The Madison to Ferguson rally started with a gathering in front of the Dane County Public Safety Building on 115 W. Doty St.
On Tuesday evening, a group of several hundred people rallied in downtown Madison in response to non-indictment of the Ferguson police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown. The crowd was diverse, in both age and race. The rally started at the Dane County Public Safety Building, where it was met by a second group of marchers coming from the UW campus, and proceeded to loop around the Capitol before concluding at the City-County Building.
As the march reached the steps of city hall, Dane County Supv. Leland Pan stepped up to the megaphone to thank the group for putting pressure on the county board.
"I want you to hold us accountable," he said.
I've been to my fair share of Madison rallies and protests where policy makers have spoken, but Pan's words had a key difference -- he said "us." Normally, speakers say things like "make my fellow legislators listen" or "the other members of this board need to hear this," as though those policy makers were somehow outside of the system that they served.
Pan's statement acknowledged that he was within the system. We are all within the system.
Marching around a Capitol lawn covered in snow, watching people in oversized coats shiver as they hold up a sign -- it evoked memories of a somewhat recent round of organized civil disobedience in Madison. But this was different.
Protests often get knocked for being disorganized. The organizers of the Madison to Ferguson rally, though, named the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition, offered specific policy goals for here in Dane County: stop the construction of a very expensive new county jail, invest funding for that into community programs, and release persons jailed for crimes of poverty.
While the organizers were focused on stopping a new Dane County jail, other attendees held signs advocating for equal educational opportunities, body cameras for police and the need for more jobs. Those issues may seem separate, but they all have the same underlying cause: poverty, and a system that is set up to help certain people win and certain people lose.
This is the same system that Leland Pan acknowledged he works within. No one accused Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney of being racist for pushing for a new jail, but noted that he works in a system that encourages imprisoning black and brown people.
As organizer Eric Upchurch stated several times, Wisconsin has the worst racial disparities for incarceration in the nation, while Dane County’s poverty gap between black and white residents is huge and the graduation rate for black students in the Madison Metropolitan School District is abysmal. Those facts are more than statistics -- they are tens of thousands of individual examples in which our society has failed communities of color.
That's what many people who have never been a victim of that system don't realize. That's why they wonder how the killings of Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin provokes such a response. These aren't isolated incidents, they are national symbols for all of our racial and economic injustices, for all of the young men who lose their lives, or at least their freedom, to poverty and mass incarceration.
We have reverted to a situation in which a huge percentage of Americans cannot trust in the services established to maintain the public good.
There are many people in Dane County who recognize this problem. However, the instinct for some of these folks is to do what Madison loves to do -- have discussions, and hold committee meetings about the matter. But those are approaches for making reforms within the system; they address minor elements whereas the attendees of Tuesday's rally want structural change.
As Upchurch declared: "We are tired of community conversations, we want action and change."
Are Dane County residents ready to do what needs to be done to work on these problems? I'm not sure, but there were encouraging signs. After the last speaker spoke at the City-County Building, around half of the demonstrators moved inside to sit in at the Dane County Public Protection & Judiciary Committee meeting.
As people started to walk in the building, I overheard a couple of those college-aged attendees who had joined the rally.
"Should we go in?" one asked.
The reply was direct: "Yeah, we need to."