Black 2020 Graduates Help Lead The Way In Milwaukee Civil Rights Protests
The school year ended with electronically filed assignments, Zoom classes, and virtual graduations, as 2020 grads move onto the next phase of life during a pandemic. And now, against the backdrop of these major life changes: some students are taking to the streets in mass demonstrations against racial inequality and police brutality.
An energized crowd assembled last week at the Young, Gifted and Black rally in the Sherman Park neighborhood. Ramaro Hopkins, 14, just graduated from Morse Middle School in Milwaukee. He was wearing a black shirt that read “sarcasm is one of my many talents.” But he shared no sarcasm when asked why he attended the protest.
"I’m out here because I am a Black young man out here in this community and I want to know if I'm gonna be next just cuz I'm walking down the street or I'm going to the store or I'm going to church — am I going to be next getting shot or getting killed by the police?" he queries.
Hopkins has one message.
"As a young person who's out here and who is dedicated to helping the community, I just want to let everybody know that it's OK for you to be Black and be amongst everybody else and don't feel ashamed of your skin color," he says. "Be bright! Shine! Your skin color is not a weapon. Black is beautiful."
One young woman taking that message to heart is 18-year-old Charmeka Wells. She just graduated from high school and is headed to UW-Milwaukee, where she plans to study to become a meteorologist.
"The shirt that I’m wearing, it says 'queen' on it, and it has a crown and it’s black, so I thought it would be a good representation of today because most of us were supposed to wear black," she says. "And after all, we are kings and queens, and so I am a Black queen!"
Wells was also carrying a homemade sign.
"It has some Michael Jackson quotes on there. And then it also has Hamilton references," she describes. "And then it has Black Lives Matter, and 'no justice, no peace.' And then it also has some of the victims’ names on there that were killed by police."
Wells says Black people have been fighting for a long time, and it seems like no one is hearing them. So, her generation is taking things into their own hands.
"My demands are one, students and schools should be treated fairly. And discipline shouldn't be stricter on students of color. Because, yeah, everybody supposed to be equal there, so all the discipline should be on all students," she says. "And then, also, another demand of mine is that we get justice for all people and police officers should be held accountable for their actions against African American people and other people as well."
Wells says if she sees injustice, she’s going to speak up about it. Other young graduates are glad people are finally speaking up about civil rights and drawing attention to the movement, including Eric Brown II. He just graduated from UW-Madison.
"We really need change in the police system," says Brown II. "Our black communities get policed way more heavily than any other community. That’s not right to begin with."
"The more educated we are, the more dangerous we are to the people that want to keep us down." - Eric Brown II
He says it's especially perplexing that this is still a problem in 2020.
"Dr. Martin Luther King marched all the way in the '60s. How come we’re still having these kinds of problems?" Brown asks.
Brown says he plans to go to grad school in order to affect change throughout his career. He recently applied to Auburn University, where he aims to get his master's degree in natural resource management. Brown hopes to work for a Department of Natural Resources, helping write policy for environmental change and justice.
"That’s my goal: to hopefully help make change to protect our environment and to protect our community and get clean air and clean water. Hopefully prevent situations like Flint, Michigan, happening in our areas," he explains.
Brown says his dad and mom always taught him that knowledge is power.
"They can't keep us down if we educate ourselves. So, the more educated we are, the more dangerous we are to the people that want to keep us down," he says.
Each of these young graduates is aiming to lead well beyond 2020.