Dozens of protesters with the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition marched on March 19 to a mayoral forum at the Barrymore Theatre, where two white, progressive mayoral candidates were preparing to debate the issues facing the city of Madison. There was no question the city’s racial inequalities would be on the agenda.
Deep disparities are considered by many to be liberal Madison’s secret shame. And the officer-shooting death a few weeks earlier of unarmed biracial teenager Tony Robinson dealt a crushing blow to the city’s already disenfranchised community.
Protesters marched down the aisles of the theater holding a banner declaring “Black Lives Matter.” The rallying cry has emerged nationally in response to what many see as a pattern of systematic state violence against African American citizens that fails to take account of lost lives.
What did they want? “Justice!” When did they want it? “Now!” And if they didn’t get it? “Shut it down!”
Protesters made good on their promise, shouting interruptions while candidates Paul Soglin and Scott Resnick attempted to answer questions. The debate moderator pleaded with protesters for quiet and order; Soglin more than once sat down mid-sentence, refusing to compete with the chants and heckles.
The group’s disruptive presence at the debate prompted complaints — including from those who consider themselves allies of the group’s message and objectives.
“[The actions] of the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition seemed designed to turn supporters into opponents,” Madison resident Carl Landsness wrote in a letter to The Capital Times. “I felt assaulted, disrespected, depleted, frustrated and disgusted.”
In response to the criticism, Brandi Grayson, one of the coalition’s founding members, posted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” on the group’s Facebook page.
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed,” King wrote. “Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.”
King also wrote of his “grave disappointment” with the “white moderate” — the individual who is “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.’”
Grayson says she often thinks about King’s time in Birmingham and his message to white moderates when she hears criticism of the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition, a grassroots group that has been raising awareness about racial inequality and social justice issues since fall of 2014.
Lately, their tactics have become as hotly debated as the issues they seek to address. While some find the group to be self-serving and opportunistic, Grayson sees the group’s mission as a continuation of King’s work for social justice.
“When [people] see us in action, all they see is angry black people,” says Grayson, 35. “But we’re a direct action organization. Our basis is disruption. If we play by the rules, we will continue to be silenced.”
Young, Gifted and Black is in some ways a misnomer.
The group is certainly youth-oriented — middle school, high school and college-aged students walked out of class to join the numerous marches in the weeks following the Tony Robinson shooting. And many more youth have attended direct action training sessions at UW-Madison. But key organizers of the group range in age from their mid-20s to mid-30s, with members up to 40 and older.
Members are passionate, with a capacity to inspire and mobilize — and to piss certain people off. Many are African American or identify as such, but Asian, Latino and white allies also have a strong presence in the group.
Group leadership is also deliberately feminist and “conspicuously queer,” committed to dismantling patriarchy as well as combating racial inequality. Organizers say these are characteristics that set the movement apart from older iterations of civil rights activism.
But perhaps what unites many of the core members is a shared experience of discrimination that fuels a desire to change what they see as an unjust world.
Grayson grew up on the South Side of Chicago amid violence and chaos. Her grandmother was addicted to alcohol. Her mother was addicted to drugs. She was a caregiver for her younger siblings, but she soon fell victim to her surroundings. By age 9, Grayson had been indoctrinated into a gang. At 13, she had her first baby.
“Our environments are what shape us,” says Grayson, who moved to Madison with her mom when she was 10. “I’ve been through so much.”
After she had her baby, Grayson knew she needed help. She reached out to Briarpatch Youth Services about seeking permanent foster care for herself and her child. With her foster family’s support, Grayson attended UW-Madison. But there she felt isolated and overlooked as one of the only African American students in her classes.
“I felt like something was wrong with me,” she says.
She found inspiration studying African American culture and history. She campaigned to bring more diversity to the university’s student government organizations and developed leadership skills that would prepare her for her eventual role with Young, Gifted and Black.
By age 22, Grayson became a foster mother herself to give back to the system that helped her change her life. More than anything, Grayson says, the experience of being a parent motivated her to fight for social justice.
“I ask myself, what do I have to change to make the world safe for me and my children?” Grayson says. “We cannot lose hope.”
Eric Upchurch has known the pain of hunger, the stress of homelessness, the shame of arrest.
