Hundreds of peaceful protesters marched down Sun Prairie’s Main Street Wednesday afternoon June 3, angered over the May 25 death of George Floyd, calling for a change in police treatment of African Americans and equality.
Jerry Hughes, a black Sun Prairie student, organized the protest on Snapchat after seeing people across the United States march and riot after Floyd’s death.
The protest came near the end of the two months Stay at Home order, to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, that closed businesses, left people without jobs, and moved schools online creating upheaval in almost every American’s life.
Heading down the miles-long stretch from The Element at Main apartment complex to Sun Prairie City Hall, protesters drew sympathy from bystanders who handed out water, pizza, and motorists who honked their horns.
Hughes spoke to the protesters as they ended the march at City Hall.
“I am so proud of all of you here,” Hughes said. “We all need to come together as one—everybody— and do what we can. We can do all this hooting and hollering, but what is that going to do —you all need to start with yourself, change yourself, love yourself.”
Protesters held up “Black Lives Matter” and “Please, I can’t breathe” signs, the words that Floyd said as Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin pinned him to the ground. Chauvin, who is white, and three other officers have been charged in Floyd’s death.
“George Floyd could not breathe, and if he can’t breathe, we can’t breathe until we all do something about it,” one protestor said at the end of the Sun Prairie march.
Sun Prairie Police Chief Mike Steffes and several offer police officers joined protesters Wednesday, condemning the actions of Minneapolis police in Floyd’s death. Chauvin was videotaped kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes before he died.
“What happened in Minneapolis with George Floyd was an absolute tragedy and it never should have happened,” Steffes said. “That is not anything that we teach in our state.”
Steffes said the incident has been discussed at SPPD roll call and some police officers decided to walk with protesters to show support.
“Our hearts go out to the family of George Floyd and all the citizens impacted by this,” Steffes said.
City of Sun Prairie leaders on Tuesday announced a “Restore the Right to Breathe” plan to bring together community members to discuss solutions to racism, inequality and other issues. The first is a June 10 virtual Know Your Rights workshop.
The afternoon Sun Prairie protest was peaceful—a sharp contrast to the multiple night riots in Madison where a police squad car was set on fire and people looted and damaged stores on State Street. Several downtown Sun Prairie business owners, anticipating the June 3 protest, had boarded up their shop window, with some showing messages of support to protesters.
At the end of the Sun Prairie march, protesters gathered at Cannery Square and shared stories of racism, including one woman with two kids in the Sun Prairie schools. She said they were bullied and called the Sun Prairie School system, “a broken place for black people.”
She urged white people to speak up against racism and inequality.
The Sun Prairie Area School District didn’t comment on the June 3 protest but last week SPASD Superintendent Brad Saron and School Board President Steve Schroeder released a statement expressing anger, frustration, and sadness over the death of George Floyd and asking for an end to racism in the Sun Prairie community.
Mayor Paul Esser, who walked with protesters, spoke at the end of the march about inequalities and urged people to get involved.
“You have got to get out and vote because that is where permanent change is going to come,” Esser said. “People can hear us today, but in two weeks, they are not going to hear us anymore, so we need people on the city council and to be at the table and say that this has got to change,” said Esser, who has promoted diversity in government during his two-year term as mayor.
Hughes said he planned to follow up the protest with other events to focus on issues in the African-American community.
“I just want equality,” he said. “I want to see all the kids get the same opportunity and get the same penalties.”