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Black leaders call for community voices to be heard

Attorney Verona Swanigan, organizer Corey Kirkwood and Craig Stingley, father of Corey Stingley, stand together before Monday’s press conference at the District 5 Police Station.

Community leaders and members, organizers, activists — accompanied by a number of local, state and county politicians — held a press conference Monday afternoon at the District 5 Police Station calling for the City of Milwaukee and the Milwaukee Police Department to support protesters in exercising their fundamental right to freedom of speech.

The event was planned by local organizers — Khalil Coleman and Corey Kirkwood — who police had, reportedly, been searching for, with the intent of turning themselves in. Wisconsin State Senator Lena Taylor, former supervisor and State Representative David Bowen, Alderman Ashanti Hamilton and Alderwoman Milele Coggs were also in attendance.

There were no arrests made, as the police alerted Attorney Verona Swanigan, who is representing some of the protesters, that they would conduct further investigation before taking any action.

“It is not that they have a, ‘go home, we’re gonna leave you alone card’ — it is that, ‘we are going to do further investigation and we’ll think about it after the holidays.’” Swanigan said. “It is our position that there’s nothing to think about. There’s nothing to think about when it comes to someone asserting their rights. Now, if you can show me some evidence that they actually committed a crime, then, fine, maybe we can talk about it. But, until then, all [Coleman has] done is assert his rights to freedom of speech. If all he’s done is peacefully made people aware of his frustration in life, that all black men and women are facing on a daily basis, then I see no crime.”

Senator Taylor spoke of defending First Amendment rights and the need for leaders in the city to acknowledge the real issues. “There is no question that the fundamental right of freedom of speech is crucial,” she said. “There is no question that, in this city, there has been no protest that has been anything other than peaceful. We need to respect the fact that our system is broken — we lead, in the nation, in incarceration of African-American men. It is because of our policies, it is because of poverty and a lack of opportunity; it is not because Khalil Coleman, or any other person, is the problem.”

Swanigan, who is a member of the National Bar Association and licensed in five states, including Wisconsin, echoed Taylor. “We have a right to the freedom of speech — it is one of the most fundamental American rights that we have. And, if we are not going to allow every citizen — black, white, yellow, green, purple; I don’t care the color — to assert it, we are no longer America.”

She noted that herself and others, nationwide, have been working on legislation to address issues surrounding the recent rash of killings by police, including the use of body cameras and addressing racial profiling in police departments. However, Swanigan also called on elected officials to listen to the calls for change.

“Politicians should step forward,” she said, “and actually listen to [the protesters], heed their issues and make a difference. If we are not going to do that I do not know why you are in office.”

“There are no charges … there is not enough clarity”

Reports surfaced that Milwaukee police were looking for three organizers — Coleman, Kirkwood and one other — in the aftermath of protests held in Milwaukee’s central city, near 27th and Burleigh, Friday night. There was no coverage of the marching by any of Milwaukee’s major news outlets but all reports from the ground point to yet another peaceful demonstration.

The absence of any formal, concrete charges by the police department caused some to question the legitimacy of the department’s search.

Expounding on the matter, Senator Taylor said, “The truth of the matter is, first of all, there are no charges. The issue was for them to turn themselves in for them to be processed while they continue to investigate, have a time with the DA for the DA to determine whether or not there’d be charges. So, that, now, is not happening. The issue that is a greater issue is: if protesters have been peaceful and if there is a real issue that exists in our system and if the only way that people have been heard is through the protests, why, then, must we punish the protester? That is the issue that, really, we need to get to the root of. And, what do we do to create a communication system so that people don’t have to protest in order to be heard? That is the real issue — that’s a systemic issue that exists in Milwaukee … of whether or not we actually include … the majority of people who make up the city in the decisions.”

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Angela Jones, a community member who spoke at the event, touched on the lack of communication between community and city leadership. “The lack of transparency exhibited speaks volumes to the distrust created between community members and those who have been assigned to protect and serve us. But, instead of viable solutions to the profound problems in our criminal justice system and improving police practices and regulations, MPD has, instead, focused their attention on subduing and intimidating protesters and journalists who have refused to remain silent on speaking against racial disparities exhibited within Wisconsin’s criminal justice system,” she said, stating that there would be “no business as usual” until those being marginalized are treated with the humanity they deserve.

“The people that you see standing behind us have been partners,” said Alderman Hamilton of the organizers and others in attendance, challenging city leadership to recognize them as such.

“They’ve been partners in trying to set up different zones, throughout the city, in some of our most challenges areas and, then, putting forth community-empowered initiatives that would allow for the community to help solve some of their own problems. And, so, in order to do that, though—in order to do that, we have to be able to recognize that we have partners out there that you have not, traditionally, partnered with.”

 

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