Report from Milwaukee on recent solidarity actions with the #PrisonStrike and the ongoing campaign to #CLOSEmsdf.
Under the looming shadows of both the Milwaukee County Jail and the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility (MSDF), supporters gathered Thursday morning on what we’ve now dubbed, “Milwaukee’s Grassy Knoll” (the southwest corner of 10th and State Streets). There we staged a daylong series of events aimed to shed light (literally!) on the upcoming prison strike and the #CLOSEmsdf campaign.
Our key strategies for communicating our message to the general public were through print materials, large banners, yard signs, LED letter-boards, and megaphones. We attempted (but cannot confirm success) to communicate to the currently incarcerated public within the two surrounding buildings using a rented PA system with dual 15″ speakers, a plethora of noisemakers, and a 750watt ellipsoidal spotlight shined directly on the prisons, themselves. Here’s how the day went.
Setup began with Phase 1 and the placement of four large banners along the State St bridge passing over the I-43 corridor in downtown Milwaukee. The banners read “END SLAVERY #AUGUST21”, and “FIRE TO THE PRISONS!” among other things. With several members of the media present, supporters lined the intersection corner with yard signs bearing the words “NATIONWIDE PRISON STRIKE|AUG 21 – SEP 9 — CLOSEmsdf.org” in large print and the contact information for the Milwaukee IWW along the signs’ bottom edge. Fliers listing the national demands and promoting the local #CLOSEmsdf campaign to shut down the inhumane facility were given to passersby, to cars stopped at the intersection lights, and to courthouse employees as they came and went from their jobs. Other volunteers collected signatures from new supporters in favor of shutting down MSDF and passed out schedules of upcoming events to keep people plugged in.
When a good crowd had gathered, several members of the community gave speeches about the effect the MSDF has had, and continues to have, on their lives. One individual explained the horrible conditions, decline in health services, and absence of resources within the prison system, while also sharing her family’s daily struggle to abide by the highly stringent rules of probation/parole. Two more individuals spoke on the abuse and neglect they endured while unjustly housed at MSDF and the level of damage caused when a person is pulled from society by our local probation and parole officers.
The excitement from the morning rally led the supporters into Phase 2 of the day – a march to the State Office building – which was aimed to promote the public oversight of local community supervision officers whose offices are located within. The mile-long march followed a “cop corridor” of government offices, police head quarters, the public safety building and courthouses.
Upon returning to our “grassy knoll,” we continued the day into Phase 3 with a grill out and some kick-ass entertainment! We grilled and shared over 100 burgers and brats with passersby right on the streetcorner, as the afternoon traffic was at its heaviest. We spoke about the upcoming strike, and circulated letters to four organizers facing preemptive retaliation. It was at this point our banners were deemed “hazardous” by a gaggle of jail guards coming off their shift. They recruited an MPD officer to back them up, and we took down the banners. One claimed to be a “detective” despite wearing the familiar uniform of a grunt jailer.
We turned the banners into a backdrop of our grassy knoll stage for the evening. With giant speakers aimed at both facilities and powered up by a portable generator, our allies from Leaders Igniting Transformation (LIT) brought participants in their Black Hogwarts program to perform. Badd Religion blasted the buildings with their music in between several other speakers and poets. The sun began to set just as the music was over and we waited for total sunset to initiate Phase 4 and the final phase of the day.
Our final action had to occur after dark because it involved folks with Overpass Light Brigade (OLB) creating two luminary message displays. OLB uses large panels with LED’s affixed to form a letter of the alphabet. Volunteers held the letters to display a glowing message: “NO MORE CAGES”. They staged in two locations, with MSDF in the background. On MSDF itself, we used our hand-cut gobos made from empty LaCroix cans and a Source Four Zoom lighting instrument to project several messages, hot-swapping between “SHUT DOWN THIS DUNGEON #CLOSEmsdf” and “PRISON STRIKE 8/21 to 9/9.”
We also used a flame gobo and some crinkly red cellophane to create a flicker effect to simulate the building being in flames. Fire to the prisons, freedom to the prisoners! Drums, sirens, whistles, horns, and these crazy round cylinders with balloon skin stretched over one end were all used to create a cacophony of noises.
Then we high-fived, packed up two cars and a truck full of gear, and went home! We gave away every piece of meat cooked, every flier printed, and collected dozens of new signatures for the petition to CLOSEmsdf.
Reporters from Wisconsin Public Radio, The Shepard Express, and Milwaukee Stories spent hours at our encampment, discussing the strike and the CLOSEmsdf campaign in great detail. Thus far only WPR’s story has come out, and despite the reporter’s hours of audio being deeply cut back, likely by cautious editors, the story did get mention of the strike in, without dates or demands. After many… extraordinary… efforts… we’ve finally chipped a first hole in the media blockade in Wisconsin. This program aired and will re-air on public radio affiliates across Wisconsin, possibly being heard by prisoners in every facility.