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Madison police and National Guard troops deployed combat tactics against peaceful demonstrators Sunday night

Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway and Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers spoke pleadingly about justice before siccing the military on a group of young protesters.

A different version of this piece was also published in The Progressive.

Protestors gathered downtown hours before Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway’s 9:30 p.m. curfew went into effect on Sunday evening. By 8:30, the group—led by Black youth, and about 150-people strong—marched quickly up State Street, converging on the base of the Capitol, where demonstrators spoke to the crowd about civil disobedience, allyship, and the precedent set by the Civil Rights Movement for peaceful protests that nonetheless provoked rage and abuse by the police. 

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Organizers shared a megaphone, alternatively listing the names of Black civilians killed at the hands of cops and leading chants. 

“We are peacefully protesting against the murders of Black people across this country and in Madison,” said one activist, perched on the top of the Capitol steps. 

Curfew slid past, and at around 10 p.m., demonstrators took back to Capitol square. Unlike on Saturday night, when protests became chaotic and marked by disparate forces, the action on Sunday was evidently—if organically—coordinated and leaders within the demonstration had largely taken charge of the crowd. 

Protestors, with their hands in the air, circled, and then fell back away from multiple police officers positioned around the Capitol before returning to march along the Square. It was a display of power marked by quiet restraint: unarmed teenagers converging on cops and then backing away reversed, if only for a moment, the order of a town whose police force is decorated with officers who have bullied, beaten, and killed unarmed Black youth over the last several years.

Just after 10 p.m., things took a rapid turn. With no warning, police cars, sirens blaring, sped to meet the protestors at either end of the march. Their sudden appearance was puzzling—from 8:30 to 10 p.m., not much had evolved within the demonstration. The growing group of young protestors, at this point maybe 200, marched slowly and uniformly along the base of the Capitol—but the cops sped in as if they were doing some kind of sting. 

Police in riot gear jumped from one car, throwing a can of tear gas into the crowd.

At 10:09 p.m., just as cops descended on the peaceful march, the Madison Police Department tweeted that “[s]ubjects in the downtown area have become violent, throwing rocks and assaulting an officer…chemical agents have been dispersed…curfew remains in effect, avoid the area.”

This is inaccurate. In fact, the cops, clad in riot gear, whipped a can of tear gas at the crowd of teenagers who were marching with their hands in the air, literally chanting “don’t shoot.” We can’t confirm MPD’s initial allegation about throwing rocks, but in the part of the protest I witnessed, no one assaulted the officers before the officers began tear-gassing the crowd.


Protestors set several dumpsters on fire along Langdon Street in an effort to slow the progress of riot cops.

Protestors set several dumpsters on fire along Langdon Street in an effort to slow the progress of riot cops.

People scattered, regrouping in front of the Capitol. That happened repeatedly throughout the course of the night: lines of police in riot gear deployed tear gas and pepper spray indiscriminately to split up protestors. 

Within hours, in a stunning and profoundly unnecessary show of force, riot police were joined by National Guard troops. At many points throughout the night these combined forces vastly outnumbered the remaining protestors. 

Democratic Governor Tony Evers called in the National Guard to reinforce cops in Milwaukee and then Madison this past weekend, after sharing messages of support for George Floyd, a Black man Minneapolis police murdered on May 25. Video of Minneapolis Police Department officer George Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck has prompted protests against police violence in nearly every state in the U.S. And just about everywhere, police have responded with more violence, often with help from National Guard troops. 

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Over the past few days, Mayor Rhodes-Conway has also voiced her sympathy for people protesting Floyd’s death, while condemning those who’ve damaged property and looted businesses. In a press conference Sunday morning, Rhodes-Conway also spoke out for racial justice and police accountability. According to Wisconsin Public Radio’s Laurel White, Rhodes-Conway said: “If you are angry because you want those who broke windows and trashed sidewalk cafes … to face consequences, be more angry that the people who kill black people all too often walk free.” But Rhodes-Conway’s curfew order gave Madison police (with help from the Guard and other local police agencies including Fitchburg PD and the Dane County Sheriff’s Office) free reign to assault young Madisonians for the crime of being in their own streets.


A boarded-up window near the intersection of State and Gilman Streets.

A boarded-up window near the intersection of State and Gilman Streets.

By staging a public show of remorse while simultaneously invoking an order to bring in the military, the mayor and other public officials have paid lip service to justice while consenting to endanger the Black youth they claim to protect. 

Police in Madison have also joined the nationwide trend of openly assaulting journalists covering the protests. NBC 15 reporter George Balekji was interviewing a protest medic on live TV Sunday night, walking north on State Street past Mediterrannean Café, when riot cops threw a tear-gas canister that hit Balekji in the shoulder as it detonated. “Protest was peaceful at this point, no warning was given to stop walking. Why use the tear gas in this scenario?” Balekji asked in a follow-up tweet. The cops in the riot line would have had a clear view of Balekji, the people Balekji was interviewing, and NBC 15’s camera person.

In the subsequent hours of the night, the military and police routed civilian protestors around the Capitol square, on State Street, and along Langdon Street’s frat row, deploying tear gas and later, per live reporting by Isthmus journalist Dylan Brogan, rubber bullets. At around 12:00 a.m., about 75 national guardsmen descended along Wisconsin Avenue toward Gilman, cornering and macing a group of what appeared to be no more than 15 protestors. 

As the night wore on, demonstrators lit dumpsters on fire and lootings, possibly unrelated, were reported around the downtown area. It is unclear how many people were arrested in total. 

Another action, this one organized by Freedom, Inc., is scheduled for noon today.

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