Continuing a fight for Derek

Robin Gee reports on a rally that drew activists from Madison and beyond to demand that Milwaukee police be held accountable for the 2011 death of Derek Williams.

Protesters gather in Milwaukee to demand justice for Derek Williams (Sharlen Moore)Protesters gather in Milwaukee to demand justice for Derek Williams (Sharlen Moore)

THE FRIENDS and family members of Derek Williams, a young father of three who died in police custody, were joined by activists on April 6 for a protest on the steps of the Milwaukee Courthouse to demand justice.

The action came after Special Prosecutor John Franke refused to charge the officers involved in Williams' death, even though they had been indicted for "failure to render aid."

In July 2011, Williams was arrested by police, shackled and thrown into the back of a police cruiser. Video from a dashboard camera, which only became available this year through pressure from the local media and family members, shows Williams' last moments alive. Struggling to breathe, he tried desperately to get officers' attention and help--a full eight minutes before dying of asphyxiation.

The Williams family and their allies in Milwaukee and Madison have been calling for the resignation of the chief of police, prosecution of the three police officers involved and the creation of an independent police review board.

From the beginning, the family has reached out to the community for support. A multiracial group of activists of many ages came together through the belief that police must be held accountable to the community. They rallied on the courthouse steps and have joined the family on marches almost every Sunday this winter.

Activists from the River West area of Milwaukee were among the first to show up for the April 6 rally. "I believe the level of police brutality and repression in this city has enforced segregation, making Milwaukee one of the most segregated cities in the country," said an activist named Steve. "What we must do now is keep our energy out there in the streets and be visible."

Tory Lowe, who took up the call for justice for Derek Williams early in the case, echoed the sentiment that the fight for justice must be visible and multiracial. "This issue is not a race issue, but a human rights issue," he said.

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LOWE AND fellow activist Monique Taylor organized a Copwatch group in Milwaukee following Derek Williams' death, reaching out to other families who have lost loved ones at the hands of police and security officers.

At the rally, Taylor introduced the family of John Kriewaldt, who died in police custody in July 2012. Kriewaldt had been undergoing treatment for mental illness at a group home when he became agitated and upset. Police used force to subdue him, at one point kneeing him in the back as he lay on the lawn of the group home vomiting. He later died of his injuries. Activists are demanding a complete investigation into the incident, only one of several in recent years involving local police.

Milwaukee resident Brian Verdeen expressed the outrage felt by the crowd: "Special Prosecutor Franke's refusal made the inquest a cruel hoax...We couldn't get more than a misdemeanor because they said we couldn't prove intent. Well, we can prove inattention."

Derek Williams' great aunt Mayleen Jordan thanked everyone for supporting not just her family but other families whose loved ones have been victims of police brutality. "I invite you to join us. I look around...and just think, this isn't 1950. It's not 1960. It's 2013 and this should not be happening!"

Dan Suarez, member of the International Socialist Organization and the Coalition for Justice for Derek Williams, told the crowd that the fight for justice for Derek must go on. "When those who are oppressed stand up and fight, there is no greater threat to the powers that be. We know we won't get help from those inside this building. We have to do it ourselves. No one paid attention to the death of Emmett Till until people spoke up. We have to speak up now," he said.

The crowd took up the chant, "An injury to one is an injury to all."

Since the rally, it has become known that two witnesses, one of whom testified at the indictment, say that they saw police beat Williams before throwing him into the cruiser. This witness testimony has been ignored.

Williams' girlfriend, Sharday Rose, also recently filed a formal complaint with the city's Fire and Police Commission. "I just want justice," she told reporters.