Blood is at the Doorstep of Congress

 

A gun safety rally speaker in Milwaukee’s Red Arrow Park shows a photo of Stephen Romero, age 6, a child killed in a mass shooting in California. All photos by Kevin Lynch, unless otherwise indicated.

I really want to celebrate Labor Day today, the working men and women of many immigrant backgrounds who built his nation, and sustained its success and glory, time after time after time. I hear their work in my mind, the rhythms of the hammer, and of the sewing machine, of the printing press, even the offbeat hits of the teacher’s chalk on the blackboard. They are why America is still a great nation and continues to be. I fly my American flag proudly today in front of my home.

But Lord, we have our profound faults and that drives me to this post, because of the profligate abuse of guns everywhere, because of the seemingly mindless, or racist or vengeful carnage, and the heartbreak, the shattering of families and the blood-spattered social fabric. And because of the facile, pathetic rationalizations for inaction.

I am prompted to revisit a rally I attended on August 18, after the very latest mass slaughter in Texas and elsewhere –– how do we keep up with them all? – and another protest for gun safety this weekend, which I missed. The gun safety rally in Milwaukee I attended was held in Red Arrow Park, the site of the killing of Dontre Hamilton. This was a powerful and moving experience. I try to gain inspiration from it. So I am sharing some photos and video from that event in hopes blog readers will gain some inspiration for action.

Red Arrow Park is profoundly significant because part of our nation’s terrible gun problem is the militarization of the police, and their excess of deadly weapons, their institutional and, for some, individual racism, and their reflex to shoot in the slightest doubt, and argue that it was self-defense. In 2014, Hamilton was shot 14 times by a Milwaukee police officer who approached him where he was sleeping under the Red Arrow Park sculpture, a block from City Hall, and across the street from the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts (I’m happy that Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett attended in support of this event.)

Maria Hamilton (far right, in white), mother of Dontre Hamilton speaks a few feet away fro the red arrow sculpture, under which her son Dontre was killed by a Milwaukee police officer in 2014.

Police had previously responded to a call about Hamilton sleeping there and determined that he was causing no harm. But another officer, Christopher Manney, didn’t get that message and showed up and woke up Hamilton who, after being confronted, apparently grabbed the officer’s nightstick, at which point Manney immediately emptied his gun into Hamilton.

The late Dontre Hamilton. Courtesy USA Today

The full Hamilton family story, tragic but also inspiring, is told magnificently in the award-winning film Blood is on the Doorstep which wrote about in depth in this blog at its Milwaukee premiere, and which I dearly recommend to anyone who cares about the deaths of unarmed black men. Here is a link to a trailer, and access to the film which is available by streaming currently, and available through Netflix: Blood is at the Doorstep

The protest event I attended was extremely special because of the presence of Maria Hamilton, Dontre’s activist mother. She spoke briefly, saying “now is the time” for common sense gun safety measurements like background checks. We also need to get rid of the military-style assault rifles on our streets, and in the hands of more potential mass murderers.

Maria Hamilton (top, right) speaks with U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore beside her. A rally attendee (above) consoles Maria after the rally.

When Maria Hamilton took the microphone, it hit me very hard. She spoke only a few feet away from the spot where her son was gunned to death. All new reports I’ve read say he was either “beneath” or “beside” the red arrow sculpture. Then, after the rally, I was stunned by something I saw, when I sat down on the base of the sculpture. I looked down at my feet at the granite surrounding the sculpture and I noticed some stains in the stone, faint red stains that many might easily overlook at this point in time. But I could not help feeling that I was looking at bloodstains and that, whose else might they be but Dontre Hamilton’s?

After the rally, I sat down at the base of the red arrow sculpture (top) and saw these red spots (above), next to my shoes, right on the location where Dontre Hamilton was shot 14 times in 2014. Now I believe they are Dontre’s blood stains.

I don’t even know if Maria Hamilton knows that the stains are there. I did not feel like approaching her afterwards. But I took a photograph of the stains and you can think what you might about this. But, believe me, those stains haunt me, even symbolically, even if it is not really what it appears to be. Philip Roth once wrote powerfully of “the human stain” of racism, and the phrase’s symbolism resonates to the deep heart’s core of the America.

Several speakers spoke on the broader issue of gun violence at the event which was one of over such rallies 100 nationwide that day, sponsored by Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, Students Demand Action, and Hometown for Gun Safety, the nationwide organization which I was happy to help support on my birthday on Facebook with the assistance of various friends, whose contributions I am very grateful for.

A young college student activist speaks extemporaneously at the Every Town for Gun Safety rally on August 18 in Milwaukee’s Red Arrow Park

One of the most impressive speakers was a young black woman activist (above) who had said she had a prepared speech. But when she got up there she was so fired up that she simply spoke spontaneously for about five minutes. She spoke intelligently, directly, eloquently, and passionately.

