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Re-escalating and spilling dirt

An activist’s arrest and a backdrop of panicked downtown businesses.

An activist’s arrest and a backdrop of panicked downtown businesses.


  • This is our newsletter-first column, Microtones. It runs on the site on Fridays, but you can get it in your inbox on Thursdays by signing up for our email newsletter.

The usual things we do in this newsletter just don’t feel appropriate lately. My colleague Steven Spoerl was working on a fun Microtones column about skateboarding in Madison for this week’s newsletter, and we both agreed it’d be best to hold off on that. 

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Have you talked with friends this week who are starting to get deeply uncomfortable with the protests in Madison? These moments, when people question their limits and have their worldviews disrupted, give us an incredibly raw view of who we really are. We could spend a whole lot of time here parsing what the statues torn down this week mean or represent, but I also think the fixation on the statues is kind of deranged. 

We live in a city where one single disruptive activist apparently warrants six police officers showing up to manhandle him into a police cruiser. The activist, Yeshua Musa, was confronting patrons and staff at The Cooper’s Tavern on the Square on Tuesday afternoon. Yes, he had a bat and yelled “I’ve got a fucking bat,” but in the video the Madison Police Department released, it also doesn’t seem like he’s about to get violent with it. And the response is much more severe than what we’d expect when right-wing protestors show up ostentatiously festooned with big guns. In fact, anti-police brutality protestors have handled armed right-wingers much more calmly and rationally than cops handled Musa. Yes, Musa upset people but he clearly had less power and less capacity to do actual harm than the Boogaloo weirdos we’ve seen open-carrying with impunity. This didn’t need to escalate into a violent arrest. 

Keep in mind that it was also Musa who managed to get Acting MPD Chief Victor Wahl to come down to a recent protest, where Wahl offered mostly platitudes about wanting to have meetings with Musa and other activists and excuses about how powerless he supposedly is to change things. The way cops treated Musa on Tuesday just underscores how empty Wahl’s words and gestures were.

We also can’t separate the arrest from the heightened panic that some people are ginning up around downtown businesses. Earlier this week, an anonymous group of State Street businesses sent city officials a letter asking for additional surveillance and security in the area. While making a series of policy demands, the authors of the letter claimed that “many [business owners] wish to remain anonymous for the safety of their employees and businesses.” 

This is downright galling. Business owners’ interests and demands do get a lot of attention in city government. Usually people who want to speak at city government meetings can’t just do so anonymously. Even your emails to your Alder are technically a matter of public record. People who get arrested often get their mugshots and criminal histories trotted out in the local press with no regard for their privacy or the ripple effects they might face.

Some of the ideas in the letter are reasonable and constructive—asking the city to help out with rents as businesses continue to weather the pandemic, calling for more support for Black- and minority-owned businesses, asking for de-escalation training—but the anonymity creates an air of heightened danger that just seems wildly exaggerated. The letter also calls for a more visible police presence and heightened public surveillance, namely: “cameras that give full view of events occuring on State Street should be installed on the 100-600 blocks.”

The anonymous authors ask the city to remove the large planters along the street, which have rocks in the bottom for drainage. During the May 30 and 31 riots, people tipped those planters over and threw the rocks at cops. Having witnessed this personally, I doubt this would have happened if MPD hadn’t sent large squads of riot cops to crack down with indiscriminate violence. MPD’s repeated use of tear gas also caused multiple stampedes up and down State Street during that weekend. Blinding people and sending them running in a panic isn’t good for area businesses either, but there’s little acknowledgement here that police played a major role in escalating the violence.

The people writing this letter want to have it both ways, getting the political benefit of being community leaders without the uncomfortable visibility that usually comes with the territory. And by exaggerating the threat that protestors pose to their businesses, these letter-writers are unfortunately doing their part to escalate tensions in the city. True, someone might get mad at you for taking a stance they don’t like. That doesn’t mean they present a personal threat to you or your employees, and it doesn’t entitle you to make anonymous demands of a local government we all pay for.

Yes, a lot of these businesses have legitimate concerns. There are particular places and business owners downtown that mean a great deal to me. The city has also made its own contributions to this crisis by rolling over for “high-end” developers and driving up rents. Business owners in Madison are understandably interested in getting back to normal. The problem is, what this letter proposes are shortcuts that don’t actually address the underlying issues that got us here in the first place.

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