The 27-year-old activist came to UW-Madison in 2006 on an academic scholarship, but halfway through his freshman year his parents fell on hard times, in danger of losing their home.
He sent most of his scholarship money to his family and used what was left over to start a business. He wound up broke. That began a “period of survival,” Upchurch says. Unable to afford groceries or a meal plan, he resorted to stealing food from Walgreens.
“I remember feeling like…if I walk out of here with all this food, and a police officer stops me, what am I going to do?” he says. “I would just have to run.”
The son of a pastor, Upchurch was raised with a strong moral code and trained to be a youth minister. He teaches meditation and preaches mindfulness. Yet poverty led him to compromise his ideals. By his sophomore year, his family was still struggling. Unable to pay rent, he was evicted from his apartment and was sleeping on friends’ couches. He got caught up in a counterfeiting operation and was eventually arrested on campus and charged with two felonies.
Upchurch’s criminal past still haunts him. Although he was able to graduate, he’s been denied jobs because of his record. Still, living through those years of turmoil provided a different sort of education and inspiration. Through his involvement with advocacy groups like Briarpatch Youth Services, Freedom Inc.,Operation Welcome Home and now as a leader with Young, Gifted and Black, he’s working to empower disenfranchised communities.
“I’ve been blessed and lucky in my life,” Upchurch says. “I’m still surviving.”
Matthew Braunginn’s activist roots go deep — his father, Stephen Braunginn, was president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison and a co-founder of Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice.
Braunginn, 29, characterizes previous efforts to combat racial disparity and racism as “lip service” and “half attempts” that didn’t address the root causes of problems plaguing minorities. He graduated from Purdue University and now works for the UW-Madison PEOPLE Project — a college readiness program for minority and low-income students. He joined Young, Gifted and Black to confront institutionalized racism directly.
“Racism is more than just being hateful,” he says, adding that many white people have a “poor understanding” of the minority experience and how implicit biases exist throughout the society.
“It’s almost worse that Madison is liberal,” he adds.
Braunginn is biracial, but he identifies as black. He says his ethnic ambiguity has been a source of stress and confusion — unable to truly “pass” as either black or white, he has struggled with discrimination and uncomfortable questions about his race. He says his identity struggles led him to abuse opioids in his teens and early 20s.
Braunginn sees similarities between himself and Tony Robinson — a biracial teen who, according to family members, also struggled to fit in. Robinson’s uncle Turin Carter says Tony took hallucinogenic mushrooms the day he died, seeking a spiritual journey. Braunginn says he’s done similar things, but because of his “privilege” he was able to get help and learn from his mistakes — a chance Tony never had.
With that privilege comes an obligation to work toward achieving social justice, says Braunginn. “If you can do it, you should do it.”
Allison Bell Bern also comes from a family of activists — her mother took part in student free speech demonstrations at University of California-Berkeley in the 1960s, and her father is involved with promoting organized labor and green spaces in Madison. Bell Bern, now 35, studied race and class systems at Macalaster College in St. Paul before returning to Madison, where she works as a writer and educator.
“Madison gives people the opportunity to explore diversity — or hide from it entirely,” she says.
She’s a mother, a lesbian and an activist who, like other Young, Gifted and Black members, was spurred to action after unarmed black teen Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo. But as a white person, she knows that she plays a support role in the movement: “I take on a role of reaching out to the white community.”
As a lesbian, she knows what it’s like to be in the minority and to face discrimination. The fact that Young, Gifted and Black has a strong LGBT cohort is no accident, Bell Bern says. “This is fundamental to all other battles,” she says. “My liberation is tied up in yours.”
Through her outreach, Bell Bern has been surprised by the number of white people who are oblivious of how racism permeates society — and why it’s so important to question the system and demand reform.
“Even the people who ‘get it’ don’t quite get it,” she says. “We have to swallow our egos.”
Even before Young, Gifted and Black formed, community members began to speak more openly about inequality following the publication in 2013 of the damning Race to Equity Report, which highlighted the egregious racial disparities in Dane County.
But Grayson remembers the disappointment she felt when she looked into the overwhelmingly white crowd of people who showed up for a meeting called by the Rev. Alex Gee at Fountain of Life Church to discuss race issues in Madison. The support and solidarity from the white community was appreciated, but where was the response from those who were most affected, she wondered.