I will try to post the video of this remarkable young woman on my  Facebook page (Kevin Lynch, Milwaukee) posting of this blog post. It is too large for this website. 1

The blood is clearly on the doorstep of Congress, just as were the numerous pairs of shoes that were laid out symbolically on the lawn in front of the Congressional building In Washington, representing the hundreds (thousands?) of children we have been killed by gunfire since the Sandy Hook massacre of school children and their teachers.

A recent protest involved placing pairs of shoes on the lawn of Congress to signify every child killed by gunfire since the Sandy Hook massacre. Courtesy GettyImages

Any paranoid gun owner who worries about the ridiculous “slippery slope” notion of gun restrictions, is basing his fear on no evidence.

Neither I nor anyone who cares about reasonable gun safety gives a hoot about your collection of guns. We just want to stop the insane carnage in the only advanced country in the world in which this happens to this degree, by a long shot (sad pun intended).

Guns do kill people, about 40,000 in America every year. When the NRA says “no, people kill people,” remember, no person has ever killed any person by pointing with a forefinger and a “cocked” thumb and shouting “bang!”

A killer has to have a gun in his hand, dammit. I’m sorry, like Beto O’Rourke in Texas and most of America, I’m beyond horror, unhappiness and grief. This is our nation and these deaths were our lives, our mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, our dear friends. They will continue to be.

Every citizen and inhabitant must play a part now, in changing this self-destructive and self-centered brain-lock, and heart-lock — at least among a small group of powerful American politicians and gun industry lobbyists.

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1 Full disclosure, I attended this rally as a belated participant, not as a reporter. Consequently I didn’t take notes (my hands were full) so I don’t have IDs on all the speakers pictured in the photos. There was very little post-rally news coverage of the event that I can find, with such details. My apologies.

 

 

The night of Trump’s inauguration inspires this protest march

park crowd

The crowd for the first gathering of the Milwaukee Coalition Against Trump crowded into Red Arrow Park on Friday, before beginning a protest march throughout downtown, on the night of Donald Trump’s inauguration. The Marcus Center for the Performing Arts is in the background. All photos by Kevin Lynch.

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The national news today report, and document live, huge rallies and marches – 600 different marches – across the United States in response to the Trump inauguration, including the Washington women’s march, over 500,000 strong. This represents perhaps an unprecedented groundswell of grassroots political response. But my report below is a prelude to all that, a protest rally in Milwaukee last night, only hours after the inauguration.  

MILWAUKEE – The looming fog and surly mist may have reflected the dark inner mood that brought thousands of people to Red Arrow Park in downtown Milwaukee Friday evening. They came from all directions, gathering to protest what they felt was the questionable legitimacy and ominous threat of Donald Trump, who had just been inaugurated as America’s 45th president hours before. Now, while Trump gallivanted around to various inauguration balls in Washington, the crowd milled about, some hopping back and forth to stay warm, their own little dance of defiance.

The event didn’t unfold seamlessly; the Milwaukee Coalition Against Trump at this point is perhaps a bit too ad hoc to have provided for electric amplification for leaders to speak to the throng. Instead they use hand-held megaphones and, standing about 15 yards away from their podium, I and others near to me could not hear what the speakers said, except for fleeting words.

So I climbed a staircase behind the podium and crowd and got a better vantage point and suddenly could hear better. One woman then announced that time had come to begin a march through downtown.

The massive coil of humanity began to unfurl and snake its way west onto State Street. As I followed, I passed a woman standing next to a park bench. She held a sign and told marchers: “Don’t forget Dontre Hamilton!”

Yes, of course, I thought to myself. This is Red Arrow Park, and that bench is probably the very one that Hamilton, a young black man slept on a few years back, until he was accosted by Milwaukee police who then shot and killed him –  after other officers had previously reported that Hamilton posed no threat to anyone. It was Milwaukee’s own dire story of police violence against unarmed black men, which has repeated itself time after time, seemingly week after week, across America in recent years.

protest rink

The crowd begins to begin a march by leaving beside the Red Arrow Park skating rink, and past the park bench where Dontre Hamilton was killed by Milwaukee police.

Donald Trump, however, had campaigned on “law and order,” and apparently more of the same, a stance strongly supported by David A. Clarke, the controversial cowboy hat-wearing black Milwaukee County Sheriff, who was the object of several chants this night, especially as the crowd reached the police station and County Sheriff’s office.

protest on stateThe marchers head west on State Street toward The Bradley Center and, in the background, the Milwaukee Courthouse.

The protest march moved across The Milwaukee River, past The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel communications building, where I once worked. Spirits now rose as chants began and the walking marshalled energy, including a woman, her hat bedecked with pro-women buttons, pushing a young man in a wheel chair. In the next moment, the march ground to a halt, at the corner of Fourth and State Streets in front of the marquee of the Bradley Center advertising for an upcoming Bucks game.

