State and local elected officials from across the political spectrum expressed outrage and disappointment Wednesday after Black Lives Matter protesters in Madison tore down the state Capitol’s iconic “Forward” statue and one of a Union Civil War colonel, assaulted at least two people — including a state senator — and set a small fire in a city building Downtown.
Still unclear was whether Madison police would move to curtail any future violence after largely standing down while some activists and others have blocked traffic, harassed residents, defaced property, and smashed windows and looted businesses up and down State Street in the three and a half weeks since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked anger nationwide over racism and police brutality.
Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway condemned Tuesday’s violence during a Wednesday online news conference but said the notion police were told to back off protesters was a “false rumor.”
She also declined to say whether she thought police responded appropriately and said she does not seek to “micromanage” police, who coordinate their response with other local law enforcement.
“There has been broad agreement amongst law enforcement that de-escalation and protecting people is the top concern and I defer to the experts here and don’t wish to micromanage the situation,” she said. “Although I will say we have received some communications from police officers that make it sound like they would like us to, from the mayor’s office or from the council, to micromanage the situation. I don’t think that’s appropriate.”
In addition to two standing police oversight committees in Madison, the City Council has authorized five committees or work groups to examine Madison police policies and practices over the last five years, as well as authorized a $372,000 consultant’s report on the department that found it was “far from ‘a Department in crisis.’” Rhodes-Conway, elected in April 2019, has made the implementation of an independent police monitor and a separate citizens oversight committee priorities of her administration.
Acting Police Chief Vic Wahl did not respond to requests for comment about his department’s response to the protest Tuesday and others in recent weeks.
State Capitol Police, who fall under the jurisdiction of the state Department of Administration, did not explain in a statement Wednesday where they were overnight Tuesday as protesters tore down the statues and assaulted Sen. Tim Carpenter, D-Milwaukee, other than to say they “responded to attempts to breach the State Capitol last night, and were able to prevent any additional penetration of the building.”
In response to the protest, Gov. Tony Evers on Wednesday said he has activated the National Guard to support local police and they “will serve in a limited authorization meant to make sure people can exercise their First Amendment rights while ensuring the safety of members of the public and state buildings and infrastructure.”
“I want to be clear,” he said. “Violence against any person ... is wrong. It should never be tolerated.”
National Guard spokesman Capt. Joe Trovato said the Guard would provide “site security for critical infrastructure” but that the mission is still being determined. He declined to say how many Guard members were being deployed.
During a press conference at the Capitol Wednesday morning, Republican legislative leaders lambasted the governor’s and city leaders’ response to protests.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, defended the right of people to peacefully protest, but said “violent protest, where a mob forms and government refuses to act, is the exact opposite of how change will occur.”
“Citizens all across the state are sick and tired of watching what happens around the state where protesters are not held accountable,” he said.
The protest Tuesday stood in contrast to what happened May 30 and for two nights afterward, when largely peaceful protests ended but were followed by looting and destruction by a smaller group of people who left just about every window on State Street shattered. Police shot teargas and foam projectiles at protesters when they thought they were threatening them, but took little action against those causing property damage.
After those first three nights, subsequent protests were largely peaceful, although protest marches routinely shut down major roads.
But on Tuesday, protesters made clear from the beginning that they were not interested in peace, and those sympathetic to them, including at least one elected official, expressed little regret on social media Wednesday about the violence.
Karen Reece Phiffer, vice president of research and education at Madison’s Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development, called Carpenter’s injuries “unfortunate” and “collateral damage” on Facebook and asked why Evers wasn’t condemning racial disparities in incarceration and other quality-of-life measures in a state long known for having some of the largest such disparities in the nation.
Ald. Rebecca Kemble, 18th District, said a hit-and-run accident that injured a Black woman Downtown early Sunday morning laid the groundwork for the violence Tuesday.
In that case, the 24-year-old Madison woman suffered non-life-threatening injuries after being hit by a pickup truck around bar-closing time at University Avenue and Frances Street. Police say the truck appeared to have been driven by a white man and that there were reports some in the mostly Black crowd had been harassing him before he accelerated. Police said they briefly used pepper spray to stop some bystanders from interfering with their attempts to attend to the injured woman.
Kemble on Facebook called the “police/EMT response to her trauma ... racist and inhumane.”
The protest began late Tuesday afternoon after local Black activist Devonere Johnson, 28, was arrested for harassing diners at The Coopers Tavern on Capitol Square. With a bat and a bullhorn, he walked around the restaurant’s patio and inside, yelling political invective and calling a white customer a racist, according to bystander video.
Johnson — who also goes by the name Yeshua Musa and has three prior convictions, including one for felony theft — resisted and it took officers several minutes to get him into a squad car, from which he escaped briefly before being recaptured. He was tentatively charged with disorderly conduct while armed, resisting arrest and attempted escape.
Ald. Paul Skidmore, 9th District, one of the police department’s strongest supporters on the City Council, said that while he believes in the existence of systemic racism and the need to address it, there are no data to support the notion that Madison police are racist or out of control.
“We crossed a line last night,” he said, accusing protesters of mounting an “insurrection.”
Skidmore said police have told him they’re walking a fine line, trying not to incite further violence by taking action against protesters in the moment and instead opting to identify and arrest them later. He said a lack of political support is also playing into their decisions.
“The police department is hesitant because they don’t feel that the City Council and definitely the mayor has their backs,” he said.
In a statement, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi said a “firebomb” that was tossed through a window of the City-County Building landed near the county’s 911 Center and started a small fire, which was quickly put out but forced the evacuation of staff and the activation of the backup 911 center.
Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney said the fire put some teenagers housed in the Juvenile Detention Center in danger and called those who set it “anarchists.” He called on leaders of local activist groups Freedom Inc. and Urban Triage — who have organized many of the nonviolent protests — to “publicly disparage” the violence Tuesday.
He said police departments, including his own, need to take a “deep look” inside themselves to make reforms, but “you don’t beat innocent individuals and rob them to encourage law enforcement reforms.”
Rhodes-Conway said she has asked police to expedite their investigation into any criminal actions by protesters and people who reportedly drove through groups of protesters Tuesday, as well as to expedite Johnson’s initial appearance before a judge. Johnson is on probation for a prior conviction and according to the Department of Corrections would remain in jail on a probation hold until DOC completes an investigation into whether he violated terms of his probation.
On Wednesday night, a group of about 20 people was gathered at the Capitol near State Street with a couple of loudspeakers and a microphone. Music was playing in between some speeches and chants.
They were joined around 10:30 p.m. by a group of about 50 others who marched over from the Dane County Jail, where they chanted outside and sat on Doty Street, the Sheriff’s Office said.
State Journal reporters Shanzeh Ahmad and Emily Hamer contributed to this report.
Photos: See damage from Tuesday’s protests near state Capitol