This piece was produced for Badger Vibes, our collaboration with the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association.
After the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, protests erupted across the United States, including in Madison, where the police killing of Tony Robinson five years ago still feels like a fresh wound. Madison’s protests have been led, in large part, by two organizations: Freedom, Inc., and Urban Triage. We spoke with two of their leaders: Bianca Gomez of Freedom, Inc., and Urban Triage founder Brandi Grayson, a community activist and leader since her involvement in starting the Young Gifted and Black Coalition in 2014. We asked both about their organizations, the moment we’re in, and what’s next.
Badger Vibes: First, can you give us an overview of your organizations?
Gomez: Freedom, Inc., is a Black and Southeast Asian organization that’s woman- and queer-led. We focus on ending violence against our community. That violence shows up in a lot of ways for us. It shows up as domestic violence and sexual assault. It shows up as police violence. It shows up as people not having housing and food and the resources that they need to survive. A lot of people know us for a lot of different things. We say that we are a people-based organization. Our community is our campaign, so whatever the needs, whatever we see, and whatever we hear the needs of our community are, those are the things that we focus on.
Grayson: Urban Triage is a nonprofit organization founded for the people by the people. The concept of our organization started in 2014, right before the murder of Mike Brown [who was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri]. We had already started on our emergency response team to situations occurring in Madison, dealing with discrimination and racism. I just set the organization to the side as I got involved with Young Gifted and Black. And then in 2019, there was a lot of incidents where Black children were being abused or under fire via our school district. And the conversation came back up with a few people that I had been working with about Urban Triage. It was just like a lightbulb: “Let’s just start doing that work again. Obviously, it’s needed and necessary.” So then we just started with the Supporting Healthy Black Families training program, which is a 90-day personal leadership, personal change, and advocacy training for Black families. And our mission is to support Black families becoming self-sufficient in their lives as individuals and within their families and within their community.
Vibes: After the death of George Floyd, how and when did you decide to take up the cause and lead protests and actions?
Gomez: We’re all working from home, obviously, but everybody knew that we’re going to do something. I think within two days, we had something planned. Within one or two days, we had something planned, and thousands of people showed up. Our first action was that Saturday [May 30]. Everybody was like, “Yes, what are we going to do?” — not a question of if we’re going to do it, but how to be a part of this.
Everybody heard that cry for justice from George Floyd and from other community people. They were down to show up. They were down to put their bodies on the line. They were down to confront this awful system. That momentum has really been sustained, and that shows us that people are still mad and that people won’t take no for an answer and that people are going to not be pacified by elected officials and other people trying to throw us crumbs when we’re asking for the full package.
Grayson: It wasn’t immediate for me. No, no, no. It wasn’t immediate at all, because I had said to myself after Young Gifted and Black that I will not be back in the streets. It was dangerous for me as a Black woman. I was harassed by people. I was harassed by police. And being a single mom of many children, some biological, some foster children, I had decided that it just wasn’t safe for me. So when this happened with George Floyd, to be honest, I ignored it. I was like, “Oh, another Black person murdered along with Breonna Taylor,” and I just ignored it because I felt like I didn’t have time to deal with the emotions around it or the anger. We had just launched our COVID relief efforts. We had just launched our contract with [the Madison Metropolitan School District program] Black Excellence. We had just launched our next cohort of Supporting Black Healthy Families. So we were in the midst of a lot. So I’m like, “Oh, no, we can’t take this on.” So by that Wednesday [May 27], the Wednesday before our first protest, which was Saturday, I got a call from people in our community, other organizers saying, like, what are we going to do? And I really tried to avoid it. I was like, I don’t know what y’all going to do, but let me know how we can support.
And it really just came down to integrity for me because part of the work that we do with supporting healthy Black families is that without integrity, there’s nothing. Part of integrity is doing things that’s expected of you, that you may have not spoken with your words. But because of how I positioned myself in my community, as, you know, the person that when stuff goes down and you need activism or advocacy, you go to Brandi Grayson and Urban Triage for support and help. So it was more so my integrity that was in question in that moment.
This is my own personal conversation that I’m having with myself. “What is it that your community expects of you right now? The momentum’s happening. What happens if you don’t show up? What happens if that expertise piece isn’t there and organizing?” After having that internal dialogue with myself, by Wednesday, after having the calls from many people, it was like, okay, fine, let’s get it done. And then we just got to it. And then we realized, “Oh my God, we’re about to be in the street for a long time.”
So then after the first week of actions, I just started repositioning myself in the work. Understanding that I couldn’t be out every single night because I do have a four-year-old, and I do have foster children, and I am legitly running a business with a lot of programming. And we had to start onboarding new staff. We just had a lot happening at once. So that’s kind of what my role is right now. Organizing and mobilizing people so that I can still do the work and be present with my son. Most of the time, I’m in the house now working from the background.
Vibes: Your actions, especially in that first week, were referred to as peaceful protests, and elected officials praised you and your protests, as opposed to others who were doing damage to buildings, breaking windows, looting, that kind of thing. How do you respond to that?
