Making sense of the May 30 protests in Madison and the violent police response.
NOTE: We continued to keep track of the protests throughout Sunday night and early Monday morning. Look for a separate story about those events soon.
Thousands of Madisonians came out during a pandemic this Saturday to protest the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police, in solidarity with similar demonstrations in many cities around the United States. The initial Madison protest centered around the Capitol Square and eventually moved down Willy Street to the house where Madison Police Department officer Matt Kenny shot 19-year-old Tony Robinson in 2015.
Later in the evening, cops and protestors pushed back and forth along State Street and things got destructive and ugly. Squads of MPD, Wisconsin State Patrol, and UW-Madison cops lined up in riot gear, using property damage as an excuse to indiscriminately blast crowds with pepper spray and tear gas. In cities around the country, police put on a display of unhinged violence. We spent most of Saturday watching the protests in Madison. Here’s what we saw.
The militarization of the Madison police force on Saturday night, as cops barricaded the Capitol while armed in riot gear, would be hard to overstate. Describing MPD’s treatment of marching protesters without using military language is nearly impossible. As protesters—chanting “hands up, don’t shoot,” and repeating George Floyd’s name—advanced from the campus end of State Street toward the Capitol, cops formed barricades across the street, repeatedly deploying tear gas to route the advancing protesters into side streets. The tear gas set off panicked stampedes, which were the most frightening and dangerous moments of the day.
The use of tear gas by American police forces is controversial, and justifiably so: according to the CDC, the chemical agent used to disperse crowds causes, in the short-term, burns, rashes, choking, nausea and vomiting, chest tightness, difficulty swallowing, plus irritation to the eyes causing tears and blinding. In the long-term, excessive exposure to the chemical can cause “respiratory failure possibly resulting in death,” “immediate death due to severe chemical burns to the throat and lungs,” glaucoma, and blindness.
Under the Geneva Accords, the use of tear gas in warfare is banned.
The emerging narratives around the events on State Street interpret the demonstrations that occurred after the daytime march as alternatively senseless and malicious—characterized by the violent dregs of a peaceful protest, or as a handful of rowdy and opportunistic passersby, depending on the account. There are elements of truth to the latter; in one of the first instances of looting, a clique of young white women not obviously associated with the protest kicked and bodyslammed the window of PowerNine Games.
It is evident that most of the formal organizations and core organizers who coordinated the march earlier in the day—Freedom Inc., Urban Triage, and the Party for Socialism and Liberation’s Madison chapter—left following the planned march, while smaller bands of protesters took to State Street.
But broadly, the remaining protesters on State Street represented a multiracial and overwhelmingly young collection of people, advancing a more tactically radical anti-police front, trailed by a discordant crowd looting businesses.
And the question of who looted what is as difficult to parse as it is a distraction from the significance of the Black uprisings across the United States to the city of Madison. Freedom Inc., Urban Triage, and PSL later issued a statement rejecting the narrative that held their organizations up as exemplars of peaceful protest in order to condemn more violent acts of protest. The statement told those pushing that narrative, “Do not use us to perpetuate white liberal agendas and narratives around peace,” and declared that “All actions against racist state violence are justified and we will not minimize these contributions to liberation.”
According to Al Jazeera, between 2013 and 2019, U.S. police officers killed 7,666 people—disproportionately targeting Black civilians, who are over twice as likely to be killed by the police as white Americans, despite making up 13 percent of the population. The Madison Police Department is not innocent of this trend. In 2015, MPD officer Matt Kenny shot Tony Robinson in his apartment—Robinson, who was Black, 19 years old, and unarmed, died after being shot seven times. In the years since, witnesses have filmed Madison police officers beating unarmed Black youth on multiple occasions.
Matt Kenny, who was not criminally charged after murdering Tony Robinson, remains on the force as a trainer. His duties include leading meditation sessions.
Former chief of police Mike Koval brushed off the call—from Black Lives Matter protesters around the city—to charge Kenny, later calling Robinson’s grandmother a “raging lunatic” at a Common Council meeting, when she requested a meeting with the police chief. It was a moment of egregious contempt for the grieving relative of a murdered teenager and it was met with no real punitive response from the City’s Board of Police and Firefighters.
Amid the social crisis ignited by the coronavirus pandemic, the lack of funding for public services has been thrown into stark relief, while the cold-blooded murder of George Floyd has drawn attention to the prioritization of militarized law enforcement around the country.
In 2019, the City of Madison allocated approximately $85 million to the Madison Police Department, and expanded the force by three officers at the outset of 2020—outpacing allocations for Metro Transit by approximately $25 million and public health services by about $65 million.
