VIROQUA - Approximately 250 people gathered in Viroqua Monday, June 1 for a Black Lives Matter protest in response to the killing of George Floyd.
Floyd, an African American man died in the Powderhorn community of Minneapolis on Monday, May 25.
Floyd was handcuffed and lying face down on a city street during an arrest, while Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin kept his knee on the right side of Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. It was later found that George Floyd died of strangulation.
Derek Chauvin, the officer involved, is currently being charged with third-degree murder and second degree manslaughter as of press time.
Protests erupted in Minneapolis in response to the incident and have since turned incredibly intense with the city enforcing a curfew and major highways being shut down entirely.
In Madison, civil unrest broke out following protests. Damage to businesses on State Street occurred over the weekend and police squad cars were set on fire as well.
Protests continue across the nation in response to the murder.
The Viroqua event remained peaceful during the two hours protesters gathered. Community members driving by offered encouragement and support in the form of honks and closed fists raised through open windows.
The group gathered amidst the continuing COVID-19 pandemic–although it should be noted that over 90 percent of the 250 plus individuals in attendance, wore some type of face covering. At one point a man with a large ‘Justice for George’ sign strolled Main Street, handing out blue surgical masks to anyone who was in need of one.
Loud emotional call and response of “SAY HIS NAME!” “GEORGE FLOYD” rang out, led by the voices of children and adults on megaphones, down Main Street in between the chorus of honks and cheers and shouts of “I CAN’T BREATHE!” The now historic words uttered by both Floyd and Eric Garner, who died in 2014 after being restrained by a New York City Police Officer.
Ben Wilson of Citizen Action of Wisconsin was one of the organizers of the event.
“I brought this together outside of the scope of my job because I know it’s important to use my own white privilege to do my part to stand up to systemic racism,” Wilson shared.
Wilson went on to note, that despite the quick nature of pulling the event together and expecting “only about 20-25 people” seeing the street filled was an incredible sight.
Things remained peaceful for the entire protest with only one person being reported to authorities, as showing acts of aggression and swerving toward protesters. At the end of the event, the group gathered and were led in song to honor George Floyd and other black lives lost.
Erin Ford is an outspoken black advocate, mother and community member, who was in attendance at the Viroqua protest as well as in Madison over the weekend.
“There was an outstanding turn out,” Ford said of the Viroqua gathering. “Young folks in town worked on this to come together to speak out against rampant police brutality and the killing of black bodies at a rate of five times compared to whites. This was a way for local people to take a stand against the violence.”
Although the nature of the protest over all was peaceful, Ford noted a mix of emotions.
“There were people who were angry....I’m angry...But it also had people who had just come awake at this level to what is happening. For a lot of people, this was out of their comfort zone of believing that police are supposed to be our saviors and now they’re beginning to recognize it’s not always that way. There was also a lot of grief surrounding this (the death of George Floyd). There is no debate about what happened, it’s sad I have to say it that way but, it’s how it is. But, we are also so close to the Minnesota border, it hit a lot closer to home for a lot of people.”
During the protest there was no police presence, which was part of a collective effort.
“Myself and others requested and made clear that we didn’t want a police presence there,” Ford explained. “I’ve found, that having a police presence on site at a protest about police brutality, can only incite that negative energy and cause further issues. If off-duty officers in plainclothes wanted to come and stand that would have been fine, but we made it clear we didn’t need the patrolling.”
Ford explained however that the police were patrolling the perimeter and that “agitators” who were speeding through were pulled over and the previously mentioned vehicle seen swerving at protesters was reported.
“Between the Mayor and Chief of Police working together allowing us to do this peacefully showed progress going forward,” Ford commented.
An attempt was made to contact Viroqua Chief of Police Rick Niedfeldt for comment but he was out of the office at the time of deadline.
Among the 250 in attendance was civil rights advocate Reverend Calvin Morris who has worked with Reverends Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson in his life time.
Morris marched along with his daughter Dodie Whitaker and Ford and others in attendance, ‘We Shall Not Be Moved.’ The song originally taken from a spiritual, gained popularity as a protest and union song in the Civil Rights Movement.
“Being there with him was very two fold for me,” Ford explained. “I’ve been lucky enough to know him for a few years and he’s a really powerful man and it was amazing to have him as a part of such a historic moment, but it’s also heartbreaking he’s still doing it. To still be marching for this is sort of unforgiveable. It feels like, how can we not be doing better by now?”
So where do we go from here?
“If you see something, say something,” Wilson noted at the protest. “If you hear your friends or family making racist jokes or saying racist things, call them out on it. Stop them. It’s one simple step white people can take.”
Ford echoed this sentiment.
“White people have to be accountable,” Ford said. “Pay attention and don’t pretend like you don’t see racism around you. White people, for the most part need to be standing up and speaking out. We are hoping to see more get-togethers with black leadership as well. We are working with local officials and government on policies for racism, mental health crises and more. That’s what the world needs.”The protest ended with an emotional gathering in the adjacent parking lot on the corner of Main and Jefferson streets. The crowd gathered in song led by Calvin’s daughter Dodie as the sun set on Viroqua just after 8 p.m. singing the old gospel song and protest anthem ‘We Shall Overcome’ with an adapted set singing “Justice for George Floyd, today!”