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Black Lives Matter protest gathers crowd of more than 60 in downtown Portage
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Black Lives Matter protest gathers crowd of more than 60 in downtown Portage

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It started with just a few people, but grew to more than 60 during the first hour of the Black Lives Matter protest Friday outside of the Columbia County Courthouse in Portage.

For one of the organizers, Mykiah Schumann, of Pardeeville, the need to raise awareness of racist thoughts and behaviors is paramount in small cities like Portage and the small town of Poynette, where she grew up.

“I think it’s important, especially in Portage, to do this because it’s predominantly white here,” Schumann said. “These people, you don’t have to really think about what’s going on in the world because it’s not your everyday reality.”

The sound of car horns filled the air intermittently as drivers reacted to a nearby “Honk to end police brutality” sign, some flashing peace signs while others raised fists in solidarity or waved at the growing group. One driver yelled “Go home” as he passed, another shouting “All Lives Matter” in response to racial justice advocates’ message calling for the end of deaths of black Americans at the hands of law enforcement or private citizens who view African Americans as inherently dangerous.

“A lot of people will be racist and then just write it off as if it’s a joke,” Schumann said. “That’s my main experience in a small town.”

As the protest began, Schumann placed handmade posters along the grass near the sidewalk where protesters held signs and chanted. The displays showed a photo of a black American who died without the murderer being found guilty in a trial, like Trayvon Martin, Philando Castilo and Michael Brown. On the backs of some of the signs, quotes like “I can’t breathe” and “I don’t have a gun, stop shooting” memorialize their final words.

“It’s important to talk about their lives too, so we humanize them,” Schumann said. “I feel, a lot of times, we just write them off as news stories or statistics and that’s it. You don’t really feel connected to them.”

Ellen Ciezadlo, of Westfield, showed the posters to Lillian Ciezadlo, 3, when they showed up for the demonstration.

“We live in an all-white community and I feel like she needs to be exposed to diversity and see racial injustice,” Ciezadlo said. “I feel it’s my responsibility to help her do that.”

A group of three friends — Schumann and Lydia Biehl and Taylor Winiecki, of Portage — organized the protest. Winiecki and Biehl talked in advance to local law enforcement about their peaceful intent. As the protest began around noon, Portage Police Chief Keith Klafke and Columbia County Sheriff Roger Brandner joined the group, Klafke holding a “Black Lives Matter” sign at his leg that Winiecki asked him to hold as he paced among the group, talking to protesters. The officers left shortly after they arrived as one of the protesters spoke out against their presence, saying he would leave and come back once the police had gone.

Law enforcement in Portage and Columbia County support peaceful protests; local looting only a rumor

Police became more prominent after an hour passed and the size of the group expanded. Protesters took to DeWitt Street as they marched while officers shut down portions of downtown to accommodate the demonstration. The protest lasted more than six hours. Winiecki said law enforcement even protected demonstrators as they laid down in protest on the street for 9 minutes, marking the time George Floyd was on the ground as an officer knelt on the back of his neck.

One of the protesters, Portage resident Tazia Mills, said she was there because of her children; her oldest is 8, she said.

“I have black sons and I wouldn’t want them to get gunned down just because they’re black,” Mills said. “It’s become a new normal for them to just profile you on your skin color instead of the severity of the crime and more black people are coming up dead because of it. I’d rather not my kids be one of those.”

Winiecki said the news of George Floyd’s death in police custody after a Minneapolis police officers knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes prompted her to do more than use social media to raise awareness of societal inequities.

At 17, she said her mom said she was too young to protest in Madison. So she decided to host a protest in her hometown.

“Obviously Portage, Wisconsin isn’t going to make a change on their own, but standing next to everybody else, we’re going to make a change,” Winiecki said, adding she is hopeful the protest will make a difference locally. “I don’t know if this little town is going to do a whole lot, but I’m going to be put in my effort to, no matter what.”

Schumann said they want to bring attention to racial justice and “let people know this is going on everywhere.”

Mills echoed the hope that a protest could bring “some type of justice,” because the death of unarmed black men continues at an alarming rate, she said.

“I think it happens everywhere,” Mills said. “I think people are just oblivious to the fact that it does happen everywhere.”

A notable effect of posting the event on social media and inviting others to join was the negative comments.

“We’ve gotten a lot of people telling us, ‘Keep it in Minneapolis,’ or ‘Go protest in Minnesota,’ which makes no sense because this happens around the country and around the world,” Winecki said. “Everyone is claiming we’re trying to take the day away from the Portage graduation, which is not true at all.”

All high school graduates, they simply organized the time of the protest around six peoples’ work schedules.

“I’m tired of those negative opinions trying to break us down,” Winiecki said. “A lot of just, ‘Go protest somewhere else, we don’t need this in a small town, this is going to end badly.’”

But for both Winiecki and Biehl, that mindset proved to be even more of a motivator to hold the protest.

“People are fighting us, but that’s more of a reason to do this,” Biehl said. “We’re accepting the backlash, but that’s okay, because if we can at least change a couple of people’s minds, that’s the goal.”

Follow Bridget on Twitter @cookebridget or contact her at 608-745-3513.

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