Milwaukee’s Summer of Peace celebrated its tenth anniversary yesterday. Founded by Tanya Cromartie and Fidel Verdin it is geared toward the idea of ending urban violence and promoting peace in the lives of Milwaukee youths. Starting with a parade filled with colorful costumes, giant puppets, creative signs and floats, and celebratory music it culminated in a festival of creative arts at Washington Park.
For me the day was a mixture of sad reminders of the ever-present danger that comes with living in this country and the hope of peace brought to us by the young people who are the future.
Many of those in the parade held signs pleading for an end to labels and racial profiling. One of the floats featured a theme of the school to prison pipeline and several of the youths with that float wore cardboard boxes on their heads cut out to look like prison cells with notes on the sides indicating the reasons for incarceration (challenging authority and speaking up for oneself among them). This is the reality of urban life, particularly for the African-American, Latino, and Native American communities. According to University of Wisconsin sociology professor Pamela Oliver African-American citizens of the state are imprisoned at a rate eight times higher than whites. As a state we are responsible for imprisoning a generation of black youths. The marchers who held those signs in the parade did so knowing that they themselves could be profiled for speaking out, but did so because we need to hear the messages about this issue.
One of the most haunting aspects of the parade was a group of young people carrying gray-painted boxes with the letters R.I.P. upon them, representing victims of killings in the Washington Park and Sherman Park neighborhoods. At the end of the parade the boxes were set up on a hill in Washington Park in a makeshift cemetery and hand-made flowers were laid in front of each one. It was chilling, but in essence it was what the day was about–recognizing and remembering the reality of violence in our daily lives but working creatively and passionately to end it.
At one tent there was a peace treaty. Signers were asked to pledge themselves to be peacemakers in their families and communities and everyone was encouraged to sign. There was creativity on display everywhere on the grounds, from the giant puppets expertly maniuplated by young men and women to artwork to signs. Throughout the day young people took to the bandshell and entertained the crowd with song and dance, showing an incredible range of talent. The event was geared toward youth, but adult mentors from a wide variety of organizations were there to be present with and encourage the children. Milwaukee Common Council President Willie Hines took the time to talk to every young person who came up to him after he appeared on stage.
At one point I saw a middle-aged woman moving to the rhythm of the music on stage and took a photo of her dancing with herself in her seat. A short time later she came over and talked to me briefly. She told me she had never been to the event before but had heard about it on the radio and had gotten here a little late because they gave the wrong time. I told her a bit about the parade and what she had missed. Then, out of the blue, she told me she had a wreath with her. I wasn’t sure I had heard her correctly so I asked, “A wreath?” She confirmed that she had brought a wreath with her to honor a young man whose mother had just put him in the ground the day before after he was killed earlier in the week. I asked if I could see it, so she took me back to her seat. Before letting me take a picture of it she meticulously arranged it and she told me that the young man’s name was Jermaine Wright. He was a 32-year old man who had been shot and killed on Milwaukee’s north side during an argument outside a bar.
The wreath was hand-made in shades of red and blue around its circumference. It had blue flowers–they looked to be designed like carnations and bluebells–implanted in red ribbons at several points around it. At the top was a large red ribbon. Just to the left of that a white peace dove had been attached and on the right side of the wreath was a photograph of the young man. She kept it there on the bench, displayed for anyone to see and ask about, as a remembrance to another life lost too young. Her compassion and dedication to his memory were inspiring.
After chatting a little bit more I walked back up the hill past the makeshift cemetery where I saw children playing nearby. I turned back toward the bandshell. Above it were dark, ominous clouds coming ever closer. They seemed to be matching what I was feeling at that moment. But on the stage a little girl was starting to sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. I could see that there was sun behind the clouds and I knew that it was okay to leave with a promise in my heart to be a peacemaker in my life.