This is a re-release combining my original series of Milwaukee Protester portraits with my “Supportive Community” presentation.
My journey as a documentary photographer for the evolving movement in the wake of George Floyd’s shooting started in Milwaukee. While I’ve always preferred shooting street and travel photography with a documentary style, this is where the rubber really hit the road in my desire to do something more Important.
From what I’ve seen in the field, Milwaukee BLM is a model for social action for the nation because they have the numbers, social media organization, and a drive that’s continues despite over 3 months of protesting at this point in time.
Local organizers like Frank Nitty, Khalil Coleman, Honni Al-Juma, Lee Halah, and others have formed a coalition consisting of local community groups, artists, activists from allied social justice crusades, and thousands of local people who aid with supplies, donations, social media expertise, and more. Differences do arise in their approaches - recently, Frank Nitty completed a 750-mile march from Milwaukee to Washington D.C. with a group of locals while others choose to focus on local efforts.
During my first afternoons and evenings with them, they were masterful in organizing in ways that kept the crowd focused and purposeful. Things like foul language, which would deter fence-sitters and displease more “family values” types of allies were called out as inappropriate. And the constant specter of bad actors, rioters, and other troublemakers was constantly scouted for by the community as a whole.
While I don’t think this is specific to Milwaukee, the fact that it’s also nearly 40% black plays a major role in how the local community has coalesced around the movement.
However, it is also the most segregated metro in the nation. You can cross a couple of blocks and the transition is instantaneous and depressing. Both in terms of quality of life and the support (or angry retorts) you see from the people living there.
The lines of who is and is not a protester are thus thoroughly blurred. While not everyone has the energy to march along, families camped out along the path carry signs. Restaurants provide water, sunscreen, and snacks. The honking in support can reach cacophonous levels and people thread their way in and out of the movement continually.
And given the status of Milwaukee as the largest city in the state, solidarity movements with Kenosha, Madison, and the outer suburbs happen regularly. When Jason Blake was shot in Kenosha a car caravan was organized the next day to head south.
The style of protesting also has a community flavor unique to Milwaukee. Besides what we traditionally think of as adults marching side by side we also see children’s protests at the local police stations and organized Stands for Justice for those who don’t have the physical ability to keep pace. While I see a different kind of energy in the counter-protesters I believe this is the kind of diverse coalition that carries weight and has the ability to direct the course of this national conversation.