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'Difficult conversations:' George Floyd's death affects southern Wisconsin

The nationwide uprising against injustice—sparked by the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police—is shaking people in Janesville and the other small towns across southern Wisconsin.

And it’s not just national leaders who are calling for fundamental changes in laws and society.

Reforms are needed here to address those grievances, said local leaders and black residents The Gazette interviewed this week.

Some say better communications between black and white and between blacks and local government is one way things should change.

“People are hurt, now, and out of that pain will come different ways that people will communicate,” said Angela Moore, executive director of YWCA Rock County.

Some efforts were underway locally before Floyd’s death, but much more needs to be done, several black residents told The Gazette.

Anthony Wahl 

Craig High School graduate Destinee Schenck spent time over four days drawing a portrait of George Floyd on the driveway outside her Janesville home on Black Bridge Road. The portrait of Floyd is surrounded by a list of names of black people that had undergone fatal encounters with police officers. 'It was something I can do with my skill set. I just want to help bring awareness. I see a lot of the negative about the protests and destruction of buildings, but they can be replaced, none of these people can. There’s a much bigger picture we should be focusing on,' she said.

“America has had its knee on our necks for over 400 years,” said Beloit community activist Wanda Sloan, adding that the problem is not something black people can solve.

“We didn’t set up this social stratification, this construct of race,” Sloan said. “I’ve always felt that it really is not our problem. We get oppressed by it, but we didn’t start it.”

Sloan noted progress on the country’s racial divide at different periods of U.S. history, “but the country always took a step back, and everything went back to business as usual,” Sloan said.

The problem is one black people feel every time they go out in public, said Marc Perry, executive director of Community Action of Rock and Walworth Counties.

Everyday insults

Kerry and Anita Hawkins were coming home from church when it happened. A Janesville police officer pulled them over.

Kerry, a Texan who has lived in Janesville about seven years, said this has happened so often in his life he doesn’t think about it very much, but Anita was upset.

The officer said he stopped them because he was looking for a white car that just left a crime scene, but Anita said at least three other white vehicles were in the area at the same time.

Kerry was in a suit and tie. Anita wore a nice dress.

It was impossible to tell for certain whether the officer was just doing his job.

“I still believe to this day that we wouldn’t have been stopped if I was driving, but because they saw Kerry, a black man, driving a white vehicle,” Anita said.

Kerry and Perry both noted similar, frequent experiences, and the fact that they are close to the age of George Floyd when he died.

Dan Lassiter 

Marc Perry

“It’s amazing to see the response across our community and across our country. It’s unfortunate that George Floyd had to happen before anyone paid attention,” Perry said. “African Americans have been telling mainstream white America for decades, and for some reason, very few people listened until this point.”

“None of my co-workers need to worry about being stopped for driving while black,” or being followed while shopping, or seeing a white woman clutch at her purse when a black man enters an elevator, Perry said.

“You get tired of fighting that battle every single day,” Perry continued. “It’s exhausting to be black in America.”

Perry is known as a community leader and was chosen last month to lead a major community organization, but he said that doesn’t protect him “because there are always going to be people who only see me as a black man and only see me as a threat.”

Local efforts

Some leaders in the local criminal justice system are working on parts of the problem.

Rock County’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council had been studying the fact that black people are arrested and imprisoned at rates that far exceed their proportion of the population.

The committee is focusing on disorderly conduct arrests because officers have more discretion with that crime. They found a problem here that is common to Milwaukee and across the nation, a high percentage of black people arrested in Janesville and Beloit and by sheriff’s deputies.

People can be defensive when it’s suggested they or their organizations are biased, but if they can agree on the facts, then they have a starting point for change, said council member David O’Leary, Rock County’s district attorney.

David O’Leary

O’Leary worked to establish these coordinating councils at the local and state level. He also is a leader in an effort called Evidence Based Decision Making, where similar discussions are occurring.

Dorothy Harrell, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Beloit, said she found out about the local Evidence Based Decision Making Committee and asked to join it several years ago. She and O’Leary agreed more people of color need to be involved in local committees that can bring about change.

