By Dylan Deprey
As Vaun L. Mayes walked into Sherman Park, he held a rubber Kidde pool. He was accompanied by a little helper dressed in her pink bathing suit excited to take a dip. She smiled from ear to ear, as she prepared to beat the heat on a scorching Milwaukee day.
From sun up to sun down, the Program the Parks Initiative ensures that children and teens in the Sherman Park neighborhood have productive activities to participate in over the summer.
Whether its flag football, water balloon fights or self defense classes, Program the Parks has rooted its programming in the “it takes a village to raise a child” mentality.
Program the Parks Initiative founder, Vaun L. Mayes said the first day he showed up to Sherman Park back in June 2016, there were three Sheriff Cars, four MPD squad cars and nearly two hundred kids having mass fights.
“This was like an everyday occurrence,” Mayes said.
Mayes and his fellow neighbors began doing community walks to curb the unnecessary violence that has afflicted Milwaukee over the years.
Having had his own run-ins with the law during his adolescence, he made it a mission to hinder any other young children to fall into a lifestyle that has led others to both prison and the cemetery.
“We literally changed the atmosphere because the kids knew we were not going to let them get away with fighting over here.” Mayes said.
Program the Parks is funded solely through local business and community donations. From providing free dinners to park goers, to at-home tutoring and job opportunities for teens, Mayes has made leaps and bounds to improve his community.
But, as Sherman Park was seeing some major changes, the tensions were bubbling. There were noted issues between teens and the police, and kids and the local gas station. As Milwaukee’s violent summer was coming to a close the police involved shooting of Sylville Smith was the last straw.
The Sherman Park neighborhood went up in flames following two nights of civil unrest.
Just as Mayes had done time and time again, he became a voice for justice in another police involved shooting.
A History in Social Justice
Alongside his park duties, Mayes is an advocate for police accountability and police involved shootings. He is also a member of the Milwaukee Revolutionary Black Panthers.
In May 2015, Mayes flew out to Baltimore, MD as protests surged across the city following the death of Freddie Gray, while in police custody.
During the protests, Mayes filmed a video for Erica Walker. As she stepped onto an American flag with her fist raised doing the Eric Sheppard challenge, she protested the martial law being enforced after Gray’s death.
The video went viral and flooded social media and news platforms alike. It inspired Mayes to go on an “F Yo Flag Tour.”
Though it may be deemed one of the most disrespectful actions an American citizen can do, he used it as an attention grabber at protests and rallies.
“To me the flag is a representation of the hypocrisy of America. If you talk about equality, liberty and justice, realistically, most of us who are not from European decent have not had that. People think America isn’t racist because Obama was President, but that’s not actually the case”
While Desecrating the American flag has been in and out of court throughout the 20th Century, the Supreme Court made its final decision in the Texas v. Johnson case on June 21, 1989.
During the 1984 Republican National Convention, Gregory Lee Johnson burned an American flag in protest of President Reagan administration. Nobody was injured during the protest, but several witnesses said they felt offended, according to the United States Courts. Johnson was convicted of a Texas flag desecration statute that stated, it was illegal if people were offended by flag desecration.
Johnson appealed the case. He argued that his actions were “symbolic speech,” which was protected by the first amendment. The Supreme Court eventually sided in his favor 5-4.
The Majority noted that the 1st Amendment freedom of speech protected the actions that society might find offensive, but society’s outrage alone was not justification for suppressing free speech.
So, although it is considered disrespectful and un-American, flag desecration is protected by our First Amendment rights.
“There are a lot of Vets who support me or any other because they will say, ‘That is one of the rights we fought to protect.’ It doesn’t matter if you don’t like it or not that’s a right that Americans have,” Mayes said.
“Sometimes, people don’t want to hear or don’t want to listen. They want to sit and picture and live in an existence that they want, and it has nothing to do with the total picture of what America is supposed to be and what the constitution is supposed to be,” Mayes said.
The Messages Start Rolling In
As his work with police involved shootings and police accountability grew, so did his social media following. But, as he gained followers, he’d soon find out that he would attract even more enemies.
He said since his Facebook was shared into the pro-2nd amendment and pro-police groups, The Three Percenters of Wisconsin and Back the Blue Wisconsin, back in 2015, he has received nothing but racist, threatening messages.
“When the Syville Smith video comes out the family will be mad. Lol. They are a bunch of young thugs.,” one message said tauntingly.
“We know about your run-ins with police and all about what you do as the leader of black lives splatter in Milwaukee Wisconsin. It’s about time you knock off your crap,” said another message.
