From federal prosecutions to snatch-and-grab arrests, local activists face an alarming but familiar pattern of repression.
Photo: Madisonians participating in the Strike for Black Lives, a national action on July 20.
Late on Wednesday, August 26, after a vigil and rally for Jacob Blake had given way to protests, the streets around the Wisconsin State Capitol emptied out. Martin Lackey hung around near the Capitol building, chatting with a group of kids as the crowd dwindled.
“It was the end of the night,” Lackey says, when law enforcement began to circle the capitol in unmarked vans. “This armored truck pulls up. . . and five or six police just swarm the corner. And this 13-year-old is just standing there, and they swarmed around [him], lifted him up, and damn near broke his neck. They just slammed him to the ground.”
Lackey, who owns a Madison real estate company, had stayed out late at the protest with Michael Johnson of the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County and Madison Metropolitan School District Board president Gloria Reyes. Lackey had shown up, he says, concerned about the riots that broke out in Madison after Kenosha police shot Blake seven times in the back. Lackey left the protest that evening no less concerned about the protests—but not just on account of the broken windows and pilfered storefronts.
“The City has totally dropped the ball. I’m hearing that they will wait until the crowd has thinned and just start pulling people over. . .[The kids] weren’t being belligerent, they weren’t doing anything wrong. When I saw that little boy get snatched up, there were a lot of emotions I felt. I felt anger, I felt resentment, and mostly I felt lost,” says Lackey.
According to WORT, the 13-year-old was released from jail early that morning.
For months, Madisonians have marched on the Capitol demanding justice for the victims of police brutality and political redress for the harms wrought by systemic racism in Wisconsin — where deep healthcare and education disparities, de facto segregation, poverty, and disenfranchisement make the state one of the most demonstrably racist in the nation. Protests have surged in cities around Wisconsin following the attempted murder of Jacob Blake.
But while local and state government has largely ignored the popular mandate to address—whether by reform or abolition—police violence in the state, local and state officials have worked in concert to quickly mobilize law enforcement agencies to quell the protests, deploying increasingly repressive tactics in the process.
Beyond the use of tear gas to incapacitate crowds of protesters—a practice some Alders on the Madison Common Council have proposed banning —police have pursued a strategy of targeted arrests and activist surveillance in Madison.
On June 23, Yeshua Musa—who had led road-blocking protests, publicly confronted Acting Madison Police Department Chief Victor Wahl, and gained public recognition through a photo series published by the Wisconsin State Journal—entered the Capitol Square restaurant Coopers Tavern with a bat and megaphone, shouting at patrons and staff. Musa was violently arrested outside of the restaurant.
He has since been indicted by a federal grand jury on extortion charges: if found guilty, Musa could face up to 40 years in prison. His was the first in a series of high-profile arrests, which, organizers have noted, fall within a law enforcement strategy that mirrors the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s notorious COINTELPRO program, which targeted civil rights leaders and was responsible for the assassination of Fred Hampton.
On the same day that Musa was jailed, Sire GQ—an activist affiliated with the Madison branch of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, which has led many local protests since late May—told reporters that he believed he was being followed, and suspected the police. A week later, GQ was pulled over and arrested, allegedly for speeding.
The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) then claimed GQ as a “person of interest” in a failed arson attempt on the City County Building during a June 23 protest. The surveillance photo used by ATF to locate the arsonist is blurry and shot from behind; another list of suspects released by the ATF features five people who do not look anything alike.
Reporting on the event, based on police reports from the same night, has referred to the arson attempt as a “firebombing,” and the weapon deployed as a “molotov cocktail.” I was reporting with another Madison journalist that night, and we saw a few protesters attempt to light a piece of cloth on fire and throw it through a window of the building—but we saw no incendiary device and certainly no molotov cocktail. The arson attempt appeared unlikely to succeed, and concerns that it could have knocked out Dane County’s 911 nerve center or injured people incarcerated in the Dane County Jail seem exaggerated.
Activists have called the charges against GQ unjust, and “Free Sire” has become a rallying cry at protests and demonstrations in the weeks since.
Most recently, in the early hours of the morning on August 25, the Madison Police Department arrested Jordan King—a longtime Madison activist and close friend of Tony Robinson, a Black teenager who was killed by Madison police officer Matthew Kenny in 2015. In the last five years, King has led demonstrations demanding justice for Robinson, articulating the pervasive local demand to “fire Matt Kenny,” who remains on the force leading, improbably, meditation and mindfulness training for officers. King, whose arrest garnered outrage on social media, was released on bail but remains barred from much of the downtown area and faces felony charges for allegedly destroying property on West Mifflin Street.
In a video uploaded on August 28 to his Facebook page, King spoke about police surveillance: “I’m terrified. I’m terrified [because] every time I leave my driveway there’s a cop about a hundred yards down the way, and they leave when I leave.”
At a demonstration held on Monday, August 31 by a coalition of nonprofits, politicians, and Black Lives Matter organizations from Milwaukee and Madison, activists—including State Representative Shelia Stubbs—denounced racism, police brutality, and the law enforcement crackdown that has followed protests. (It is worth noting that this demonstration featured a range of speakers who stood in solidarity with the uprisings—certainly not all of the speakers “urging them to protest peacefully” as some recent coverage, which has painted “Madison’s Black leaders, activists” as a uniform collective, would suggest).
“We can no longer have our activists arrested, right here, for tearing up this shit, while [politicians] are safe in their building,” said Urban Triage CEO Brandi Grayson, gesturing towards the Capitol building.
Later, the head of Madison’s YWCA, Vanessa McDowell, said that after being approached by Madison police officers at a protest, she has “had the ATF in my building three times this week.”
Police surveillance and targeted arrests by law enforcement agencies around the country is well-documented: law enforcement has used overhead drones and helicopters, social media, and undercover cops at protests to collect information on protesters. Locally, where surveillance and targeted arrests—including the arrest of a 13-year-old (a 13-year-old!)—have provoked fear among activists, much of the public discourse surrounding the local uprisings has circled, frustratingly and interminably, around property damage in the city’s downtown corridor of commerce and wealth. Meanwhile, state-sanctioned violence is so common, the mandate of the wealthy and white so sweepingly justified, that the pervasive threat of virulent and often arbitrary repression facing activists has become an afterthought.