But Harrell has questions about the way O’Leary’s office has charged some crimes. She sees instances where it looks as though black people get tougher sentences than their white counterparts.

Angela Major 

Dorothy Harrell

O’Leary said he can only use facts to make decisions, and people often argue with him while not being bound by the facts.

Harrell, Perry, Sloan and others said it’s not just policing that needs change. They say education, health care and the economy all need to be overhauled with an eye to promoting racial justice.

Perry noted, for example, that black students locally are suspended at rates much higher than their white peers, something that can affect them for the rest of their lives.

Sloan said access to quality health care should be a right, and she said people in all institutions need to learn “cultural competency,” the ability to understand, communicate with and effectively interact with people across cultures.

Organizations need to welcome people of color and make them feel at home so they in turn can enrich those organizations, Perry said.

Perry and several others praised Janesville Police Chief Dave Moore for his efforts to make a difference for minority residents.

Dave Moore

Perry has trained local law enforcement to understand their biases.

“I do applaud our local law enforcement for doing the training,” Perry said, but those lessons about bias and civil rights need to be reinforced more than once a year, and leaders need to be educated “so they can carry on those conversations themselves and can support officers on the street.”

For all his efforts, Moore’s department might be faulted for not having any black officers.

“I think Chief Moore has done a great job as far as engaging with the community,” Hawkins said, “but you’re missing a little bit” by having no black officers.

“It does make a difference. You don’t get that perspective,” Hawkins said. “If you don’t have an officer who looks like us or understands us, then it’s kind of hard for the police department as a whole to relate to the black community.”

“I don’t care what color they are because skin color does not equate to competency,” Perry said.

Moore said he has tried to recruit black officers. Janesville hired a black officer a few years ago, but he failed his probationary period for reasons not related to race, Moore said.

Black police candidates are in demand and often choose to work where they feel comfortable, where there’s a large African American community, Moore said.

But “even if I hired 10 African American officers, that does not make us legitimate; that does not make us culturally competent,” Moore said.

Moore’s department and the Rock County Sheriff’s Office both have Latino officers. The sheriff’s office has two black officers.

 

Knudson

Sheriff Troy Knudson agreed with Moore that few blacks apply, but he said it’s important deputies reflect the county’s diversity, which makes his office stronger.

Harrell said the NAACP in Beloit has established relationships with Beloit Police Chief David Zibolski, Chief Moore and Knudson.

Harrell said she appreciated Zibolski and Lt. Andre Sayles taking a knee at Sunday’s protest in Beloit and their willingness to discuss complaints with the crowd.

“I know the focus is on law enforcement, and rightly so, but law enforcement isn’t the only institution that continues to practice systemic racism,” Perry said. “The systemic issue also exists in health care and in the school system and in our colleges and universities and, and, and, and.”

New laws?

Santo Carfora, a member of the Diversity Action Team of Rock County, complimented Janesville Police Chief Dave Moore and other local leaders for their approach to racial issues, but he said those leaders can only go so far.

“We need to elect people who can make change,” Carfora said.

Political leaders have been decrying the way Floyd died and speaking to underlying problems.

Paul Ryan, the Janesville native and former Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, whose American Idea Foundation seeks solutions to poverty, responded to a Gazette request for comment with an emailed statement, saying: “This unspeakable tragedy should serve as a catalyst for lasting, positive change ...

“Our leaders need to listen, learn, and then labor to address the structural challenges that have resulted in so many being oppressed for so long,” Ryan said.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., agreed on the need for change, but she said politics is blocking progress.

“We need leadership that brings us together, but this president is not providing it and won’t,” Baldwin said in a statement to The Gazette. “I have long supported congressional action on federal reforms to improve police training and practices and to ensure transparency and accountability. Policing reform is long overdue, but I’m afraid Republicans who control the majority in the Senate are standing in the way of taking the actions we need.”

U.S. Rep. Bryan Steil, R-Wis., said he is committed to being a part of the solution.

Steil said he supports more funding for police training, improved educational opportunities for all and generating more economic opportunity for underrepresented minorities.

O’Leary said a change in the state Constitution would allow officials to do away with cash bail, which allows those with money to go free after an arrest, while the poor must sit in jail.

