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“I’m already an ally,” State Senator screams at Nada Elmikashfi

The State Senate candidate weathers harassment from possible future colleague Tim Carpenter.

Wisconsin State Senator Tim Carpenter has been throwing an online shit-fit over the past few days, directing most of his hostility at Madison’s own Nada Elmikashfi, a candidate in the Democratic primary for Wisconsin’s 26th District Senate seat. 

Carpenter, a Democrat representing the 3rd Senate District in Milwaukee County, lashed out after Elmikashfi criticized Carpenter’s proposal to make defacing statues and other monuments on public property a felony, carrying financial penalties up to $10,000, prison time of up to three and a half years. Carpenter co-authored the bill with Republican State Rep. Rob Hutton. Protestors beat up Carpenter near the Capitol on June 23, the same night they pulled down two statues there, one a replica of the iconic “Forward” sculpture and the other commemorating Civil War Col. Hans Christian Heg. Carpenter has been recovering from his injuries, which were serious if not life-threatening. 

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Elmikashfi, true to the unapologetic clarity she’s shown since launching a campaign to challenge incumbent Fred Risser (who has since announced his retirement), Tweeted on Thursday morning: “Get me in the senate so I can block this absolute bullshit. You shouldn’t have been assaulted Senator Carpenter; but that doesn’t mean you get to block our civil rights movement. If this is passed on a bipartisan basis; @GovEvers needs to veto it. #BlackLivesMatter.”

Carpenter replied by complaining about the beating. He escalated things well into the wee hours of Sunday morning. Carpenter tweeted condescending and defensive remarks about his allyship, had his Twitter account briefly suspended for harassment, and even invoked the July 17 death of civil-rights hero John Lewis to try to scold his critics. By Friday afternoon, Carpenter was declaring “I’M ALREADY AN ALLY &don’t have to prove it to you,” while drawing absurd false equivalencies:

 

At no point did Carpenter meaningfully exchange with criticisms of his legislative proposal. At no point did he show any self-awareness about how vile it is to berate a Black woman who is 36 years his junior, who has already done plenty of work in state and local politics, and who would caucus with him if elected. At no point does Carpenter seem to grasp that Elmikashfi might be perfectly capable of defining for herself what constitutes good allyship from a gay white man. Eventually, Elmikashfi offered an olive branch of sorts, sending Carpenter a gracious DM expressing her respect for his past record as a legislator. He responded by trying to somehow spin this as hypocrisy on Elmikashfi’s part, and @’ed her over and over again with screenshots of the DMs.

This isn’t just political infighting—it’s harassment and it’s pointlessly destructive. Carpenter’s Democratic colleagues should hold him accountable. Carpenter should resign. If he doesn’t, may he face a primary challenger who will spare us future rampages of white fragility. 

What’s makes Carpenter’s behavior even more deeply upsetting is that Elmikashfi has already weathered an outrageous amount of abuse during her campaign, from racists attacking her for being a Muslim and Sudanese immigrant to establishment Democrats ignoring her existence. Press coverage has often focused on the fact that Elmikashfi’s “fuck your statues” Tweet made white people uncomfortable, rather than on her personal experiences, her political work, her extensive policy platform, or the fact that she’s running an energetic campaign that rallies people who often feel left out of Wisconsin politics. 

If Carpenter doesn’t like hearing criticism of his bill, he needs to remind himself that it’s part of his job to think about how different constituencies will respond to policy ideas, and to try and address those responses respectfully. The legislation Carpenter and Hutton introduced was bound to bomb with anyone who has even a superficial understanding of the nationwide movement against police brutality and white supremacy. It uses the punitive tools of a carceral system that many people in the movement want to rip out root and branch, at a time when we desperately need legislators to focus their energy on policies that will advance racial and economic injustice. No one would be happy about getting beaten up, but Elmikashfi eloquently pointed out that Carpenter has an obligation to look at the bigger picture:

By co-sponsoring this bill with a Republican, Carpenter has also given the Wisconsin GOP even more rhetorical fuel for stirring up resentment and panic against Madison. Carpenter is supplying this culture-war red meat as the legislature’s Republican leaders refuse to advance any meaningful policy work on the COVID crisis, social justice, or the dire economic situation many Wisconsinites face. 

If the bill passed and Governor Tony Evers signed it, police and prosecutors would have yet another tool to broadly criminalize dissent and brutalize demonstrators. Anyone who’s attended a protest over the past two months and witnessed the police response knows that the arrests police make and the violence police inflict will sweep up protestors regardless of whether or not they’re doing anything illegal or pose any real threat to public safety. The police response to protests can also hurt people who just happen to be nearby and have nothing to do with the protests. Additionally, when people like Carpenter try to divide up the moment between peaceful protestors and violent rioters, they paper over the fact that rioting and destruction in these moments has historically come from a deep well of justified rage. Rioters, as many people smarter than me have pointed out, are attacking a social contract that has never truly protected or uplifted all people in the United States.

Like many a white liberal and for that matter many a white conservative, Carpenter is using the memories of John Lewis and Martin Luther King Jr. to shame and tame people he sees as the angry mob. When UW-Madison professor and activist Dr. Sami Schalk backed up Elmikashfi’s criticism of Carpenter’s statues bill, Carpenter responded with a screenshot from one of those cheesy famous-quotes websites, citing MLK’s condemnations of violent activism. Nevermind that MLK had an empathetic way of placing riots in context, and that his own non-violent activism embraced profoundly disruptive tactics that put him at odds with white moderates. And a day after Lewis’ death, Carpenter tried to turn Lewis’s words against Elmikashfi. The irony here is rich and garish: Carpenter took an admittedly regrettable beating during a chaotic and angry night, and is milking it to justify his regressive, punitive, negative rhetoric. Lewis took many beatings, including the one on Bloody Sunday that nearly killed him, was arrested dozens of times (several of those while in Congress), and kept on leading one of the most resolutely principled, generous lives in American political history, never sugarcoating things but always undoubtedly serving as a positive force. 

Before protestors attacked Carpenter on June 23, they asked him to stop taking video. Accounts vary as to how cooperative he was about that. WORT-FM captured audio of the altercation. Taking photos and videos on a public street is perfectly legal, but there are valid concerns about how police and right-wing groups will use protest footage to target protestors and suppress dissent. I don’t condone the attack on Carpenter, but given that local and federal prosecutors are aggressively going after Madison activists (including “persons of interest” in Carpenter’s own case) and the federal government is using unmarked vans to snatch up protestors in Portland, the stakes here are high. The ethical problems involved have even sparked some incredibly valuable conversation in the journalism community about how to minimize harm when using images and videos from protests.

It would be a powerful and constructive thing if a state legislator who had a terrible experience during the protests wanted to have such a conversation. That would require Carpenter to show a fraction of the moral depth of all the Black people who’ve fought to make something good of this country despite suffering generation after generation of unspeakable violence. Unfortunately, Carpenter is responding to his ordeal with vindictive legislation and unhinged, obsessive attacks on the sort of candidate he should be embracing as the future of his party. In defending his new statue-protection bill, Carpenter acted out the hollowness, complacency, and satisfaction with inadequate progress that the toppled statues embody for marginalized people in Wisconsin.

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