Later, at a rally organized by Boys and Girls Club of Dane County CEO Michael Johnson after the killing of Brown in Ferguson, Grayson noticed the same demographic. Once again, she says, it was mostly white liberals who showed up to mourn the loss of an African American life.
“Michael Johnson failed to reach out to the black community,” says Grayson. She believes the fight for racial equality must first start from within the African American community, but she says black leaders “kept saying no” when she contacted them after the town hall meetings with ideas for organizing. Johnson disputes Grayson’s claim, saying that he’s willing to work with all people.
Grayson, however, says the time was right for a radically new grassroots approach.
“This has to start with us,” she says.
Since forming, Young, Gifted and Black has made youth education a focus, partnering with UW-Madison to bring a series of lectures on race and politics to campus and hosting outreach and training sessions to recruit a new generation of activists. And the group has directly engaged local government.
One of its first goals was to stop a proposed $8 million Dane County Jail project. After months of effort, the group helped convince the Dane County board to propose a comprehensive jail reform resolution that addresses racial disparities in incarceration, mental health reform and safety needs in the jail while prioritizing the needs of minority communities.
“We’ve been able to challenge the decision making at the local level,” Grayson says. “It is working.”
But the group’s disruptive, in-your-face tactics have cost them support. The group has derailed government meetings with chants and outbursts, browbeaten public officials and shut down Madison streets for hours at a time.
“It’s an awful, terrible, destructive cause,” says David Blaska, a conservative Madison blogger who has written numerous posts critical of Young, Gifted and Black (or “Young and Foolish,” as he’s branded them) and organized a counterprotest against the group in January. He claims the coalition is more interested in conflict than achievement and has called Grayson a “demagogue” and “Joe McCarthy with a bullhorn.”
“She has hijacked the movement,” says Blaska, a former Isthmus contributor. “She is not helping anyone.”
But it is not just conservatives questioning Young, Gifted and Black’s tactics.
Madison Police Chief Mike Koval has criticized the group over its demands to bar his officers from the city’s African American neighborhoods and to release 350 African American inmates locked up in the Dane County Jail for “crimes of poverty.”
In a blog post Koval called the group’s request that the Madison police department have no “interaction” with African American communities “untenable.” And he challenged members on whether they truly represented the wishes of neighborhood residents. “Suffice to say, that is NOT the message I get when I go to community forums — in fact, quite the contrary!”
Koval wrote this on Jan. 12, two months before the March 6 officer-involved shooting of Robinson. The Young, Gifted and Black Coalition saw the killing as the latest in a trend of white law enforcement officers using deadly force against unarmed black men and boys. The group immediately mobilized protests.
Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne has yet to announce whether he’ll charge police officer Matt Kenny, who killed Robinson, with any crimes. But Young, Gifted and Black has not waited for the release of investigative reports, calling Kenny’s action a “murder.”
Members have also used incendiary language when talking about what will happen if Kenny isn’t charged. At a March 17 Common Council meeting, Grayson warned: “We know the facts, and when they come out, this city will erupt. This city will fucking erupt. And the blood and whatever takes place after that will be on your hands and the mayor’s hands.”
At a news conference weeks later, though, Braunginn lashed out with frustration at a reporter who questioned whether demonstrations would be peaceful when the DA’s charging decision is released. He said the media were the only ones talking about violence.
“We’re not planning for violence. I don’t know where this is coming from. We have not perpetrated any violence,” Braunginn said. “Why are we going to be asked if we are going to be violent, when the state continually [perpetuates violence]?”
And since Grayson’s declaration before the council, the group has struck a conciliatory tone. It has asked people to gather at the scene of the shooting — 1125 Williamson St. — after Ozanne makes his announcement, bringing food and musical instruments and poems for impromptu performances. “We want to channel whatever we’re feeling that day, our energy, into a positive form of protest for justice,” the group said in a statement.
City officials are preparing for the decision day as well, with plans in place for traffic control and a police presence during the expected gathering. Ozanne has not indicated when he’ll reach a decision, other than to say he’ll give at least 48 hours’ notice.
