The United States is at a crossroads in the fight for racial justice.

The May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis, along with the massive protests that have arisen across the nation in response, have a chance to spark real change or they could fade from memory like so many other moments of outrage against racist acts, according to social justice advocates in the Chippewa Valley.

What happens, they said, is up to all of us.

“We’re living in one of those turning points in history right now,” said Selika Ducksworth-Lawton, a professor of history and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at UW-Eau Claire. “It is both an interesting time and scary as heck.”

Ducksworth-Lawton, recognized as one the most influential black leaders in Wisconsin by the online magazine Madison365, has a long history of promoting social justice in the Chippewa Valley by consulting with the Eau Claire Police Department on racial bias issues and organizing annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Juneteenth events, and she seized the moment by speaking last week at Eau Claire protests and helping to pull together a virtual George Floyd vigil that attracted about 350 area residents.

She wants to do her part to ensure that a big opportunity for positive change doesn’t slip away.

“It has to be liberty and justice for all. It cannot be liberty and justice for some,” Ducksworth-Lawton said. “We need to stop acting as if certain groups don’t deserve equal justice.”

Another local African American activist, Jaylin Carlson, also has stepped up to speak at recent rallies in Eau Claire in hopes of getting more people to take lasting action against racist policies and systems.

To continue the antiracist momentum built up in the wake of Floyd’s death, people have to do more than show up at one protest or send a single donation to a group promoting social justice, stressed Carlson, an Eau Claire native and recent graduate of UW-Madison.

“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” Carlson said. “It’s a huge moment, but there have been several huge moments throughout our history. While there’s a big spark right now, I’m just hoping it doesn’t turn into a dim glow like it has in the past, with just the same people caring.”

To ensure the movement doesn’t fade away, people have to continue paying attention and caring about issues of racial justice even when it’s not a hot topic in the media, she said.

“The whole country is involved now, but at the end of the day they need to stay involved for the long haul,” Carlson said.

Ducksworth-Lawton said one of her big fears is that anarchists and white supremacist groups inciting violence at protests across the country could turn public sentiment against peaceful protesters demanding positive change.

“We risk losing George Floyd in the midst of this, and that’s what the people who want to divide us want,” she said.

Ways to help

Activists acknowledge that a lot of people were horrified by videos of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressing his knee to Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes until he died, and they may share some of the anger and frustration boiling over among protesters, but they don’t know what they can do to make a difference.

Some of that uncertainty came through in recent tweets by Eau Claire business leader Zach Halmstad, who called the tragedy in Minneapolis “heartbreaking but not surprising.”

“The murder of George Floyd at the hands of those sworn to protect him is not a new experience for America. We’ve been here before, and we will be here again and again until we as a society change,” tweeted Halmstad, a co-founder of Jamf and Pablo Foundation and a partner in Pablo Properties.

In an interview, Halmstad said the events in Minneapolis left him feeling “helpless and hopeful, angry and sad, and also somewhat complicit” for not doing everything he could in his life to fight racism. “It’s not enough to just not be racist; we have to be actively antiracist,” he said.

Activists said there are many ways people can lend their voice to the effort short of actually speaking at rallies or participating in marches, although those are powerful for people who can take such steps.

David Shih, an associate professor of English at UW-Eau Claire and president of the Chippewa Valley chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, advised everyone to do what they think is right, even if it’s uncomfortable.

“It starts with following your conscience and allowing yourself to become the person that racism needs you not to be,” Shih said. “This can be hard because there will be consequences for refusing to be silent at a time like this one. Relationships will be damaged, perhaps irrevocably. Some will face economic hardship or even threats of violence for speaking out against racism. But the culture of a community depends on its shared values, and we have to be clear and unequivocal about what those values are.”

Shih said the peaceful protests and vigils in the Chippewa Valley — together with the conversations they spark — are a step in the right direction.

One of the best ways for anyone to begin the journey of becoming an ally to those fighting racial injustice is through reading books, watching documentaries or listening to podcasts on the topic.

