The group arrives at the Pennsylvania state line during their trek to Washington. (Briana Neal)

Before police shot a Black man from Wisconsin seven times in the back at point-blank range, before the National Guard was called in amid nightly unrest, a group of Milwaukee activists set off on a protest march calling for an end to racist policing and injustice that would wind through mountains and cross state lines.

In cities big and small, they raised their fists and chanted, “Black lives matter.” In sleepy suburbs, they marched and bobbed down empty streets to the beat of music from a tinny cellphone speaker or the windows of a support vehicle in their growing caravan.

They were heading to the 2020 March on Washington the old-fashioned way: by putting one foot in front of the other.

Follow along for live updates from the March on Washington

Led by Milwaukee activist Frank Sensabaugh, better known as Frank Nitty, the group began its trek in a Milwaukee parking lot on Aug. 4.

Twenty-five days later — after arrests, a shooting and countless conversations with angry and frightened White residents worried that a “Black lives matter” chant was a foghorn warning of violence — the group plans to arrive early Friday in the nation’s capital, where Nitty will take the stage at the Lincoln Memorial.

Families of men and women who have been killed by law enforcement are scheduled to speak. Benjamin Crump, who has represented the families of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and George Floyd, will also address the crowd. The Rev. Al Sharpton, who led organizing efforts for Friday’s march, began planning in June, in the wake of Floyd’s funeral and in the midst of protest and uprising across the country.

This week’s March on Washington, dubbed the “Get Your Knee Off Our Necks” March, was always meant to draw attention to the criminal justice system’s unequal treatment of Black people.

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Now, as tensions soar in Kenosha, Wis. — following the police shooting Sunday of Jacob Blake, the shooting death of two protesters and the arrest of 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse on a charge of first-degree intentional homicide — activists say the march has taken on a new sense of urgency.

For days, the unrest in Kenosha has tugged at members of the walking caravan.

Several from Wisconsin thought about returning to stand against violence in the lakefront city. Others said it has recommitted them to finishing their journey to D.C.

“It makes it harder for us, seeing that happen in our own community, but it also lights a fire in us,” said Briana Neal, 29, who protested at Black Lives Matter demonstrations for months before joining the caravan. “It hurts to be so far away. But you know what? I’m going straight to Kenosha when we leave D.C., and when I get back there, I’m going to be so much stronger than when I left.”

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Before they set out, Milwaukee civil rights advocate and community organizer Tory Lowe said he and Nitty warned the group the walk would be treacherous.

Beyond the physical strain of marching dozens of miles a day, he said, several counties in their path had documented histories of being Ku Klux Klan strongholds.

The group is composed of about 50 people who joined at various stops along the way. It’s a diverse group, with people of various races and members of the LGBTQ community. Some brought their children. A dog named Juice and a cat named Sparrow are on the journey.

The protesters each have their reasons for being there: For some, it’s spiritual; for others, it’s a chance to capture people’s attention in a noisy social media landscape and turn the eyes of the world to their message of peace and justice.

Along the way to Washington, the group members say, they have come face-to-face with the very forces they are demonstrating against: racism, violence and the inequity of the criminal justice system.

In Indiana, state police officers arrested three members of the group for blocking traffic in Kosciusko County. They were handcuffed and held for hours in the county jail. Indiana State Police wrote in a news release that the group was “intentionally obstructing vehicular traffic” on a four-lane highway with a speed limit of 60 miles per hour.

Chandi LeSure, 36, a hospitality worker from Milwaukee who has marched with the group since the beginning, said she was accused of shoplifting at an Indiana Walmart after spending $300 on supplies for the group.

On long, winding highways and rolling county roads, they say drivers have tried to run the caravan off the road. One car, LeSure said, sped toward a member of their group, who jumped out of the way.

In Ohio, store owners locked their doors during business hours or refused to let the activists use gas pumps and restrooms, they said. In one instance, strangers pulled their cars into the gas station ahead of them to block the entrance.

“I couldn’t believe that — we’ve got kids, we’ve got pregnant women with us who need to use the bathroom,” said Tameka Burks, 43, who joined the group two weeks ago and brought four of her children — ages 2, 3, 7 and 14 — along on the march.