On April 14, as part of a national day of protest against police brutality, Young, Gifted and Black protesters blocked traffic on East Washington Avenue for more than eight hours. At around 6:30 p.m., police arrested several people to end the blockade.
Group members accused the officers of using “violent” tactics while detaining protesters, claiming that police slammed protesters to the ground and dragged them away from the demonstration. Both police officers and protesters filmed the arrests, but the interpretation differs. Koval dismissed the accusations, saying that his officers acted professionally.
In an interview with Isthmus, Koval talked about civil disobedience and the delicate “dance” that goes on between protesters and law enforcement. It’s a balancing act, he said, between the First Amendment rights of protesters and the rights of citizens affected by the demonstrations.
“We have taken a very measured approach, not wanting arrests to get in the way of the message that people are trying to promote,” Koval says. “But can that go on in perpetuity?”
With the disclaimer that he was “not making a veiled threat,” Koval pointed out that the loop of civil disobedience often ends with the arrest of those who choose to engage with police. Mayor Soglin, well-known for participating in student anti-war protests in the 1960s and ’70s, has also offered his thoughts on the proper way to protest.
“In the true spirit of civil disobedience, there is to be no resistance,” Soglin said at a news conference after the April 14 protest.
When asked whether he thought YGB’s tactics helped or hurt their social justice mission, Soglin said, “I’m not going to make observations or give them advice on what to do. I’m sure they’re not looking to me for that in any way.”
Instead, he pointed to the work city officials have been doing for years to address racial inequality in Madison in the areas of housing, employment, education and criminal justice. “It’s been frustrating that a lot of this work is not acknowledged,” he said.
But the implementation of measures to combat inequality has been slow and ineffective, says the Rev. Everett Mitchell, pastor at Christ the Solid Rock Baptist Church, a former Dane County assistant district attorney and an “elder member” of Young, Gifted and Black.
Mitchell has been disappointed with the progress Dane County has been made to reduce disparities, even after a 2009 task force put forth several recommendations for action.
Dane County Executive Joe Parisi acknowledges one of the biggest challenges is “turning focus into concrete action,” but says progress has been made.
He points to initiatives like the driver’s license recovery and restorative justice programs and Dane County’s new “Access to Opportunity” plan as examples of work being done to reduce poverty and improve quality of life for disenfranchised community members.
Still, Mitchell and others are frustrated at the pace of progress. “That’s the reason [YBG] has to be so vocal,” Mitchell says. “Policy doesn’t change without some kind of demand.”
Grayson has been sharply and publicly critical of established black leaders, who she sees as part of the system. She recently refused an invite from the Boys and Girls Club’s Michael Johnson to participate in a youth forum he organized with funding from outside groups. She called it a “minstrel show” and him a “torchbearer of white supremacy” in a Facebook post.
Johnson sidestepped the criticism in his Facebook response and defended the youth forum, saying he was able to educate more than 1,000 children and their parents — the majority of whom were African American.
In an interview with Isthmus, Johnson says he supports the group’s in-your-face approach.
“I think you always need voices like theirs when you have system issues the way we [do] in Madison,” he says. “Their voices need to be heard.”
There’s no “cookie cutter” approach to enacting social change, Johnson adds. With some leaders choosing to work within the established system and others opting for a more grassroots approach, the combined efforts are both necessary to achieve results.
“I choose to show my radicalism through action by helping kids graduate high school and go to college, by helping young people find jobs, by setting up funds to help families in need,” Johnson says. “That’s just one of multiple approaches to addressing these kinds of issues.”
“Black Lives Matter,” the declaration guiding Young, Gifted and Black, and groups like it, is a simple and powerful affirmation, says Will Jones, a professor of history at UW-Madison. “It’s a recognition that there’s a dehumanization going on that should be addressed.”
And those who march behind the Black Lives Matter banner see themselves as doing an extension of Martin Luther King Jr.’s work — work that is not necessarily appreciated, accepted or understood, but work that is worth doing because it is essential and just.
“I think it’s hard for people to really accept the fact that black and brown people are in a state of emergency,” Grayson says. “Some people — white people — support us, but don’t necessarily agree with our tactics, but I ask them to put themselves in our shoes — If one of your children were murdered, would you be quiet?”