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It happened in Minneapolis, but Madison’s hands aren’t clean

Leaders and commentators should not denounce George Floyd’s murder without addressing the parallel dysfunction in our own community and institutions.

Photo by Steven Spoerl.

“George Floyd’s death was an egregious abuse of police power, but…”

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“There is racial bias in policing, but…”

“Certain communities understandably distrust the cops, but…”

The phrasing varies from one speech or op-ed to another, but the expressions above, deployed by police apologists and defenders, are polluting the debate over policing and race in the United States in 2020. 

To use one of them is to open up a door. Through that door, the speaker or writer exits the reality in which a rampant culture of violent impunity enabled Minneapolis police to murder George Floyd and enables police across the country to kill other unarmed Black people. On the other side is another universe entirely, where the factors that killed Floyd aren’t really that relevant outside of the specific local circumstances, and policing writ large may be flawed, but really only a little flawed.

George Floyd’s death was so horrific, so gruesomely drawn-out, so devastatingly cruel, that white Americans’ capacity for denial and self-delusion may have finally met its match. Even people who managed to brush off the suffocation murder of Eric Garner at the hands of New York City police could not dissemble as they watched Derek Chauvin torturing Floyd to death by kneeling on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. Even they had to admit that Floyd’s death was not only unjust, but also much more than an aberration.

George Floyd’s death set off a shockwave of clarity. And it sent police and their supporters scrambling to position themselves against George Floyd’s murder, while defending the institution of policing at large. Within days, police officials across the country, including right here in the Madison area, were condemning the officers who killed Floyd. Because the murder was on a clear video in all its slow agony, cops whose agencies have killed Black people in seconds-long blitzes of gunfire had the chance to draw a dramatic, if highly superficial, contrast between their department and Minneapolis police. 

The people protesting in every state across the country know better. Their cops have spent the past month bearing down on them in riot gear, assaulting them with tear gas (in other words, committing a war crime), running them over with police cruisers. They know that George Floyd’s murder is cut from the exact same cloth as other police killings and other police abuses in their own cities—incidents that were usually easier for cops to sweep under the rug because they happened faster or off-camera, and because a mountain of case law, union contract terms, and sham investigations shield police from real accountability. 

The protestors know that the basic conditions that made Floyd’s death possible in the first place exist everywhere in the United States, and have killed or harmed so many more people in fundamentally the same way. In Madison, recent incidents of egregious police violence include Madison Police Department officer Matt Kenny shooting 19-year-old Tony Robinson in 2015, a group of officers beating up an 18-year-old Black woman at East Towne Mall in 2016, and another group of officers beating a restrained Black teenager in 2019

Protestors across this country know that slowly killing a man in broad daylight takes premeditation and a whole series of morally repellent decisions, but so does setting up and maintaining a system of social control that treats a wide variety of common problems and situations as theaters of armed combat. Whether a cop suffocates a person for eight minutes and 46 seconds or shoots a person in fractions of a second, it took massive resources and untold hours of training and culture-building to prime that cop for needless violence. When police outside of Minneapolis point to Floyd’s death and essentially say, “that’s not us,” they’re papering over their own track records and obscuring the systemic problems that their departments share with Minneapolis’.

Treating Floyd’s murder as an outlier is rhetorically convenient for people who oppose abolishing or defunding police. Combine that with Madison exceptionalism—the belief that Madison is already so much more enlightened and advanced than most other places in the U.S. that racial oppression isn’t the most urgent social problem facing our community , the white liberal attitude that proclaims “Forward” but freezes us in time—and you’ve got a truly delusion-inducing brew.

Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, Acting Police Chief Victor Wahl, Dane County Sheriff Dane Mahoney, and many local elected officials have all acknowledged the wrong of George Floyd’s death while at the same time enabling cops to violently crack down on protestors. Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers has acknowledged that Floyd’s murder “was not an anomaly,” but has authorized the Wisconsin National Guard to attack protestors in Madison and Milwaukee. 

Even the elected officials, police chiefs, and commentators who talk like they get it do not fully acknowledge that they’re a part of it, that they’re complicit, that the longer they preserve the status quo the more people in their own states and cities will end up sharing George Floyd’s fate. Even when officials including Evers and Rhodes-Conway acknowledge the deeper societal fabric that connects George Floyd and Tony Robinson, they don’t seem to feel that either requires much more than feeble reform. Behind the scenes, Rhodes-Conway abjectly grovelled in a thank-you message to Madison’s riot cops

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Protestors have asked Chief Wahl point-blank to condemn Tony Robinson’s murder, and he declined. One of the protestors who embarrassed Wahl during a recent protest, Yeshua Musa, is now in jail on federal extortion charges that many Madisonians view as flat-out retaliation for his activism. It was easier for Wahl to find the words about George Floyd’s murder, which happened somewhere else on someone else’s watch. 

Wahl has also touted MPD’s adherence to the proposals of “eight can’t wait,” a set of modest police reforms that would basically involve writing down new rules despite the fact that police routinely violate local and state law, the US Constitution, and their own departmental regulations. The idea is that maybe MPD can do better with its training and hiring and whatnot, but is essentially doing enough already.

