Yes, I am one of the protestors chanting the name of Dontre Hamilton. I have listened to voices of grief and frustration, prayed with strangers for peace and justice, and walked the streets of Milwaukee in hopes of raising awareness.
I have found most of the rhetoric surrounding the protest movement to be troubling. I have heard people on both sides oversimplify the problem in order to dodge the hard work of devising substantive solutions. Some protestors have insisted that all police are corrupt. Some people—including Chief Flynn—have suggested that the protestors have disingenuous motives and have exploited a family’s grief. Neither wide-sweeping claim is true.
Critics of the protest movement suggest that the focus on police accountability is misplaced and that the real issue is ongoing violence in communities. This too is an insidious oversimplification—when did we become a society full of people that can only support one issue? Support of one issue does not mean opposition to all other issues.
The Dontre Hamilton case is full of uncomfortable truths. Former Officer Manney did not go to Red Arrow Park intending to kill anyone and yet that is what happened. I have not heard anyone refute Chief Flynn’s claim that “bad tactics and bad decisions” unnecessarily escalated a fairly routine welfare check. We have laws to hold people accountable for poor decision-making that results in tragic consequences. Just yesterday, a grandmother was sentenced to prison time for her poor decision-making (not securing a handgun) that resulted in her grandson accidentally shooting himself.
There are many police officers who are highly effective at their jobs. I have great respect for the work that they do. They see the worst parts of society every single day and keep showing up to protect us, even when they know that they will never fully conquer the demons that haunt our city. I would hope that these officers, the majority, would demand more from their lesser brethren. One ineffective police officer greatly undermines the community’s trust in the entire police force.
I have seen the same negative phenomenon at work in my own field. I am a teacher and all it takes is one ineffective teacher to change how a student views education, how a family views a school, or how a community views a system. I can survive in a world that is filled with different situations that warrant different responses. Yes, I protested the passage of Act 10 and the gutting of workers’ rights and educational resources. And yes, I’ve reported grossly incompetent teachers to my superiors. I do not find these actions contradictory. Most of my life is focused on education—I value my profession enough to challenge it to continue moving forward so that we may offer a better service to our children.
Here is another uncomfortable truth: there are times when all of us—even when we have an abstract desire to do what is right—will choose a self-preserving silence rather than a self-jeopardizing action. I recognize that this is not an indictment of others but of myself. Sharing my truths, fears, and hopes is an exercise in courage. I need the practice because the allure of silence is always there. Still, I know my voice and my actions are the implements of my integrity.
Milwaukee is desperate for leaders who are willing to acknowledge that we have interconnected, complex problems that require well-designed solutions. Demonizing entire groups of people, oversimplifying problems, or avoiding conversations about real solutions only diminishes the credibility of our leadership.
Dontre’s story is forever connected with other issues. We should be talking about race in Milwaukee, the most segregated city in the nation. We should be talking about resources for the mentally ill. We should be talking about how to provide the Milwaukee Police Department with the financial resources they need (for example, it has been reported that body cams would cost an estimated $1 million). We should be talking about whether or not our laws have been created and applied fairly. We should be talking about how to better support families—with daycare, education, transportation, healthcare, and a living wage—so that one day they may have the security to stop worrying about their immediate family and start worrying about their neighbor.
These are not problems for the simple-minded. If your problem or solution has been whittled down to a sound bite, you’re missing the big picture. Milwaukee is not all that it could be. The protestors I’ve spoken to are motivated by a genuine desire for fairness and justice. These days of conflict should be the beginning of Milwaukee’s come-back story, the story of how we all found the humility to start building common ground.
I will continue to march in the streets because I expect more from Milwaukee. I will continue to march in the streets because I believe in the new hope that can only come from pain and strife. I will continue to march in the streets because I believe that all people have more courage, compassion, and conviction than they realize.
I will continue to show up for this work because I believe that Milwaukee’s best days are still to come.