In one short week, George Floyd has become an internationally recognized name. His death at the hands of Minneapolis police has people marching in many cities, demanding racial equity and an end to violence by police.
Mars Cheese Castle, a multigenerational fixture along I-94 in Kenosha, posted "I can't breathe" on the store’s huge outdoor sign.
The sign is hard to miss. The words "Mars Cheese" rise to the sky from four giant posts west of the freeway. It’s meant to lure people to the roadside oasis featuring cheeses from around the state, baked goods, a pub and lots of gifts.
The sign has been there for decades, although it’s not as old as the business, which Michael Ventura’s grandparents founded in 1947.
In more recent years, an electronic message board was added to the sign. Normally it scrolls through daily specials or reminds people to "order your party tray today."
But last Sunday night, a single message blazed in the sky: "I can’t breathe."
Ventura says he and his two cousins who co-lead the family business felt they had to speak out about the injustice of George Floyd’s death.
“I watched some videos online from some members of the African American community urging people to watch the video of the death. As hard as it is to watch, and I’ll admit I didn’t want to see somebody die, but it’s our responsibility to know what’s going on, and to not turn a blind eye," Ventura says. "So I did that and I watched it as if he were a family member, and it was really tough to watch. And it like if you are human, that strikes a cord with you."
Ventura says he and his cousins wanted to do something to help the peaceful protest. He says, “And my cousin Natalie said, 'Why don’t we use the sign since we have it?' And we talked about it and we decided to choose the message that is at the epicenter of the tragedy."
Ventura says speaking out about the need to end violence by police fits with his family’s values.
“My grandparents taught those values to us that you respect your fellow human being, you treat them with dignity and respect, and that’s what that sign means to me,” he says.
Ventura says reactions to the “I can’t breathe” message have been numerous and overwhelmingly positive.
“We’ve had a couple hundred positive messages come through and three negative ones," he says. "And when I hear the negative ones, it’s so easy to interpret that as hate or racism, but what I hear is someone who doesn’t understand yet."
Ventura admits the statement came with risks. It came at a time when the Mars Cheese Castle is trying to rebuild foot traffic. The store just reopened last Friday, after being closed to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
“Typically we have a policy to stick to Mars business only, especially in today’s world where things are so tense — you say the slight wrong thing and your business it taken away from you … I have family members that could lose their jobs, I have employees that could lose their jobs,” Ventura adds, “But this issue really struck a cord with a lot of people, it struck a cord with us.”
He says the message was posted from 7 p.m. Sunday to 11 a.m. Monday.
“After that we took it down because we felt it had already, in that short amount of time , made such a big impact. Mission accomplished,” Ventura says.
He says now he’s focused on building business back up again by following his grandparents’ values — treating every customer like family.