Marquette BLM protesters work to voice injustices

NO JUSTICE NO PEACE: Black Lives Matter protesters stand across from the Marquette County Field Office of the Michigan Republican Party to demand police reform and an end to racial inequality. Left to right: Camry Todd, Brianna Powell, Hannah Powell, Simeon Higgins, Jax Andrés, Ben Prickle, Josie Steed, Fred Sims, Sarah Skinner. Katarina Rothhorn/NW

NO JUSTICE NO PEACE: Black Lives Matter protesters stand across from the Marquette County Field Office of the Michigan Republican Party to demand police reform and an end to racial inequality. Left to right: Camry Todd, Brianna Powell, Hannah Powell, Simeon Higgins, Jax Andrés, Ben Prickle, Josie Steed, Fred Sims, Sarah Skinner. Katarina Rothhorn/NW

Katarina Rothhorn

At 5 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 21, as restaurants prepared for the evening rush and families headed home after a long day, Simeon Higgins, a senior business management major, danced on the curb of Washington Street. 

“I love to spread kindness and want everyone to feel like themself around me,” Higgins said. “I like to just be as silly and goofy as I can because that’s a huge representation of who I am as a person.”

But even while Higgins was dancing and spreading kindness, he was also on the street protesting for Black lives.

He was surrounded by nearly 15 other people holding signs and chanting “Black is beautiful” and “no justice, no peace” over the drone of car engines and anti-Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters across the street. 

“I’m here to support my life,” Higgins said. “I believe I matter, you know what I mean? I’m Black so I’m here to support as much as I can. I got to.” 

Higgins said he grew up as a mixed-race child of a single mother, which was not always easy but taught him a lot about who he wants to be.

“It always was kind of hard … my whole life, what my mom taught me is to treat the other person how you would treat yourself; don’t treat anybody else lower than you. And I wouldn’t want nobody else to treat me any bit lower. I deserve respect as anybody else,” Higgins said.

Higgins is from a predominantly Black community in Racine, Wisconsin, where he lived before moving to Marquette for college. 

“I didn’t know the community was like this before coming up here. I’m originally from Milwaukee and it’s a huge Black community there, and I rarely see that many white people, especially people like that fighting like that. It’s really a different change of environment, to be honest,” Higgins said. “I’m the only Black male in my family to ever make it to college. I got dead brothers. I got brothers with babies. I got sisters with babies. And I chose to further my education. I wanted to do this … I wanted to go out of my way to show people like that, that I can be just as good as anybody else.” 

He waved his hand across the street to indicate the All Lives Matter anti-BLM protesters, who had arrived before the BLM protest had even started.

Sharing the Space With All Lives Matter

Protest organizer Sarah Skinner said she never intended for there to be anti-BLM protesters at the event, but she wasn’t mad they were there. At the height of the protest, there were about a dozen anti-BLM protesters and around 15 BLM protesters. 

Many of the BLM protesters carried signs that read, “white silence = violence”, “No Justice, No Peace” and “We’re Not Trying to Start A Race War, We’re Trying to END one.” Many of the All Lives Matter protesters carried signs reading, “All Lives Matter” and “Trump 2020.”

“There was one guy who was really pushy with his sign and that definitely got me worked up, but I just had to keep reminding myself that they want us to get upset,” Skinner said. “I just kept trying to remind people to ignore them. They had a right to be out there just like we did.”

IN THE STREET: Sarah Skinner (left) stands in front of the Marquette County Field Office of the Michigan Republican Party behind an anti-BLM protester. The BLM protest moved to the opposite side of the street 20 minutes into the protest to avoid anti-BLM protesters. Katarina Rothhorn/NW

Skinner decided to organize the event after she noticed protests against police brutality slowing down in Marquette. After George Floyd’s death on May 25, consistent protests for racial justice took place on the streets in Marquette. Skinner had attended those protests but decided it was time to organize her own after she felt the frequency of protests had declined.

“We just need to get back out there,” Skinner said. “So I went on Facebook and created the event.”

