Capitol Punishments: Invitations to violence

Conventions, car attacks, and consequences.
Illustration: Ghosts and ghouls are shown swarming about the Wisconsin Capitol. Illustration by Maggie Denman.
Illustration: Ghosts and ghouls are shown swarming about the Wisconsin Capitol. Illustration by Maggie Denman.

Conventions, car attacks, and consequences.

Each week in Wisconsin politics brings an abundance of bad policies, bad takes, and bad actors. In our recurring feature, Capitol Punishments, we bring you the week’s highlights (or low-lights) from the state Legislature and beyond.

Note: Christina Lieffring is out this week. We eagerly await her return to the Capitol Punishments Agony Nexus.

Good hosts to fascists

The Republican National Committee has officially decided to host its 2024 convention in Milwaukee. This brings to a successful culmination months of abject groveling from Milwaukee’s largely Democratic elected leaders. “While I take issue with the Republican platform, we will be good hosts,” Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson tweeted in July, perfectly capturing the “let’s just agree to disagree” attitude that many Democrats employ to face a Republican Party that is no longer shy or subtle about its vile, authoritarian aims.

In this very column, Christina Lieffring has already pointed out that Milwaukee is rolling out the welcome mat for a party that would rather have the votes of Milwaukeeans not count, and the economic benefits to the city are exaggerated. This idea that hosting the convention will buy Milwaukee political capital with Republicans is laughable. As long as Republicans control the Wisconsin Legislature, they’ll do everything they can to sabotage the city’s infrastructure and public services and stand in the way of beneficial funding. They’ll do all that while continuing to portray Milwaukee as a scary hellhole, fueling the racism and manufactured resentment that drives so much of Wisconsin politics.

It goes deeper than purely political humiliations. Hosting the Republican Party is an invitation to white supremacist violence in Milwaukee—and in Madison, where tourism officials are already cheerfully preparing for satellite events. This is a party that isn’t interested in winning elections legitimately or holding power legitimately. It’s not going to find its way “back” from Trump—if anything, it’ll move forward with more loathsome and clever fascists like Ron DeSantis. This is a movement that has made a hero of a teenager who drove up to Kenosha to shoot protestors, whose virulently anti-trans politics incited bomb threats in Kiel

What do you even say to people who don’t understand how irresponsible this is?

Does anyone care about people getting hit by cars?

During the 2020 protests, I tried to get a story together about vehicular attacks on crowds in Madison. Ever since white supremacist James Fields drove his car into a crowd of protestors in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12, 2017, killing activist Heather Heyer, it’s been impossible to think about large-scale public protests in the United States without also thinking about the possibility of vehicular attacks. This danger should have been top of mind for anyone paying attention in 2020, after years of Republican efforts to encourage and incite fascists to run over protestors with their cars. Cops, rioting nationwide against historic protests calling them to account, got in on the action themselves

And yes, several of these incidents happened in Madison. Though, luckily, no one was killed. The story got a bit lost in the shuffle, but in looking back through my notes, there were at least eight incidents where crowds had an ugly run-in with a driver, or where someone hit a car that was participating in a protest action. Four of them happened over the course of one night, as Madison365 reported at the time

It was pretty clear to me that the police didn’t give a shit, nor did Madison’s political establishment and business leaders. There is a durable narrative around every shop window damaged and every piece of merchandise stolen, but memory and outrage are a lot more tenuous when it comes to the multiple incidents when people—whether they were true-believer fascists or just aggrieved motorists overreacting selfishly and recklessly to a protest—drove cars or motorcycles through groups of protestors in Madison, or hit other vehicles taking part in a protest action. We heard lots of admonitions that the property damage was unacceptable and had to stop, but not so many stern warnings about not hitting people with your car.

At the time, I asked then-Madison Police Department spokesperson Joel DeSpain what protocols MPD had in place for safeguarding people against these attacks. He sent me a link to a generalized document on policing demonstrations and assemblies, which doesn’t mention the issue of vehicular attacks at all. “Any comment on follow-up investigations or additional precautions?” I asked in a follow-up email. No response. 

It’s hard to miss the imbalance when you look at the follow-through on vehicle incidents that injured people and could have killed them, and the follow-through on incidents of property destruction, theft, or otherwise disruptive forms of protest. It just illustrates that police and prosecutors are not the right tool for the job if you want to create public safety, or if you want the law applied equally to all. 

One of these car-versus-crowd incidents happened on June 21 at the corner of Frances Street and University Avenue. A man drove his pickup truck through a crowd, seriously injuring at least one person. On Friday, the Wisconsin State Journal reported that the man accused in the incident, Brendan O’Neil, “pleaded guilty to a felony Friday but will have it erased from his record if he completes a first-offenders program.” 

Compare this to the consequences that protestors have faced in criminal cases in Madison. Devonere Johnson, arrested after confronting patrons at downtown bars and brandishing a bat, faced federal extortion charges and was sentenced to two years’ probation. (Even if you buy the prosecution’s version of events and disapprove of Johnson’s behavior, the idea that this rose to the level of a federal extortion case is just absurd.) Two people accused of an attack on State Senator Tim Carpenter—people Carpenter himself admitted he couldn’t actually identify as those who injured him—were acquitted, but only after a lengthy and blatantly vindictive prosecution as well as taking the risk that a jury trial would lead to longer sentences than a plea deal. Punishments for tearing down statues at the Capitol have included probation and thousands of dollars in fines.

O’Neil’s defense attorney claimed that O’Neil was reacting to threatening behavior from the crowd and had “never been political.” The point is that all these extenuating circumstances apparently held weight for prosecutors and the judge. In the view of the system, there was something worth redeeming, something worth defending, and a reason not to throw the book at the defendant to maximize his punishment. But punishment was more swift for bystanders in the aftermath of the incident: Police showed up and pepper-sprayed them, later claiming that they needed to do this, as NBC15 reported, “to create space so the paramedics could treat the victim.” (Pepper spray: for when you really need to administer health care during a respiratory pandemic.)

In November 2020, a UW-Madison employee named Richard Yaeger drove his motorcycle into a group of protestors, running over one person’s foot in the process. He went online and bragged about it. UW later fired him amid public pressure, though administrators’ stated reasons for the firing didn’t necessarily have anything to do with the motorcycle incident. He never faced criminal charges.

Surely, there is an attorney who could talk you through all the case-by-case reasons why these jagged outcomes all make perfect sense according to the way things are set up. And I don’t believe we can really punish our way out of these problems. So, on a certain level, it seems absurd to demand that they all be thrown into prison or bankrupted through financial penalties, a result for which no one is truly better off. But the outlines are clear: Political violence will not be tolerated from some corners, but others can have a nice helping of violence, as a treat.

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