Burks, who recently moved to Milwaukee from rural Wisconsin, said she was inspired by the nonviolent messaging of the Rev. Martin Luther King and the timing of Friday’s march to mark the 57th anniversary of King’s seminal “I Have a Dream Speech” at the Lincoln Memorial.

“Being [in D.C.] on the anniversary of what Dr. King did when he led the march back then is powerful. We’re trying to repeat that same dream and do it peacefully. That’s what we want our children to see,” she said.

In Pennsylvania, a marcher was shot by a homeowner in Bedford County who fired several rounds at the group as they sat while pulled over along a two-lane road.

The incident was caught on video and live-streamed by group members. As the first gunshot cut through the dark night, the crowd paused, confused by the noise. Someone asked if it could be fireworks.

“We were talking about Kenosha, talking about this big hill we were about to climb and then this guy comes from half a block away shooting at us — pow, pow, pow,” Lowe said. “It took us a minute to even realize we were in a gunfight.”

In the videos, a man with a long gun can be seen advancing toward the group, sending people running, shouting, ducking behind cars. Between shots, a protester can be heard shouting, “We’re leaving! You don’t have to be violent!”

In the chaos, a police report notes, one member of the group was shot.

“Mom, should I call the police?” Neal’s 11-year-old daughter asked as she told the girl to duck down.

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Neal, who is seven months pregnant, took a deep breath as she put on her blinker and began to steer their car from the gunman.

“No,” she told her daughter. “It’s okay. Shh.”

Pennsylvania State Trooper Joseph Dunsmore said the agency has “strong evidence to suggest there was gunfire exchanged between the two parties,” although he declined to release other details. No arrests have been made.

The injured protester was hospitalized. The next day, demonstrators checked into a hotel.

On Tuesday evening, a group of White men pulled up to the hotel brandishing weapons and shooting guns into the air, protesters said. The hotel staff locked the doors as protesters took shelter in their rooms.

“I don’t pray, but I was praying like a Catholic sister that night,” said Whitney Cabal, a community organizer from Kenosha.

A 43-year-old man was charged with reckless endangerment, disorderly conduct and a firearms violation, according to Pennsylvania State Police records.

By Wednesday, the group was back on the road. The injured protester had checked himself out of the hospital and rejoined the group. He’s not marching on foot anymore, Lowe said, but is determined to make it to D.C.

On Thursday, the caravan was in Maryland. They hope to make it to D.C. by the time the rally kicks off.

Tens of thousands are expected to descend on Washington to attend the demonstration. Television stations will broadcast speakers’ addresses live. Politicians and performers will take the stage to address racism, inequity and criminal justice reform.

Headlined by Sharpton, who will be joined by King’s eldest son, Martin Luther King III, the demonstration will conclude a week of events in the nation’s capital. The march will be streamed online by the NAACP, and solidarity marches are planned around the country.

Sharpton has said for months that the march would be led by the families that “know the pain” of losing a loved one at the hands of law enforcement officers.

Earlier this week, officials with Sharpton’s National Action Network announced that the family of Blake, who was paralyzed from the waist down after being shot by Kenosha police, would join them.

Billed as a commitment march meant to underscore participants’ dedication to criminal justice reform, the event will also seek to underscore the ideals enumerated by King more than half a century ago and connect those issues to voter participation in the November election.

In 1963, an estimated 250,000 people gathered along the Reflecting Pool to hear the words of civil rights leaders and icons. On Friday, about 50,000 are expected to attend, according to a permit from the National Park Service — a decline from organizers’ original estimate of 100,000.

March on Washington organizers lower crowd size estimate for Friday rally

Many blame the coronavirus pandemic, which prompted organizers to cancel charter buses scheduled to bring demonstrators from some states with elevated coronavirus caseloads.

Still, many have planned pilgrimages to attend what they see as a seminal civil rights protest in a summer marked by unrest and anguish.

A group of Black female motorcyclists known as “Black Girls Ride” will roar into town on their bikes. Nitty and the dozens with him will march into town on foot.

Some have never been to Washington.

As they march, they imagine what it will be like, what they will see and feel as they enter the nation’s capital in a crowd gathered to stand with them in the face of injustice.

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