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Each empty chair has a story: Memorial honors Milwaukee’s 600 victims of the COVID-19 pandemic

A handful of Milwaukee’s political, spiritual, and community leaders gathered in the open field of MacArthur Square by the County Courthouse on October 27, surrounded by 600 empty chairs to publicly mourn the loss of local residents due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

With more than 600 deaths in Milwaukee County in just seven months, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a devastating toll on Wisconsin’s largest urban community. Milwaukee residents have struggled to survive many unprecedented hardships that, for the most part, could have been averted with responsible leadership from the Trump administration. Instead, what became life and death challenges were compounded and made worse by lies, greed, inaction, and incompetence.

“I still see the news stories of people who say ‘It’s fake, it’s fake, it’s fake.’ I don’t know how many times we have to see television news reports of someone who has lost their father or their mother until people realize we have to wear these masks,” said Mayor Tom Barrett. “We have to keep social distancing too, because this is a very real and a very serious situation in our state right now.”

Organizers said that the memorial was put together because there had been no opportunity for people to come together and share their grief during the pandemic, or to mourn the lives of local family and friends lost during the tragedy. It was also a call for individual and political action to slow the spread of the illness, which continues to sweep across the state.

Wisconsin also recorded the highest number of deaths caused by COVID-19 on the same day. The Department of Health Services reported 64 deaths on October 27 due to complications caused by the coronavirus. That loss was 16 more than the previous record of 48 deaths on October 21. The total was described by DHS as a “nightmare,” with the state hitting a record one-day total of 5,262 coronavirus cases.

The MacArthur Square event was hosted by Citizen Action Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Service Area Workers, Black Leaders Organizing for Communities, and Souls to the Polls. The six-hour memorial was a chance for Milwaukee residents to come together, while remaining socially distant, in a public space to honor the lives lost. It was but one of many steps that will be needed on the long road ahead to help the community heal from the crippling and mismanaged health crisis.

“Those families, and by extension this community, need an opportunity to grieve and remember those individuals who died – many of them needlessly,” added Mayor Barrett. “These empty chairs are a lonely reminder of what we are living through right now – our emptiness and our loss. We have an obligation as a society to end this tragedy that has divided us so much. This should not be a political issue.”

Executive Director of Souls to the Polls, Pastor Greg Lewis, talked about his experience of almost dying from COVID-19 when it first hit the nation. While in the ICU, he kept his phone so he could stay in touch with his congregation. As he recovered, he counted the loss of four friends who were not so fortunate.

“I laid there and I knew I was dying a slow death. People need to listen, this virus is serious,” said Pastor Lewis. “When I contracted COVID-19 I didn’t know what it was. And when I got tested, and they gave me the results, I was devastated because I knew there was no cure. Look at those chairs. That’s how serious it is. People need to stop taking this virus lightly. Wear your mask, wear your gloves. We’re grieving today, for all these people.”

U.S. Congresswoman Gwen Moore, along with Wisconsin state Senators LaTonya Johnson and Chris Larson, criticized the state’s Republican lawmakers, who have abandoned their elected duty in the Wisconsin Legislature to find a solution to the health crisis. Instead of supporting and enacting policies to stop the coronavirus from spreading, GOP leaders have done nothing except fight the “Stay at Home” order from Governor Tony Evers, and challenge all his health safety measures in court. As a result of their political machinations, the death toll has skyrocketed and overwhelmed the state’s health care system.

“The biggest tragedy is that we can do more,” said Senator Larson. “The state right now has the least active full-time legislature in the country. Given what’s going on, given these tragedies, given what’s at stake, how can we not do more? We must be able to tackle this, and be able to cut this short, so that more chairs aren’t added here.”

Senator Johnson talked about her mother and aunts who were essential workers in health care, and how their lives were at risk daily from the pandemic and their preexisting health conditions. Each speaker also shared their connection to the coronavirus, with a personal tragedy about someone they lost – represented by one of the memorial’s empty chairs. For Mayor Barrett it was the loss of a childhood friend, for Representative Moore it was two members of the community.

“As we remember the 600 people here in our own city and the 1,800 statewide, let us remember them with resolve,” said Representative Moore. “We’ve got to believe in each other, we got to believe in ourselves, we got to believe in our own humanity, and the rights of everyone to be safe, and to respect each other. By wearing masks, and socially distancing, we have the greatest weapon against this pandemic. It is embracing our own humanity.”

© Photo

Lee Matz

The Milwaukee Independent began reporting on what was then referred to as the mysterious “Wuhan Virus” in January. Other local media did not picked-up on the story until many weeks later. Our early features focused on the economic impact, social issues, and health concerns long before other Milwaukee news organizations even mentioned the coronavirus. Over the following months, we have published more than 500 articles about the pandemic and how it has affected the lives of Milwaukee residents. This extensive body of work can be found on our COVID-19 Special Report page, a chronological index of links by month. Our editorial voice remains dedicated to informing the public about this health crisis for as long as it persists.
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