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Madison’s mayor offers a macabre message of support to the police

In a video sent to city employees and later made public, Satya Rhodes-Conway endorses MPD at one of its worst moments.

“Hello, MPD family. Mayor Satya here.” 

Coming from a mayor who allied herself quickly and wholeheartedly with the business community following a night of rioting on May 30, and who enabled more repressive police responses by quickly imposing a curfew on Sunday, May 31, Satya Rhodes-Conway’s warbling endorsement of the Madison Police Department, leaked on Tuesday night by the Facebook page “We Stand With the Madison Police Department,” has inspired anger if not quite surprise from supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement in Madison. 

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Like so many liberal mayors, Rhodes-Conway has taken the nationwide uprisings against police brutality as her cue to jump to the defense of both police and property. In an initial response to the protests, which began on May 30, Rhodes-Conway invoked a familiar trope: praise the peaceful protesters, and condemn the actions of the “violent” few who broke windows and stole things on State Street. It was a response apparently analogous to the people often use to justify the institution of the police—namely, that some bad apples shouldn’t spoil the bunch. 

Over the course of the last week and a half, the protests across the United States have largely coalesced around the goals of defunding the police in the short term, and abolishing the institution entirely in the long term. And as police meet protestors with increasingly belligerent and violent tactics in cities across the country, the logic of the protesters’ argument has become self-evident. Police brutalize, beat, and kill with impunity—only this time, the cops are at center stage, and they’ve taken the moment to lash out indiscriminately against protesters and the press.

In Madison, public officials spoke in grave tones about the destruction of property and pilfering of businesses during early protests. But the police who responded Sunday, May 31’s demonstrations did not appear to act in the interest of protecting capital or public safety, the ostensible reason for Rhodes-Conway’s curfew and State of Emergency order. Instead, cops and National Guard troops formed phalanxes and marched on the peaceful protesters, tear gassing and firing projectiles into the crowd, which was largely comprised of teenagers.

Rhodes-Conway apparently first sent her video message of support out to city employees last week with a password-protected link, not meant for public consumption. The We Stand With the Madison Police Department page and a blog called Support Madison Police (published by a longtime Madison police booster who is also an “award-winning pet content writer”) began clamoring for the video on June 4, concerned that the mayor wasn’t licking the boot thoroughly or publicly enough. State Senate District 26 candidate Nada Elmikashfi publicly decried the mystery video in a Facebook post, and her calls to publicize its contents were echoed by a weird convergence of Madison’s young leftists and “tough on crime” boomer gadflies. 

The video finally emerged Tuesday night through the We Stand With the Madison Police Department page, apparently leaked, not officially released through the Mayor’s office or provided in response to a public records request. Rhodes-Conway’s message extends sympathy and reassurance to the local cops who suited up in riot gear and brutalized her own constituents: “None of us asked for these challenges, and we are all learning as we go. You must be exhausted. I know I am, and you’re facing a much more difficult situation than I am.” 

Rhodes-Conway’s voice quivers, and what borders on adulation starts, eerily, to sound like egging on:

“It must be absolutely infuriating to stand in heavy gear outside while listening to people constantly insult your chosen profession. It must be frightening to stand and have rocks and other things thrown at you and to be in harm’s way constantly. And it must be agonizing to have worked so hard for so many years to build relationships around our city, to be as committed as I know you are to community policing, and to still be criticized for not doing enough,” says the mayor. 

There’s nothing unusual about a mayor thanking city employees or trying to boost morale. What’s striking is her unequivocal support for MPD during one of its most publicly low moments: 

“I spoke with an officer in the [City-County Building] garage recently, who said that they hoped I know how hard it is, and that you are not what the protestors say you are. I know that. I know that you are working hard and doing an amazing job under unbelievably hard circumstances, and I thank you for your service.”

Her message to the police is a straightforward endorsement of the department—a rejection of the goal, put forward by Freedom Inc., and advanced by protesters around the city, to defund and eventually abolish the force. It’s also a distortion of reality: when cops cracked down on a peaceful public assembly on May 31, 150-odd teenagers did not represent, and could not reasonably have represented, the “frightening” threat that Rhodes-Conway invokes in her address to MPD. 

And the mayor refers to “unprecedented protests, violence, and looting,” without mentioning that the very act of sending in squads of militarized cops escalated tensions in the crowd—since the city scaled police presence at protests downtown and lifting curfew, local media has reported that despite sizable turnout, the gatherings have nonetheless mellowed out.

To hear Rhodes-Conway talk, you’d think she’d somehow been doing too much to rein in MPD: “I was so focused on the task of addressing the concerns of our community that I didn’t remember that you need and deserve both recognition and appreciation,” she says near the end of the video.

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In fact, the mayor has not responded to the demands put forth by protesters, who are pushing for the redirection of Madison’s bloated police budget into public services. Instead, Rhodes-Conway and the Madison Common Council are considering a more moderate slate of reforms, including the creation of an independent auditor position and a civilian review board for the force. These proposals are currently working their way through the Common Council and city committees.

In response to Rhodes-Conway’s video message for the police, Urban Triage, one of the organizations that has organized and backed protestors in Madison, asked: “What does that mean for the community review board and Auditor position? It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that [she] doesn’t mind playing the game of white supremacy racism with Black bodies.”

Full transcript of the video message below:

Hello, MPD family. Mayor Satya here. These past few months have been extraordinary times in this city’s history, and the past few days have taken us even farther into uncharted territory. We’re all living through a pandemic, which has put all of you in more danger than usual, and you have had to adapt how you work in incredible ways. And now we have unprecedented protests, violence, and looting. 

None of us asked for these challenges, and we are all learning as we go. You must be exhausted. I know I am, and you’re facing a much more difficult situation than I am. It must be absolutely infuriating to stand in heavy gear outside while listening to people constantly insult your chosen profession. It must be frightening to stand and have rocks and other things thrown at you and to be in harm’s way constantly. And it must be agonizing to have worked so hard for so many years to build relationships around our city, to be as committed as I know you are to community policing, and to still be criticized for not doing enough. 

I spoke with an officer in the CCB garage recently, who said that they hoped I know how hard it is, and that you are not what the protestors say you are. I know that. I know that you are working hard and doing an amazing job under unbelievably hard circumstances, and I thank you for your service.

In a large organization like ours, communication can be really, really hard. And during times of crisis, communications often become so focused on the tasks at hand that we forget the importance of communicating about taking care of ourselves and others. I’m here talking to you today because I have come to realize that I have not taken the opportunity to express my gratitude for your service or to adequately acknowledge the personal and collective sacrifices that you each have made during these incredibly challenging times.

I was so focused on the task of addressing the concerns of our community that I didn’t remember that you need and deserve both recognition and appreciation. So please know how much I appreciate you personally—your hard work, your courage, your sacrifice, and your service. Thank you, be safe, be well, and please, take care of yourselves and each other.

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