A Milwaukee police officer shot and killed Dontre Hamilton in Red Arrow Park, where he had been sleeping on a bench by a Starbucks Coffee on April 30, 2014. Family, friends, faith leaders, activists, and members of the community gathered on the seventh anniversary of his fatal shooting to remember the tragedy that affected the social fabric of Milwaukee.

“Dontre Day” has been held as a public memorial to honor Dontre Hamilton and other people of color who have been extrajudicially killed by police. But the Hamilton family has also used the event to celebrate and uplift the remarkable life of their son and brother.

Thrust into a national spotlight they did not ask for while processing a family loss, the Hamiltons have spent the years since 2014 seeking to change Milwaukee’s flawed institution of law enforcement. Hamilton’s mother said that the death of her son continued to bring people together in life.

“Even though a lot of people here in the park never met him, they have so much love for Dontre. They learned to love him through the love we have for him,” said Maria Hamilton. “Dontre used to reach out to the homeless and bring them in for showers, and give them his clothes. I was kind of worried about having strangers in my house, but that was his heart. Dontre brought people together then, and he still brings us together now. It makes me happy that Dontre didn’t die in vain.”

Every year on April 30, known as “Dontre Day” since 2018, the community comes together for a vigil in Red Arrow Park. It has been an opportunity to spread love, respect, and unity. Many in attendance take the time to remember Dontre for who he was, a man devoted to his family and of impeccable character.

Dontre, who experienced mental health issues, was sleeping on a park bench when a Starbucks employee called 911 – twice. During the second police response, officer Christopher Manney instigated a scuffle and then discharged his handgun, hitting Dontre 14 times at point-blank range. The Milwaukee Police Department later fired Officer Manney, but neither county our federal prosecutors ever charged him in the deadly encounter.

The mother of Sandra Bland, Geneva Reed-Veal, attended “Dontre Day” to show her support for the Hamilton family. One of the most touching moments of the event came when Reed-Veal first arrived at Red Arrow Park, to the total surprise of Maria Hamilton. Bland was found dead in a Texas jailhouse three days after a confrontational traffic stop by a state trooper in 2015. The two mothers had bonded over the experiences of their shared tragedies. Maria Hamilton founded Mother’s for Justice United, which connects mothers who have lost children to state and vigilante violence.

Other families were invited to share their similar stories of loss at the hands of police, including Sedan Smith, brother of Sylville Smith who was fatally shot by a Milwaukee police officer in 2016 and ignited days of unrest in the Sherman Park neighborhood, and the parents of Jay Anderson, who was killed in his car in Madison Park after being confronted for sleeping by Wauwatosa police officer Joseph Mensah.

To honor Hamilton’s life, Milwaukee County Supervisor Sequanna Taylor announced that she planned to introduce a resolution appropriating funds towards the Dontre Hamilton Memorial Bench, which would be placed in Red Arrow Park. The cost would be between $2,000 and $3,500 to install.

“Dontre Hamilton should still be with us today,” said Supervisor Taylor. “His story is just one of many examples of Black people taken from us too soon due to police violence. This memorial would serve as a reminder that Dontre had been minding his own business, sleeping on a park bench, when he was assaulted and killed by a police officer.”

Previous efforts to rename Red Arrow Park as Dontre Hamilton Park stalled over objections by some veterans. Late last year the Milwaukee Independent article Dontre Hamilton Park: New proposal could end opposition to renaming Red Arrow Park rekindled public attention and interest in matter.

“Memorializing Dontre Hamilton in Red Arrow Park would be a reminder of the work needed to achieve racial equity and public health in Milwaukee,” said Chairwoman Marcelia Nicholson. Her County supervisory district includes Red Arrow Park.

State Representative David Bowen, who experienced rightwing political attacks last year for his support of the Black Lives Matter movement, also spoke at the event. He outlined the daunting challenges that Wisconsin faced to enact police reform. The Republican controlled state legislature has repeatedly blocked or ignored all efforts to create policies that would end police brutality. GOP lawmakers have additionally pushed to further militarize local law enforcement and shield unfit officers from public accountability.

After Dontre’s death, his brother Nate Hamilton cofounded the Coalition for Justice, an organization with a mission to bring awareness to injustices happening in Milwaukee. The Hamilton family has continuously shown love and support to and advocated for others who have lost family members to violence.

“It’s been seven years since the death of Dontre, which feels like yesterday to our family,” said Nate Hamilton. “We’ve committed ourselves to justice not only for him, but all those who have fell victim to violence at the hands of those sworn to protect us. Continuing to empower community and inspire change is our goal.”

An additional goal of the Dontre Hamilton Memorial Bench will be to provide an opportunity to bring more attention to mental health issues, and increase the awareness of treatment options. Dontre was one of 1.5 million Americans, and 20 million people worldwide, diagnosed with Schizophrenia.

“Here you are after 7 years. Here you are after all the tears. Here you are doing what’s right, even though you’re going through a personal fight. Dontre’s March was my first one. He’s the reason my journey begun. Mama Hamilton you’re an inspiration to me. You’re everything I aspire to be. You are what this movement represents. A person who comes to these events, and gives 110%. Because even thought the answers you wanted weren’t found, you still come out and put your boots to the ground. 7 years later we’ve protested in the rain and snow. 7 years later and there’s still room to grow. 7 years later, things are getting better. 7 years later, we’re getting closer together.”

– Janiya Williams