“Yes splatter. All your BLM splatter. You’ll kill each other. Eat your bacon Vaun. The wolves will get you. You have 14,000,000 people against you,” another added.
The Facebook Help Center stated that if members were bullied or harassed via Messenger, users should unfriend, block and report the user. It also offered tips: Don’t retaliate, don’t keep it a secret, and document/save messages.
Although Mayes skipped over the retaliation tip, as he had to say something to some of the ridiculously rude and racist messages, he blocked, reported and saved the messages. But, that didn’t’ mean the messages and posts stopped because his inbox housed thousands of unread messages.
“They send me this stuff like threatening me all the time. Of course, you’ve got the ‘N’word and all this kind of, ‘We’re gonna get you,’ and that’s been happening for years. Some of it I haven’t even sifted through,” Mayes said.
Where is the breaking point?
He had his personal records from CCAP, his grandmother’s address and cell phone number posted onto social media. Along with being called a terrorist and the leader of Black Lives Matter, he never thought he would hit the breaking point.
“If you take any position of police accountability, they automatically say you cause terrorism against the police. Even you’re calling out racism in police and what they do is making it ‘unsafe’ for them.”
The day after his page was shared into the “3 Percenters of Wisconsin” Facebook page an influx of hate messages from police, civilians and retired veterans rang in. Though he didn’t think anything of the, “We need to stop this terrorist,” posts it was just another day.
On Nov. 12, 2015, after leaving his house Mayes received calls from multiple neighbors.
“They were saying, ‘there’s a lot of white guys driving pass your house, and they have out of town plates,’” Mayes said.
“But I didn’t see them. So, I’m like ‘maybe they’re just looking for somebody’s house.’ So, I left, and as soon as I left, one of the guys that dropped me off stayed sitting out there and called and said, ‘this dude is sitting in your gangway.’”
As he doubled back around the block he hopped in a friend’s van and chased the vehicle down.
On Nov. 13, 2015, Mayes posted the video of the chase to his Facebook page. The six-minute video shows a white van chasing a black vehicle with tinted windows. After stopping the vehicle, Mayes gets out and addresses the assailant.
“I went up to the window and was like, ‘Who the f*** are you, and why are you coming to my house?’ He said he was a police officer and flashed his gun. He did something on a radio and not even a minute later there was a squad car behind him,” Mayes said.
Mayes told the officer that he had been getting harassed on social media and that people were showing up to his house. The officer told Mayes to go to the other side of the street.
“I was like ‘both of y’all need to pull the f*** over here and tell me what’s going on!’ The cop ended up walking across the street and talked to the guy for maybe about a minute and then let him drive off,” Mayes said.
The officer came over and told Mayes the man was with the Milwaukee High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA). He added that the man worked for the DA’s office and they were looking for drug houses in the neighborhood.
The Threats Become Too Real
Mayes’ worked to create a safe neighborhood and local programming for kids, but continued to be sidelined over the course of the year. The threats became too real, and the messages constantly rang in.
Whether it was planning a birthday party or giving kids free tickets to Bucks’ games, Mayes received taunting messages that seemed to come to fruition.
During the 2016 NBA season, the Bucks donated tickets to Program the Parks for the kids to take a trip out of the neighborhood and visit their local professional sports team.
“These people were like, ‘We called down there and told them you were a terrorist, and they’re banning you.’ They didn’t ban us because of course they couldn’t, but they did stop giving us tickets,” Mayes said.
He mentioned another situation when he was planning his birthday party. He posted online that he was thinking about having it at Dave & Busters. Not even minutes later messages poured in.
“We called Dave & Busters and you’re banned from there and they will call the cops if we see you,” one of the messages said.
“When you have all these people in these different groups openly telling me this is you’re under investigation from here, and our buddies in this department are telling us this, and some of this stuff has been proven, it’s serious,” Mayes said.
Gab Taylor, Program the Parks Co-founder, said while working with Mayes she has seen the taunting posts show up on social media.
“They will post as soon it happens or right after it happens,” Taylor said. “Things like ‘We’re gonna kick his door in,’ or ‘his days are numbered.’”
On Sept. 8, 2017, the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Taskforce (ATF) turned Mayes’ house over with a search warrant. The warrant stated they were there to collect all digital, photographic and written records relating to the BP gas station fire during the first night in the Sherman Park unrest.
Taylor said after the incident she followed the 3 Percenters Facebook group. She commented on one of the posts about Mayes.