Interviewees said again and again that more communication would help.

“Sometimes the most difficult conversations are the most important. If we talk about these topics that are going on right now, maybe some healing can come to our country,” Kerry Hawkins said. “Too often we sweep these issues under the rug after they’re not in the news anymore.

“I know all officers are not bad,” Hawkins continued. “I personally believe the majority are good, but if we don’t weed out those bad officers, it just makes it worse for those good officers who are trying to do a good job. So we need to have the conversation that the black community often has a different experience than the white community when it comes to policing.”

Hopefulness

Sloan said she has been dealing with difficult emotions over the past two weeks. But she said white people she has talked to about race in the past have contacted her recently, saying they are grateful for knowing her and how sorry they are about Floyd.

“For people to think about me or any other black person I know, that is so soothing. That is so comforting,” Sloan said. “There are still some good people who, if they didn’t get it before, they get it now.”

“We have to have hope,” Harrell said. “We can’t be a people without hope. We can’t be a nation without hope. We should be one nation, one family. We should not be divided by race.”

“The process, as we go forward, is going to be messy and chaotic and uncomfortable,” Harrell said, “but that’s what change requires.”

Angela Major 

Graffiti reflecting racial conflict recently was written on boarded windows in the 300 block of West Milwaukee Street in Janesville. It was later removed.


Obituaries and death notices for June 5, 2020

Ann Marie Bell

Eugene R. Blair

Daniel Joseph Edmunds

Dale E. Krueger

Kevin J. Oren

Michael W. Schmidt

Harold “Sonny” White

Ronald M. Yager


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New indoor playground is ‘tiny town’ for children

JANESVILLE

Five-year-old Mason Ahrens fled The General Store like a rocket with three green, rubbery fish flopping under one arm.

Mason ran up Main Street and didn’t stop until his sister, 3-year-old Emma Ahrens, slewed up sideways in a bubble-shaped car and blocked the street.

Emma jumped out of the car and onto the street next to the Tiny Cuts hair salon and the old jail. She spread her arms and began to hop in circles as a cascade of bubbles floated down from above.

This was not a kid riot. It was a typical morning in My Tiny Town, a new indoor children’s playground on Janesville’s south side that opened in late May as businesses began to restart amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The nonprofit indoor play land is split up into costume dress-up rooms, ball pits, a bouncy house room, and a party and games area. The centerpiece: an atrium constructed to look like a miniature downtown replete with open storefronts, an Old West-style jail and rubber streets that wind through an artificial grass park.

Anthony Wahl 

One of the play areas for children inside the recently opened My Tiny Town, an indoor playground Janesville’s south side.

Beloit resident Sarah Ahrens watched her children, Mason and Emma, explore My Tiny Town.

It was the family’s first time visiting the indoor playground. Moreover, it was one of the first times since the shutdown in mid-March that Ahrens’ children have been out for a run-and-play in public.

“For weeks, it’s been everybody cooped up,” she said. “The kids haven’t seen their friends or had their little play dates. It’s been a hard couple months. So it’s nice to have this option for them to be able to run around and have fun. Yeah, we’re excited.”

Anthony Wahl 

Mason Ahrens, 5, takes a trip down the slide as bubbles float overhead while playing with his family inside My Tiny Town on Janesville’s south side.

Likely the Janesville area’s only dedicated indoor playground, My Tiny Town emerged out of human experience.

Co-owners Tim Everson and Larry Lightning have 10 children apiece. Picture a snowed-in winter afternoon with 10 kids in one place, at one time.

“You’ve got the kids inside the house from November to March. That can get rough,” Lightning said. “We figured if we have the need to get out, other families probably have the same need.”

Everson said the idea to start My Tiny Town came in a flash late last year. The two Janesville couples almost as quickly found the space: a vacant former furniture outlet at 1824 Lafayette St.

Everson initially pictured a straightforward plan to take some features of an outdoor playground and transplant them indoors. But a few days after signing a lease, the families were locked inside under the state’s safer-at-home order.

Cooped up in the pandemic, Everson’s imagination started to churn.