The event was scheduled from 4 to 6 p.m. in front of the Marquette County Field Office of the Michigan Republican Party on Washington Street. She wanted to pick a time and location when most businesses would be open and their demands would be seen. 

The protests were calm for most of the two hours, but at 4:24 p.m., police were called to ensure social distance measures were being followed. 

Social Justice For Us

“They don’t want to see the justice reform, and more specifically the police reform. They’re afraid of those changes and I can see why they would fight us. When you’re scared, you fight,” Skinner said of the anti-BLM protesters. “But at the same time I knew we were there for something more important and at the end of the day, all they could do was yell and push me with their sign. They’re not going to stop me from fighting for a better future for my daughter.”

Skinner, who has a nearly 4-year-old daughter, started becoming an active member of BLM shortly after the death of George Floyd to protest police brutality, but also to build a better future for her daughter.

“I remember thinking, why aren’t we in the streets? Why aren’t we screaming for justice?” Skinner said. “As a mother with a child with African ancestry, I can’t, in good conscience, just not say anything … I can’t just sit at home.” 

She invited her friend and Executive Director of Social Justice For Us, Fred Sims, to join the protest and reminded people on Facebook to protest while practicing social distancing due to COVID-19. He spread the message on the SJFU Facebook page as well and was one of the first people to arrive at the protest.

“I’ve held other protests and other events in this community and stuff like that so when Sarah invited me, I just felt like it was important for me to go,” Sims said. “I always feel like I’m the one organizing things so it’s nice for me to be able to go and support.”

SJFU is a community organization that was created after the death of George Floyd and provided a platform for racial awareness and education in Marquette. This has been especially important after the police shooting of Jacob Blake on Aug. 23 in Kenosha, Wisconsin, led to numerous protests and yet more demands for police reform in America.

“I don’t think there’s ever been an organization like this and I think it’s very important for this community especially to have an organization like this,” Sims said. “We need to not only support the BIPOC community but also understand them and fully give them what they need and deserve.” 

SJFU has not only hosted protests in the Marquette area but has organized children’s book readings, a white fragility book reading, conversations with the Marquette police department and is preparing to host a new Systemic Issue On Tap series in September. The first event in this series is scheduled to focus on the Indigenous community. 

Motivation to Protest

Josie Steed, a junior studying medicinal plant chemistry, saw the Black Lives Matter protest on the SJFU Facebook page and felt it was important to show up. She encouraged friends to go and printed a flyer advocating for the release of Michael Thompson from prison that she distributed at the protest. 

“I started [protesting] in 2018 or 2019 with just police brutality protests,” Steed said. “We would come out every Sunday, like three or four of us on the corner here and I’ve been doing it ever since but more so lately with the movement.”

It was through Steed that Higgins found out about the protest. He immediately agreed to go with her and agreed that it was important for them to continue protesting racial injustices.

“I just hope as much as I can that people would not be racist,” Higgins said. “People could understand that differences are what make us people. They’re what make us human. If the thing is, everybody in this room has something different than everybody else, then why does me being Black have anything to do with whatever your problem is? I’m going about my day doing what I have to do, you know what I mean?” 

Racism is something Higgins has been combating his whole life. This is not a new fight for him. Even as he continues to fight his own battles and prepares to graduate from college, he continues to help promote awareness of the prevalence of racism in Marquette and the country.

“I think a lot of people are like ‘oh, it doesn’t exist here. There’s no police shootings here in Marquette.’ That’s very true … but we also have a voice in America. We are a small town that a lot of different cities and communities come to,” Sims said. “I don’t think people realize that I am an individual standing among other individuals behind the scenes. We’re a team of 25 people. If 25 people can inspire other people to want and believe in change, why can’t the rest of Marquette do it for the world?” 

This sense of empowerment is not only felt by the leaders of the movement but is shared with those who attend the protests.

“Right now, if anything, I feel empowered,” Higgins said. “I know my mother proud of me, my grandma proud of me, all my ancestors. I bet you they’d be happy as hell that I’m out here because it is a sick world we live in to this day.”