The day after Easter, the city of Onalaska apparently spent seven hours washing off sidewalk chalk messages that were written on Easter Sunday afternoon by my 16-year old biracial daughter and me and a few fellow members of our local racial justice group, La Crosse Area Showing Up for Racial Justice.
We were joined by a couple of children and their grandma who happened to be at the new Great River Landing. Messages that were written were, “Black Lives Matter,” “You Are Standing On Ho-Chunk Land,” “I Stand For Love,” “Peace Be Unto You: As-Salaam-Alaikum,” “You Are Welcome Here,” “The Time For Racial Justice is Now” and “There is Enough For Everyone.”
In total, we chalked for less than an hour.
We did not realize we were doing anything other than spreading messages of love and inclusion to people of all cultures, races, religions and sexual orientation. The next day, a police officer came to our home, explained a city employee was dispatched to power wash away the chalk messages and issued two citations, $187 each, for Crimes Against Property: Graffiti to my daughter and me.
For most of my life, I have felt good about the social justice work I have been involved in. I help organize a teen clothing closet at my church, donate to important causes and volunteer in a variety of community settings.
When Philando Castile was shot and killed by a police officer last August in a suburb of St. Paul and the video was shared on social media, I knew I needed to do everything I could to partner with black and brown voices to change our country’s flawed criminal justice policies.
Maybe it was the way Philando Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, told the officer her boyfriend had done everything he was instructed to do after he was pulled over. Or perhaps it was the way her four-year-old daughter tried to comfort her mother after the shooting, and me knowing that that little girl’s life was forever changed by what happened. Whatever the reason, I knew I needed to speak out about the number of black people dying on city streets.
Profiling has made it unsafe for people of color to drive down the street with a broken tail light. Profiling has made it unsafe for immigrants to leave their homes. Since Philando Castile was shot and killed, I’ve listened to people of color talk about the ways they are marginalized in our society. They are fearful of contact with the police.
I talked personally with the chief of police, the director of parks and recreation, an alderman of Onalaska and the mayor. All of these men were in full agreement that the citations totaling $374 for sidewalk chalking were warranted. Additionally, several weeks later, we received an invoice for restitution totaling $579.60 payable within 30 days for hours related to clean up of sidewalk areas and administrative fees. The sidewalk chalk we used was bought at Target and was labeled “washable.” It is also noteworthy that since the time we were cited, I have noticed sidewalk chalking in various places in Onalaska that has not been sprayed off.
I don’t believe these citations were about chalking. Onalaska alderman Bob Muth stated to me that he didn’t want to have to explain to his eight-year-old grandson what these messages meant. I dream of a time when he can have that conversation. Because of my beliefs in our messages, I will go to court June 5 to answer to the city. I do hope this begins a new level of conversation in Onalaska about human rights and racial equality.