your community and the importance of the types of policing. As a small town person, it would be important for leaders to take advantage of this opportunity, because they may hear things they didn’t expect.”