Satya Rhodes-Conway is failing Madison

The Mayor’s response has only deepened the systemic issues that prompted the ongoing wave of historic protests.

The Mayor’s response has only deepened the systemic issues that prompted the ongoing wave of historic protests.

Photo: Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway addresses protestors during Monday’s demonstration on John Nolen Drive. Photo by Kierstin Huelsemann.

On Sunday, May 31, at the behest of Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway and Governor Tony Evers, police officers from throughout Dane County and members of the National Guard attacked young protesters on the Isthmus, using pepper spray, tear gas canisters, and rubber bullets in an all-out assault that lasted for hours and left Capitol Square in a noxious fog. I witnessed some of the attack firsthand. For the next day, I struggled to think about anything else. I kept seeing the Metro bus that pulled up close to where I was standing on Wisconsin Avenue shortly after the first tear gas canisters were launched. The sight of a bus on Capitol Square was so familiar as to be unremarkable at first, but then I realized it was full of police in riot gear, the familiar made terrifying in an instant. Within seconds, the bus doors opened and they began to scuttle out. Everyone screamed and ran.


Many people in Madison were rightfully horrified by the sight of highly militarized police forces marching down familiar streets throughout the past few days as protesters resisted and evaded their advances. What would it take to make sure that this never happened again?

For starters, the Mayor could end the emergency curfew she instituted on Saturday night. She could tell the Madison Police Department to stand down. But even after phone calls and emails from concerned residents, even after meeting with leaders from Freedom Inc. and Urban Triage, who staged a protest that blocked John Nolen Drive for most of Monday afternoon, Rhodes-Conway is refusing to do the right thing. Given the opportunity to lift some of the weight of violence and oppression from black and brown youth in our community, Mayor Rhodes-Conway has nevertheless persisted with a policy that invites police and members of the National Guard to corral and brutalize these young protesters on Capitol Square.

Among those who have spoken out against the curfew, some seem shocked that Rhodes-Conway would support a blatantly brutal policy that appears to put businesses over the safety and well-being of young people who have already been wronged by our city and our schools, many of them repeatedly. 

It’s okay to be surprised. We are living through a historic moment, sometimes hideous, sometimes hopeful. It is teaching all of us invaluable lessons about the real nature of the police in the United States, the depths of their depravity, and the limitations of liberal leaders as mayors in cities like Minneapolis, New York, Chicago, and Madison preside over some of the most brutal retaliation against protesters.

What isn’t okay is to go on believing that Madison is a city full of innocent victims of externally motivated outrage over racism and police murder. True, George Floyd’s murderer does not live here and was never in the employ of Madison Police Department. But Tony Robinson’s murderer does, and he still works for MPD.

True, many of the businesses on State Street are owned by well-liked and respected members of our community, people who would tell you that of course black lives matter. Simultaneously, some of these businesses and Downtown Madison, Inc. the member organization to which they belong, spent much of last summer lobbying for more and more policing downtown. Not only does this contribute directly to an increase in the number of unpleasant and unsafe interactions between police and homeless people and people of color in the downtown area, but it locks all of us into city that budgets that allocate more and more money to police even as critical needs like food, housing, and mental health services go unmet for many Madisonians.

Rhodes-Conway had a lot to say on Saturday evening about her appreciation of the “peaceful protests” of Saturday afternoon, as contrasted with the more militant rebellion Saturday night. On Monday, she addressed protestors on John Nolen Drive. But Rhodes-Conway’s appreciation for Freedom Inc., Urban Triage, and the Party for Socialism and Liberation does not extend to support for any of the demands these organizations champion. In fact, in her first year as Mayor, Rhodes-Conway has repeatedly supported racist policies. She joined in the hand-wringing over what she termed “the party” of homeless and poor people downtown and later presented the city with a budget that increased spending for police while asking Madisonians to pay for an improved transit system themselves with a regressive wheel tax. She threw a wrench in early efforts by the Common Council to pass a resolution rejecting the basing of F-35s in Madison, even as the National Guard itself admitted that the F-35s would have a negative impact on the significant number of people of color who live in the flight path. She has still failed to issue a full-throated rejection of the war planes as our mayor.

And on Monday night, MPD brought out more tear gas for the young people grieving George Floyd, Tony Robinson, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and their own lives lived under the constant threat of state violence. 

Rhodes-Conway isn’t the only elected official in Madison whose overtures of support for Black Lives Matter are stunningly hypocritical. There are the County Board Supervisors who voted to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a new Dane County Jail; School Board members who voted to keep cops in schools; Madison Alders who have yet to follow recommendations to increase civilian oversight of police after Matt Kenny murdered Tony Robinson and who rubber stamp the mayor’s bloated police budgets. Too many of them seem to think that racism is a collection of ugly ideas floating through the world, and not the concrete policies they personally support. All of them have to be held to account. 

The agenda for Tuesday night’s Madison Common Council meeting includes the introduction of a proposal to create an “MPD Ad Hoc Recommendation Oversight Committee,” and 15 of the 20 Alders have sponsored a resolution “Denouncing the murders of African Americans across the United States of America without consequence.” During the same meeting, the Council will also consider borrowing $125,000 for police equipment and facilities. Will the Alders start constraining MPD through its budget, or just make toothless gestures? Will the Council condemn police violence while unquestioningly providing material support for it?

But right now, when police brutality is raging across the nation for all of us to see, when the President is issuing terrifying threats to send US troops in to suppress the public, the Mayor of Madison has utterly failed to live up to a moment that required a little bit of bravery and a working moral compass. 

At a press conference organized by Freedom Inc., Urban Triage, and PSL on Monday, Dr. Damita Brown, the Restorative Justice Director for Dane County Time Bank, spoke powerfully to white attendees about our responsibilities in the fight to end oppression. “You need to put your white privilege behind you now and realize that though you’re here today—that’s not enough,” Brown said. “Everyday you get up and walk out your door in the morning, make a choice: Black liberation, Black liberation, Black liberation.” 


We cannot yet choose a different Mayor, but we can choose to reject the failed leadership and bad policies that facilitate Madison’s racist status quo.

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