“It just became an entire town, a tiny town,” he said. “We just kept building it, one thing after another. It started with just a play grocery store. Then we said why don’t we add a salon, a little wooden sheriff’s office and jail, the streets, the grass. It took on a life of its own.”

On a recent morning, a bubble machine mounted overhead spewed bubbles while the “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” theme song played on speakers. Lori Everson gave the main selling point on My Tiny Town.

“It’s always sunny in My Tiny Town. It’s always 70 degrees, and when it rains, it only rains bubbles. The weather’s perfect,” she said.

Lightning walked around with a bottle of disinfectant and a cloth and cleaned surfaces along My Tiny Town’s Main Street. He also addressed the elephant in the room: opening an indoor children’s playground in the midst of a pandemic.

“Things just happen. We started this back in the winter, December and January. At that time, coronavirus was just being talked about,” Lightning said. “At that time, it was talked about like a myth that was happening someplace else. But then, it happened here.”

Lightning said the staff of four cleans and disinfects the entire playground before, after and during visits from kids. Some of the work is painstaking, such as the daily process of tub-cleaning and disinfecting 7,500 plastic balls that fill the playground’s ball pit.

“It’s work we’d need to do anyway, regardless of a pandemic,” Lightning said. “We just recognize it’s really important now.”

My Tiny Town offers unlimited playtime for children from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily for $8 per child, but it’s not a drop-off center or daycare.

“The idea is family time, families playing together and getting a break from the weather in Wisconsin, which is either cold, rainy or hot, no in-between,” Tim Everson said.

There are no video games and just one screen in the whole place: a TV in a game lounge that plays educational kids programs on an endless loop. If kids ever hit doldrums in action, that’s when a giant red Elmo mascot appears on My Tiny Town’s promenade to turn the joint into “Sesame Street” for a few minutes.

Most visits so far have been local or regional families from Janesville and Beloit, but Lightning said a few families have come from Madison or Rockford, Illinois. Some families have become repeat customers.

The biggest tribulation so far at My Tiny Town: Some kids are unhappy when their playtime ends.

“You can understand a temper tantrum or two when the kids are going out the door,” Lightning said, “because when you see that, you know they’ll be coming back.”

Anthony Wahl 

The recently opened My Tiny Town is an indoor playground at 1824 Lafayette St. on Janesville’s south side.


Local
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Frank Douglas remembered as patriot, unforgettable teacher

JANESVILLE

Frank Douglas survived brutal combat to live a compelling life as an extraordinary teacher.

The longtime Janesville resident died May 27 at age 95 at Cedar Crest retirement community. He will be buried in private services at Milton Lawns Memorial Park.

To his thousands of geography students at Craig High School, Douglas was often known as “Mr. D,” a teacher who had no favorites and who inspired young people to open their worlds.

Gazette file photo 

World War II veteran Frank Douglas, 89, sits at his desk in his Cedar Crest home in 2014.

To his comrades in arms, he was a combat miracle who survived one deadly encounter after another, including the Allied invasion on the beaches of Normandy in June 1944.

As a 19-year-old, Douglas carried a 48-pound mortar on his left shoulder as he scrambled ashore and took heavy fire with the first 1,000 soldiers to storm Utah Beach.

Douglas served in the 4th Infantry Division and soldiered on to be among those who broke the enemy lines at Saint-Lo, who liberated Paris and who pushed relentlessly onto German soil.

In November 1944, he fought in the brutal Battle of Hurtgen Forest, where his division lost almost 7,000 men in three weeks. Douglas was among a dozen survivors in his company. Later, he struggled in the bitter Battle of the Bulge.

In April 1945, a shell burst severely wounded Douglas in the head, and he was thought to be dead.

His foxhole buddy and lifelong friend Wendell Chapman checked on him, discovered Douglas had a pulse and summoned medics.

Throughout his life, Douglas was fond of saying, “I cannot believe that I am still alive.”

Rock County Historical Society 

Sgts. Frank Douglas, left, and Wendell Chapman.

When he returned home from the war to Janesville’s Terrace Street, Douglas surprised his parents, who wept with joy. One of the first things Douglas did was read the Bible from cover to cover in a form of catharsis to cope with the horrors he had experienced.

