Summer of Peace

The Peace Treaty. Those in attendance at the Summer of Peace event were asking to sign this and pledge to be peacemakers in their families and communities. Photo by Callen Harty.

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.

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About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Both are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he has been an actor, writer, and director since 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events.
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One Response to Summer of Peace

  1. SuzyMetta4 says:

    I saw you on the local news talking about organizing the vigil for the Sikhs. Thank you for doing that. It’s a perfect example of being a peace maker in your community.

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