Kewaunee, 96% white, joins small towns with Black Lives Matter events on Juneteenth
KEWAUNEE – This small city on the Lake Michigan shoreline is 96% white while just 0.1% of residents identify as Black, and those statistics are mirrored across Kewaunee County.
But local demographics didn't stop Savannah Gardner from organizing a Black Lives Matter protest Friday on Juneteenth, a celebration of the day in 1865 when U.S. forces ordered that slaves in Texas be freed to abide by the Emancipation Proclamation.
It was the third straight Friday afternoon Gardner had led such an event alongside State 42 in Harbor Park, marking Kewaunee one of a number of small, mostly white communities across Wisconsin holding protests and rallies.
For Gardner, a Kewaunee High School graduate and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee senior when school resumes, those are the communities where it's important to raise awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement and the issues behind it.
"It felt like the right thing to do at the right time," she said. "This is where conversation should be had about racial injustice, systemic racism. People here weren't as concerned because it's more white, not as diverse."
A half-dozen people joined Gardner in the mid-afternoon heat, holding signs that said "Liberty & Justice 4 All" and "Honk 4 Justice," among other slogans. Earlier in the rally, state Rep. Amanda Stuck and Assembly candidate Kim Jensen were on hand to lend support. Gardner said the first protest drew about 20 people, last week's about a dozen, with people coming and going as the events ran from noon to 6 p.m.
One of those protesters was Joanne Lazansky of Kewaunee, holding a sign with a Martin Luther King Jr. quote. Lazansky said she's been protesting about Black issues for over 50 years in places like Denver and Madison, and many of those issues remain today. The Memorial Day death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis isn't the only reason for the protests, she said, but is "the tip of the iceberg."
"I know people who are Black," Lazansky said, "and I can't imagine what their life is like when they get up and their normal is not our normal. Some think this is only about George Floyd, but that was just the breaking point."
Another was Megan Kuehl, who was holding the "Honk 4 Justice" sign next to her mother, Renee Kuehl, both of Kewaunee. Megan Kuehl said she has Black students in the classes she teaches at Lakeshore Technical College in Manitowoc County, and she agreed that awareness of the issues needs to be raised in small towns regardless of their diversity.
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Gardner said people come up to them at the protests, which is when the conversations about Black life issues take place. Most encounters have been with people who disagreed with the group, but that's a large part of the reason for the demonstrations, she said, to educate people about African American issues in today's world.
"I think they all leave just better informed," Gardner said. "Most of the people coming up to us are of opposing beliefs, but we had good conversations, getting to learn each other's perspectives."
"I'm truly interested in developing a deeper understanding of how people in Kewaunee see this," said Lea Pellett, a summer resident of the city.
Trying to help with the conversation and education, Gardner set up a book exchange table, featuring adult and children's works by Black authors that related the African American experience. The books were free, and Gardner encouraged people to drop off books at future protests for others to read.
Gardner, who is white, said she educated herself on the issues.
"It really has been through talking to people," she said. "Our learning historically has been pretty whitewashed, very Americanized. (This is) really about seeing the other side. I never can fully understand that experience, but I can learn as much as I can about it."
Most people driving by on State 42 indicated support, although some ridiculed the protesters. One driver leaned out a window to yell, "Go home!"
"About 80% positive," Gardner said. "The 'Honk 4 Justice' sign gets a lot of honks. There have been a lot of racial slurs, Confederate flags. But it's great to see the positive reactions."
After riots and looting broke out during or after other cities' protests since Floyd's death, Kewaunee Police Chief James Kleiman Jr. met with Gardner to talk about the protest she was planning. Gardner said osme local business owners were concerned that violence might break out at the first one, but she said the police maintained a presence throughout and everything remained peaceful.
Gardner plans to hold a weekly protest through the summer, although she wants to move the day to Saturdays to hopefully draw more young people. However, she's happy the events have gone well and that people are showing their support, even if just by honking their car horns.
"I had zero expectations going into it," Gardner said. "That's why the support was definitely surprising. The bad was expected, so the good was very appreciated."
Contact Christopher Clough at 920-741-7952, 920-562-8900 or [email protected].
This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: Kewaunee, 96% white, joins small towns with Black Lives Matter events on Juneteenth