“’I was like ‘who is this guy?’ pretending like I didn’t know what they were talking about,” Taylor said. “They were like, ‘You wouldn’t support him. He’s going down for drug trafficking, prostitution, grand theft auto.’ I was thinking, ‘what the f*** is this…a movie?’”
“It’s scary, but at the same time it pisses you off,” Taylor said.
Back the Blue offers a Truce
It was an odd sight for the Program the Parks Facebook to display a receipt with the caption, “Tell Back the Blue Milwaukee that this is where their donation went. Lol We keep records over here! If we say your money goes to the program, that’s where it goes!!”
If you scrolled down just a little further there was a picture of a Back the Blue member and Mayes during a Program the Parks barbecue on June 11. Back the Blue had donated $50 towards the community cookout. This was the same Back the Blue that had called Mayes a “terrorist” and “threat to society.”
The Courier reached out to Back the Blue and within hours received a call from Black the Blue Wisconsin creator to share his side of the story. He asked for his initials to be used.
JW created Back the Blue Wisconsin back in Jan. 23, 2014, as a way to unify Wisconsin law enforcement and the community.
“We had at least 20 or so admins on the profile and some of them were from a group called the 3 Percenters,” Williams said. “I didn’t know most of this stuff was going on because there was so many posts, like at least one every hour, and I didn’t keep an eye on it. If I would’ve have seen it earlier, I would have stopped it a long time ago.”
JW said he had heard of Program the Parks and even tried to reach out to try and partner with Mayes, but never received a call back.
“The whole thing with him and the flag I’m not for that, but I am for his community work and work with the kids. Especially for the kids because I want them to be safe this summer,” he said.
“I think Vaun is doing great things for the community.”
Back the Blue Wisconsin is dedicated to supporting law enforcement agencies, but are not affiliated with any agency. The group, which has 28,326 followers and 29,188 likes, has raised money and does events around the state.
Since the Courier spoke to JW, Back the Blue has donated summer toys for the children in Program the Parks, and are working on setting up a winter coat drive. They have also pledged to work with Mayes to build more community involvement in police relations.
One Bridge Mended, Many Left Broken
Over the course of researching and writing this piece, several high-profile police involved shooting cases have made headlines.
There was the Milwaukee County Sheriff involved shooting death of Terry Williams at Bradford Beach.
There was the not-guilty verdict in the former MPD officer Dominque Heaggan-Brown shooting of Sylville Smith. Mayes and other advocates met in Sherman Park to talk about the verdict with neighbors and family members.
There was complete silence from the NRA, after the not-guilty verdict for St. Anthony, Minn. Police Officer, Jeronimo Yanez, and the shooting dealth of legal gun owner, Philando Castile.
Mayes joined a protest, along with the families of Dontre Hamilton, Sylville Smith, Jay Anderson, Jermaine Claybrooks and Terry Williams at City Hall to speak to the Mayor on June 27, 2017. Mayes had spoken to the Mayor and a meeting with the Fire and Police Commission was set up for later date.
As the City Hall protest showed the amount of loss in the community, it had experienced another earlier in the week. A 16-year-old, Program the Parks Initiative regular was tragically struck by a stray bullet on Sun. 25th. He died from injuries the following Monday.
Mayes and neighborhood members marched in solidarity and remembrance with the fallen teens family on Tuesday, June 2017.
Mayes Continues to Work
So, while some groups like the “3 Percenters” claim to be patriots and protectors of peace, they have an odd way of showing it to a person basically doing the same thing they are.
Mayes has worked over the past two and a half years policing, protecting and providing programming to his community, and continues to work.
But, just as the NRA kept silent about the death of a Black concealed carry owner at the hands of an officer, the only difference between the 3 Percenters “protecting” our rights and Mayes work, is they are citizens, former/current police officers and veterans. Mayes on the other hand is a black man who knows his rights and is vocal about them, all while working towards justice and police reform in the City of Milwaukee.
Though Mayes may have had a pretty heavy week as an activist, he will continue to Program the Parks, whether he continues to receive hate mail or not.
“If you ever come to the park you will never hear us or anybody associated with me do, ‘Black Power,’ in front of the kids because I don’t bring those ideologies to the park,” Mayes said. “When I’m at the park or doing community and youth events, it’s strictly that. None of my politics or my ideologies are included like that.”
So, whether its playing cans and cooking for the neighborhood kids, or having to console a griefstricken mother, Mayes will continue to be there for his neighborhood to lend a helping hand.