Then he promised himself—and all the young men in his Janesville High School Class of 1943 who did not return—to do some good.

He once told The Gazette that every day is a blessing.

“Make it count,” Douglas said. “Do something to help someone else.”

Unforgettable classroom

Eventually, Douglas became a teacher and is remembered as one of Craig High School’s most beloved instructors. He taught geography for 30 years and almost annually took two students on all-expenses-paid trips.

After he retired in 1988, Douglas continued the tradition of giving young people a chance to see the world.

From 1954 to 2009, he accompanied 65 students on 90 learning adventures in the United States, Canada and Europe.

Gazette file photo 

World War II veteran Frank Douglas shows Washington Elementary School fourth-graders a photo of him and a friend in uniform when he served in the military during a talk at the Janesville school in 2011.

Douglas referred affectionately to his living-scholarship recipients as “my boys.” Most were from Janesville and are now scattered across the country.

One of “his boys” was Tobin Ryan of Janesville, who traveled with Douglas for two summers.

Ryan had Douglas as a teacher in the fall of 1980 and looked forward to his class every day.

“Many an evening I thought about what was in store the next day,” he said.

Douglas, who traveled to 133 countries, often transformed his classroom into the places students were studying.

If students were learning about Japan, they might sit around a pond similar to one found in a Japanese garden. Or if they were studying Hawaii, they might sit on a sand beach.

Gazette file photo 

Fourth-grader Charlie DeGarmo is captivated by the words of World War II veteran Frank Douglas, who talked at Janesville’s Washington Elementary School 2011.

Students considered it an honor to be selected to help Douglas build the settings after hours and on weekends.

Ryan became a lifelong friend of Douglas.

“He taught me and many others the joy of being curious,” Ryan said.

Another former student, Lee Foster of Phillips, often saw Douglas first thing in the morning in the fall of 1967.

Parker High School was under construction, and students attended Craig in split shifts.

“School started at 6 a.m. with Frank Douglas,” Foster recalled. “He was a teacher who garnered your attention right away. We were going to school before most of our parents were going to work. But he was just one of those teachers that made you want to go to class.”

At 15 years old Foster appreciated Douglas for treating everyone equally.

“He did not show any favoritism,” Foster said. “It didn’t matter whether you were the class president or the class clown. You got undivided attention from him.”

Foster put Douglas at the top of his list of unforgettable teachers.

Patriot and educator

Santo Carfora was a young second-year teacher when he came to Craig High School in 1970.

“Students would come in and say, ‘Why don’t you do what Mr. Douglas is doing?’” Carfora recalled. “Frank never encouraged anyone to copy his teaching style. What I learned is that I had to find my own voice and be my own person.”

Carfora praised Douglas for his steadfast support of all students.

“The kids who preferred not to go to school did not miss his class,” Carfora said. “He was honest and fair with them. They got more than history lessons. They got lessons in life. For me, that’s probably one of the greatest things Frank did for kids. He helped them find their self-worth.”

Kurt Van Galder got a job teaching history at Craig High School in 1973.

He met Douglas while walking past his doorway one morning when Douglas was up on a ladder transforming his room.

“I asked him if he wanted help,” Van Galder recalled. “When he found out I was a combat vet with the 4th Infantry Division, we had a real bond.”

The two had lunch together for many years at school, and Douglas shared stories that never made it into the books he wrote about his World War II experiences, travels and family.

Rock County Historical Society 

Frank Douglas in his U.S. Army uniform in World War II.

“He was such a patriot and great educator,” Van Galder said. “He inspired people. He was so dedicated to doing the best job, and he figured he had about 4,000 students between Deerfield and Janesville.”

Douglas taught in Deerfield prior to teaching in Janesville.

On the 70th anniversary of D-Day, Douglas reflected in an interview with The Gazette on his life as a soldier, teacher and benefactor.

He called surviving the war “the ultimate miracle.”

Then he added:

“I figured maybe God had other plans for me,” Douglas said. “I figured, if I had something, I would share it with others. The thing I’ve learned about the human race is that we are all in the same boat. We are all God’s children.”

Anna Marie Lux is a human interest columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264 or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.