“If this is people’s first time waking up to the systematic oppression of not only black people, but other people of color, then education would be a great place to start,” she said.

Speaking up

Another step people can take is to start speaking up when they see examples of racism and having difficult conversations with loved ones, friends, co-workers and others, although Carlson recognizes that goes against an Eau Claire culture she described as being deeply rooted in “Midwest nice” and a “don’t stir the pot” mentality.

“You can be nice and still speak up for what you believe in,” she said. “We need to be bold and speak up to fight for those who are oppressed.”

It’s also important to call out unfair stereotypes, Ducksworth-Lawton said, noting that the majority of blacks aren’t criminals just like the majority of whites aren’t racists.

It’s also a good time, especially for white individuals, to listen to the experiences of people of color who have lived with the sting and fear associated with racism, activists said.

“As a white person, I have to confront my privilege,” the Rev. Julianne Lepp of Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Eau Claire, said in the virtual vigil last weekend. “I have to confront my own stake in this and understand that to be a part of the solution sometimes I have to step back and listen more than I speak.”

Lepp asked participants to “epitomize being allies and showing up for one another” so social justice activists don’t have to feel alone.

Several speakers at the online vigil also encouraged people to vote and to consider candidates’ records on racism when they go to the polls.

People interested in taking an even more active role in combating racism can join groups such as the ACLU, Southern Poverty Law Center, Opportunity Wisconsin or Uniting Bridges that push to preserve civil rights and end racial division, Ducksworth-Lawton said.

“Joining a local antiracist organization,” Shih added, “is a great way to learn from our neighbors about the different kinds of oppression happening in our own communities.”

Gov. Tony Evers addressed the challenge of ending systemic racism in a statement last week in which he pointed out that racism has never gone away but just manifested itself in different ways such as disparities in health outcomes, incarceration rates, wages and achievement gaps.

“There was no empathy or humanity in George Floyd’s death, but there must be empathy and humanity in our response to it,” Evers said. “We must see the trauma, fear, and exhaustion of being Black in our state and in our country. We must reject the efforts of those who seek to undermine and distract from the pain of generations of injustice. We must condemn all those who encourage violence against Black Lives. We must offer our compassion, we must offer our support, but most of all, we must offer our action.”

Taking action

Eau Claire small-business owner and social justice activist Serena Wagner has heeded the call to action.

She has devoted much of her time in the 13 days since Floyd’s death to collecting and delivering supplies for protesters and displaced families in Minneapolis, all while trying to practice social distancing and taking other precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Wagner personally has driven several carloads of supplies, ranging from food and clothing to diapers and fans, to the Twin Cities for distribution by churches, charitable organizations, businesses and individuals.

“Theorizing isn’t going to do any good right now. Action is,” Wagner said. “As a business owner, I have the time, the resources and the privilege on my side to contribute to the cause. It’s really not a choice for me. I feel it’s my moral obligation.”

Wagner also posted a call to action on Instagram that offered several suggestions about how local residents can help even while being safer at home because of concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.

In addition to recommendations made by other activists, Wagner suggested fact-checking all social media posts before sharing them, reaching out to friends of color and donating to local social justice groups such as Black Male Empowerment, Chippewa Valley EXPO, the Eau Claire Area Hmong Mutual Assistance Association, El Centro de Conexión de Chippewa Valley and Feed My People Food Bank.

Likewise, Halmstad, whose organizations already have a history of trying to be antiracist, pledged to do more and to attempt to use any personal influence he has to help drive that conversation.

Already, The Lismore Hotel in downtown Eau Claire has been offering lodging for people displaced because of the protests and is serving as a drop-off site for supplies for protesters and displaced folks in Minneapolis. While he doesn’t want to alienate any potential customers who might not approve, he vowed to continue such efforts, saying people’s silence because of their fear of upsetting anyone is part of the problem.

To that end, Carlson said, the success of the movement will depend on individuals taking action.

“If you want to see the world be more about love and trust than hate and fear, then step up and do it,” Carlson said. “If you feel you’re ready for change, then you need to step up and be an agent of change.”