Grayson: That’s the insidious nature of white supremacy. When we were originally in the streets years ago when Tony Robinson was murdered and we were demanding justice for people that were locked up, we were considered violent. And nothing around our strategies changed. We’ve been pretty consistent in blocking traffic and other direct-action strategies. And back then, we were “violent.” We were “agitators,” we were “not cooperative.” We are the problem; we’re the racists; we’re the troublemakers. So when the reverse happened this round, as protests kicked off across our globe, that energy manifested here as well. When that kicked off, it was like, okay, we need to juxtapose the good Black people to the bad Black people. And that’s the nature of white supremacy.
It was important for us, including Freedom, Inc., and Urban Triage and the Party for Socialism and Liberation, to make sure we made a bold statement about it. And then we released a statement in a press release that basically said, the rebellion is together. This is one movement. This isn’t separate. And we don’t judge whatever people do to express their rage or anger. And we will always stand with people over property. If a glass gets broke because you keep murdering us, we darn sure aren’t going to say, Hey, you’re wrong for breaking that glass.
Gomez: Yeah, it was really important for all three of our organizations … Urban Triage, Freedom, Inc., and the Party for Socialism and Liberation … to respond to that with a very clear analysis and control our own narrative. We know that one of the strategies of white supremacy, whether it’s in a liberal town or an overtly racist town or a conservative town, is to divide and conquer. It’s to divide communities of color. It’s to divide Black communities. It’s to divide their leadership. Freedom, Inc., and Brandi and other members of Urban Triage were in the streets five years ago doing the exact same thing that we did on that Saturday.
We went to Tony Robinson’s house. We stood outside of his house. We had a vigil. We marched on the capitol steps. We marched down East Washington. [Five years ago,] some of our leaders were arrested. Some of our leaders were called all types of names. Some of our leaders got death threats. We were called violent, agitators, all those things. But now, five years later, it’s convenient to call us peaceful so that we can help criminalize other Black children.
We saw that as a tactic of liberal white supremacy to divide our community and to paint us as peaceful so that they can criminalize Black children on the back end. We were not going to be a part of that narrative.
Vibes: A lot of people observed that recent protests have really been led by young people. Is that the case? If so, what does that mean?
Gomez: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. And that aligns with our movement history, right? When we’re talking about slave rebellions, a lot of those were young people that were like, “Hell, no.” When we’re talking about the civil rights movement, the Black Panther Party, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, all of those organizations were made up of younger people who saw what happened the generation before and wanted to try something different. They borrow, they learn those strategies, but they’re also like, “Okay, we also want to try something a little bit different in our own way.” I’m so proud of every single young person that’s been in the streets, every young person that was on State Street those first nights taking what was theirs and standing up for themselves, standing up against police. And I’m so proud of the young people that have sustained.
I think it’s really, really important for me as a youth leader to help educate, but also move out of their way a little bit. I don’t feel like I should be telling them what to do. Now, I have a lot of knowledge. I study movement history, and I know some things, but also it’s always great to have some fresh ideas. It’s always great to have a fresh mind that wants to go their own way. And I think that the adults should be there for protection. I think the adults can provide advice and provide guidance and support and then move out of their way so that they can do their thing.
Grayson: It’s the natural flow of things. Our job as adults is to pass the torch and to provide our youth with the support and the mentorship and the skill set to do just that. And we do not believe in telling the youth how to protest or what they should be protesting. We just believe in supporting them and helping them with their political analysis. And it wasn’t intentional. It wasn’t like the strategy we sought out, because everything happened so quickly. It was us understanding that the youth will lead. And if we are not positioning them to lead, then what happens? Who do you pass the torch on to? And where do they learn to pass on the torch?
Vibes: So now what’s next? There’s some momentum here. How do you keep it up?
Gomez: All of our organizations are trying to fold as many people in as possible and continue to provide political education. Urban Triage has been doing a lot of political education online and Freedom, Inc., has been doing the same thing. Folks should continue to donate to the Free the 350 Bail Fund. We know that jails and prisons are our slavery, the conditions that people live in, the work that they’re forced to do, the sexual assault, the torture that happens in those facilities. People can continue to donate to the Free the 350 Bail Fund. We will continue to be bailing out Black children, Black men, Black women, Black queer folks, and trying to support them and the resources that they need, legally, so that they don’t have to go back into those torture chambers.
Grayson: The next step for us is to stay in the street. One, continue the direct action, support our youth, and strategize. Our job is to create pressure, keep it in the forefront of conversations about what’s happening. Mobilize people around it, just like we have been for the last couple of weeks. And our second objective is to also continue the pressure on the school district and its administration to do the right thing. We have to continue the pressure, continue our strategies, continue to provide political education so the general population and community can understand all our access points and all our challenges to get things done. If we’re paying a hundred cops to do social work, then we need to pull that money and invest in community support services. So we’ll be strategizing around that. And then of course, organize around that, providing political education. And that’s the hardest thing is you have to do direct actions, strategy, political education, and then give people a template to take action so there’s not a lot of thinking or work people have to do. So all of that is coming together, and we’ll continue to push in that way. And another strategy that we’re exploring is on a state level. How do we get these laws changed? How do we push our state governor and other elected officials, or whoever, to challenge the law around the Police and Fire Commission having the power to hire and fire? How do we get that power transferred to the community? Because that’s the real power that matters.