Suddenly police became conspicuously evident especially gathered on Fourth and State. Television cameramen scrambled around, trying to get good angles to shoot from.

“Why did it stop?” one woman asked. “Is this as far as it’s going to go? They said we would go much further than this.”

“I don’t know, maybe the police stopped it,” I answered.

But one of the organizers, a short, African-American woman with a megaphone, continued to muster rhythmic phrases, which the crowd chanted in unison: “NO TRUMP, NO KKK, NO RACIST USA!”…“NO TRUMP, NO KKK, NO RACIST USA!”

Some of the countless handmade signs spoke quite bluntly, including one message, held aloft by several young women, which read simply “PUSSY GRABS BACK,” a reference to an obscene comment that Donald Trump had made about his efforts to molest women, in a recording that gained notoriety during the presidential campaign. My own hand-made sign read “Chop Down Trump the Stump” and included a printout of a satirical drawing I did during the campaign, depicting Donald Trump as a tree stump, with a number of small banners stuck into it, bearing various racist, sexist and xenophobic comments he made during his improbable rise to the presidency, despite losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by 2.8 million votes.

Still, the march remained stalled. Police stood by in ready, their dark uniforms silhouetted in the night.

“I’m getting scared,” a middle-aged woman said to me. I said nothing but patted her on the back reassuringly.  An electronic sign flickered above with the image of Milwaukee Bucks giant All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo, a sort of real-life god whom, in this uncertain moment, anyone might claim for their cause.

The minutes passed in increasingly agonizing slowness, as the trailing end of the marchers now began massing more tightly in the intersection.

And then for no apparent reason, the marches began moving forward. I wondered if the coalition’s strategy was to stop to make a statement at this conspicuous spot, where the largest crowds gather in downtown, although for sporting events.

protest overpass

The crowd continued up State Street until we made a left turn and headed toward the brilliantly lit tunnel that penetrates the Milwaukee County Courthouse building.

protest tunnel

The marchers enter the Courthouse tunnel and raise a thunderous din.

And here something extraordinary happened. The crowd instinctively realized the acoustic resonance of the long tunnel and a huge roar began swelling as they entered and occupied the extended space. The sound magnified into a boisterously massive white noise of human passion, and probably some defiantly anarchic energy. The tunnel normally expedites swift-moving cars, and right there I felt thankful that the protest organizers had apparently received the proper permits to march through most of the major downtown streets that cars normally prowl.

protest courthouse

That became all the more striking when the march approached, from 3rd Street, the entrance to the Grand Avenue Mall and then turned left onto Wisconsin Avenue. Though a Milwaukee native, I had lived in Madison for nearly 20 years, until returning to my hometown in 2009. I had participated in some Madison protest marches. Now, it suddenly struck me: I was walking down the middle of Wisconsin Avenue, the main street of Milwaukee at 7 p.m. on a Friday night, protected by the river of humanity.

protest on Wis

A large protest sign floats down Wisconsin Avenue, like a ghost from the 1960s.

We approached the Riverside Theater and its grand, gleaming marquee advertising upcoming live performances by big-name entertainers. (Continue reading blow)

 

Protest on Wis toward RivProtest Rivprotest Riv 2The protest crowd heads down Wisconsin Avenue, Milwaukee’s downtown main street, to the Riverside Theater.

It struck me how our own cultural and political performance now intersected with the downtown’s other primary venue of entertainment performance, besides the Bradley Center. It felt like we were playing out a statement about what seemed important and vibrant and culturally alive, right now. One young woman began singing out the great Civil Rights-era anthem “We Shall Overcome,” and others nearby, including myself joined in. Right here, in this moment, the song’s resolute, hopeful lyrics, and stately, chest-heaving melody moved me, and I knew I was not alone.

Again we crossed over the Milwaukee River and eventually wended our way back to Red Arrow Park, situated across from another of the downtown’s largest entertainment venues, The Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.

Yes, ours was a performance, a drama of dissent, but it was virtually spontaneous, aside from its provisional organizing.

“What does democracy look like?” one of the organizers had shouted through a megaphone several times during the march.

“This is what democracy looks like!” The crowd responded. Yes, it’s a familiar refrain at American protest marches. It signifies the people getting their moment to sing out, to let their cultural utterance seek out the truth, even as the dawn of a new presidency feels as dark and gloomy as this night, which seemed akin to the Trump’s strikingly ominous inauguration speech.

James Fallows, the National Book Award-winning author and national correspondent for The Atlantic, has read all 45 presidential inauguration speeches. Fallows noted last night that Trump’s was the first such speech to not display humility in honor of the office, nor an effort to open his arms to all of America, to try to bring us together, despite our differences.

But the light of energy this crowd radiated for several hours is the kind of force that could turn that dark dawn, slowly but surely, into something powerful, positive and righteous for the great mass of the American people and their democracy, which tonight looked like this, in cities all across America.