All this dissonance between words and actions, and sometimes between the different words officials prepare for different audiences, still leaves room for the notion that George Floyd’s death was an egregious abuse of police power, but…it really has nothing to do with our cities, our state, our police. Even if we have problems in our police agencies, our problems are milder and our cops wouldn’t do anything that bad, despite the fact that they have done things that bad. This drop broke the dam, but never you mind all those other drops.

The absurdity of this distinction reached its brain-shattering apex in the latest column from former Madison mayor Dave Cieslewicz, not in his usual “Citizen Dave” spot at Isthmus but in the Wisconsin State Journal. It was fitting for the piece to appear in Wisconsin media’s preeminent cop-aganda outlet; the basic argument is that the policy fallout of anti-police-brutality protests should not come down too hard on MPD because our police department is “the most progressive in the nation.” George Floyd’s death was an egregious abuse of police power, and certain communities understandably distrust the cops, but… we used to have a police chief who had a photo of Gandhi in his office, so we’re different.

“Local activists and too many local officials have taken correct observations about the history of policing in America and about the culture of departments in other cities and applied them inappropriately to Madison,” Cieslewicz writes, largely relying on the example of former Chief David Couper and his “reforms in the 1970s.” Couper served as chief from 1972 to 1993, and is now an Episcopal priest and a go-to authority for humane perspectives on policing. Relying on the record of a man who left the job more than a quarter of a century ago hits a similar note as when Republicans say they aren’t racist because they are “the party of Lincoln.”

Like Cieslewicz’s previous commentary on the cops-in-schools debate, this column fundamentally fails to address what activists in Madison are actually saying. Freedom Inc. and others calling for police defunding and/or abolition in Madison have, in fact, leveled specific criticisms of the Madison Police Department, as opposed to just making general critiques of policing and declaring Madison guilty by association. The first major protest in Madison following Floyd’s death took place on May 30 and included a march from the Capitol down Williamson Street, so that demonstrators could gather around the house where MPD officer Kenny killed Tony Robinson. As Isthmus has noted, protests have re-ignited widespread calls for MPD to fire Kenny. Like police forces across the nation, MPD has shown its entire ass over the past month by brutalizing protestors in the name of defending property. Has our guy Dave actually been around for any of these events?

Cieslewicz of all people should really be more careful not to omit relevant and easily accessible facts, but this latest column doesn’t mention Tony Robinson, or MPD’s violent protest crackdowns of the weekend of May 30, or anything else MPD in particular might have done to make people distrust it, like trying to sneak $50,000 for “less-lethal” weapons into an otherwise routine budget request.

Couper has been willing to criticize the paradigms of American policing (not to the point of being an abolitionist, but still) and even his own former department. That makes it all the stranger to use his example to shield MPD as it exists now from criticism—something Cieslewicz has done before. Whatever Couper accomplished between 1972 and 1993, it did not prevent the killing of Tony Robinson, the killing of Paul Heenan, the violent arrest of Genele Laird, the pointlessly temperamental tenure of Chief Mike Koval, all of which Couper himself has criticized. And with all due respect to Couper, I think we’re seeing that the trope of the enlightened cop does far more harm than good, providing pernicious cover for police business as usual.

Cieslewicz points to the Minneapolis Police Department as “a department that has a long record of a poor relationship with communities of color there,” and suggests that after Minneapolis disbands its current department, officials there “may well be looking at Madison as a model for what their new force needs to look like.” Cieslewicz offers very little evidence for the notion that Madison police have an exceptional relationship with communities of color, beyond generalized praise of Couper and his successor Noble Wray and noting that the school resource officers the Madison Metropolitan School District Board recently voted to remove from public high schools (largely as a result of activism by Black and Southeast Asian people) are mostly people of color. He doesn’t acknowledge Madison’s deep racial disparities. He notes that Chauvin had a “long history of abuse,” without noting that Matt Kenny still has his job—training other officers, no less. Oh, and grappling with the nuance of the fact that Minneapolis has its own reputation as a progressive city would just be too much to ask. It doesn’t sound like the perspective of someone who even lives in Madison, much less that of someone who was mayor for eight years.   

It’s easy to use “justice for George Floyd” as shorthand for what motivates the protests and calls for policy change continuing across the United States. And of course everyone involved wants justice for George Floyd. We should forever honor the life Floyd lived. Our fury and heartbreak over Floyd’s death must forever compel us to fight for a better world. The problem is that some—including centrists and liberals—define “justice for George Floyd” too narrowly, focusing on Floyd’s particular case in a way that pushes other egregious uses of police violence to the periphery and waters down the systemic context. Justice for Floyd is not just about holding the four cops who killed him accountable and advancing some modest reforms in policing elsewhere. It’s about confronting the very roots of police violence, and no American is excused. To truly acknowledge the wrong of Floyd’s death, we must acknowledge the full picture of our institutions and ourselves. To do anything less is to advance a blood-soaked lie.

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