Friday was Juneteenth Day, which marks when the last slaves in Galveston, Texas learned in 1865 that slavery had been abolished.
There were a number of gatherings and celebrations in Milwaukee. And they took on special meaning in a period of civil rights demonstrations that have sprouted up across the country.
One Milwaukee march began at Sojourner Family Peace Center at 6th and Walnut streets.
Hours before marchers appeared, MaryLou Lamonda and a friend set out refillable water bottles. Lamonda is a cofounder of Plastic-Free MKE.
“Some of us got involved in the protest and we were seeing a lot of single-use plastic, which we understand we have to keep people hydrated ... But I was like, ‘OK there’s gotta be a solution,' ” Lamonda says.
Lamonda reached out on Facebook and 24 hours later, to her amazement, she had raised over $2,000. She raced around the Milwaukee area buying up as many BPA-free water bottles she could lay her hands on and ordered huge jugs — 100 gallons of water total — to fill them for marchers and refill them along the way, thanks to volunteers on bikes.
Lamonda cares about curbing the amount of plastic that pollutes our world but is equally passionate about environmental justice.
“My point of view is, the way we treat the earth as ‘disposable’ is a lot of ways that we've treated our brown and Black folks in America starting right from day one when white folks took land from Native Americans and also decimated many native people and it continued on with them bringing Africans to this country,” Lamonda says. “I feel like we’ve really treated our land and our people that made this country in the same way.”
Nearby, Kamila Simmone Ahmed was surrounded by a cluster of fellow organizers.
“This is the first time I've organized anything,” she says.
The 28-year-old didn’t have environmental justice on her mind when she got to thinking about Juneteenth Day 2020. As a kid, Ahmed says each summer the celebration meant a lot to her.
“We started organizing this about two weeks ago, after about a week and a half of being out marching with other folks and seeing how impactful it was ... on the country thus far. And us Black women and nonbinary folks and non-men got together and decided, let’s do something,” Ahmed says.
Everyone, she says, deserves to have their voices heard.
“So that we can bring more attention to the things that are affecting us well. Mainly, the number of Black trans women that have been murdered and/or abused by police. The number of Black women that have gone missing and have been victim to police violence as well, and also the fact that Black women have been here on the front lines pretty for the good majority of our fight,” Ahmed continues. “Sometimes it feels like we’re not being heard as much and people aren’t really paying attention to us and we’re kind of like an afterthought.”
Ahmed says she was also marching out of concern for the future of her 6- and nearly 10-year-old sons.
“They should be able to live their lives and not have everyone else’s impending fear and doom put onto them because of who they are. They deserve equal rights and equal justice in this country," Ahmed says.
Tables were being set up around us – snacks and such being hauled in. Jackie King brought jug upon jug of water.
Jackie King, owner of Clear & Freshwater, was delivering drinking water in giant jugs and had two more Juneteenth event deliveries ahead of her. She's been thinking about the events that led to marches and protests in Milwaukee and around the country. King reluctantly says she’s not surprised.
“This has been my life. I have been Black my entire life, so my parents, my family, I’ve witnessed myself a lot of discrimination and racism. So, this is not surprising to me. However, it's just really sad to say that at this day and time that we are still dealing with issues that my dad talked about when I was a kid,” King says.
King’s been thinking about solutions too.
“It’s about humanity. Classism, racism, sexism — all of these different things that keep us so divided needs to stop. It’s not just one group. I think every person needs to look in the mirror — no matter who you are or what you are. I have to look in the mirror and say when I look at somebody that does not look like me, that does not live where I live — do I judge them by that or do I treat them as a human?” King says.
A few hours later several hundred people — a cascade of ages, colors and sexual orientations — fill the street in front of Sojourner Family Peace Center.
All 225 refillable water bottles distributed, and fledgling march organizer Kamila Simmone Ahmed has found her voice.
A Juneteenth Day like none other before it steps out into a Milwaukee no one has seen before.