Reminders of white supremacist vehicular violence
After the horrors of a white supremacist plowing his car into a crowd of protestors in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, the dangers of car attacks on protests were likely on everyone’s mind this weekend. Law enforcement, however, seemed far less concerned about antiblack terror than about property damage: When the initial protest migrated down to Willy Street on Saturday afternoon, a woman in a silver Cadillac SUV drove through the crowd, injuring at least one protestor.
Video sent to us shows the protestors in front of and around the car, which is heading south on Few Street, trying to make her turn around, to avoid the protests which had by then filled Willy Street. The video shows the car then accelerating from a stop, even though there are people right in front of it, literally touching the hood of the car, and you can hear a clear thunk as it starts moving; people scatter and chase it through the intersection. Several accounts on social media and related to us from witnesses indicate that one older man on a bike was injured and his bike was totaled.
Another video shows police talking with the driver at the corner of Ingersoll and Spaight, apparently making plans to escort the car somewhere. As of now, we don’t know whether police have charged or arrested this person for trying to run people over. They showed her the deference and humanity they later denied protesters on State Street.
There were some other tense moments between protestors and vehicles earlier in the afternoon near the Square. Protestors filled up the stretch of West Doty Street by the Madison Public Safety Building, which houses the Dane County Jail, and the City County Building, which houses MPD’s Central District. Hundreds of vehicles came down Fairchild Street, most of them honking in support as part of a vehicle parade coordinated as part of the protest. Most of them turned west on Doty Street, heading away from the protestors without incident.
But a few turned east, toward the crowd of protestors, some of them clearly just confused and turning back around soon enough. Just before 1:30 p.m., two people on motorcycles turned onto Doty and approached the crowd. They lingered in the middle of the block long enough that protestors began half-surrounding them, taking video, and getting their license plate numbers. We didn’t see any cops get involved in this altercation, which, again, took place right in front of the county Public Safety Building. Eventually, the two motorcyclists turned around and headed away from the crowd, revving loudly.
Protestors were doing most of the traffic-directing, and the cops were doing bizarrely little to control traffic in an area that by nature is usually teeming with police. Later in the day, police spared no effort attacking crowds in the name of preventing violence and property destruction, but all in all they seemed pretty nonchalant about protecting demonstrators from the potential violence of others.
Far-right agitators showed up, but their presence was uncoordinated and they were few in numbers
Rumors circulated throughout the day about far-right counter-protestors and instigators from groups including Three Percenters and Proud Boys, but no coordinated right-wing effort was apparent during the 2,000-strong march yesterday. A group of three or four young men with military-style rifles, helmets, and vests were posted up at the southwest corner of the Square early Saturday afternoon, and around 2 p.m., a much bigger group of protestors surrounded them and argued with them. The armed men claimed they were there to protect the protestors from the cops—although we didn’t see them getting involved when police were charging down State Street with tear gas and pepper spray later in the evening.
One of the armed young men was wearing a shirt with a palm-tree print under his vest, the symbol of a bizarre corner of the very online far-right. (The so-called “Boogaloo Movement,” which grew from fringe discussions about a coming civil war, has internally circulated a meme about “Civil War 2: Electric Boogaloo,” spawning cognate phrases including “big luau.” Long story short, people involved in this started wearing Hawaiian shirts and even spawning a niche demand for Hawaiian-print guns. The politics of the whole thing border on incoherent, but such forces are likely connected to the Three Percenters.
There are advocates for armed community defense on the left, and Madison has its own chapter of the Socialist Rifle Association. There is also a long history of armed community defense in black communities, and earlier in May a group of armed black citizens in Michigan escorted a state legislator to the state capitol in Lansing, in response to a crowd of armed right-wingers who flooded the capitol the day before. But the ostentatiously armed young men at the Madison protest clearly weren’t part of the movement to arm the left.
Their presence shocked and upset people, and it was evident they hadn’t coordinated with the groups organizing the protest. A few of the people gathered around them seemed to buy the argument that they were there to help, but most saw it as a hostile incursion.
As in Minneapolis, some Madisonians have suggested that far-right agitators came in to make the protests more violent and destructive, and to provoke a brutal response from police. But the presence of violent alt-right forces wasn’t apparent in Madison—and as much as some people would like to draw clear moral lines between “peaceful protests” and “rioting and looting,” the latter is no less an expression of legitimate rage, and a deliberate, strategic response to an unjust political and economic order.
Although it’s tough to break down how many right-wingers were involved or how coordinated they were on Saturday, armed far-right groups including the Three Percenters staged a demonstration at the Capitol in January 2019 and such groups definitely have their eye on Madison.
There’s also good reason to be skeptical of narratives that attribute rioting to outside agitators: This weekend local officials in the Twin Cities made statements about the role of outsiders that turned out to be wrong.
Assessing the damage on State Street
Local news coverage is already heavy with images of smashed shop windows along State Street, especially Goodman’s Jewelers, which was nearly cleaned out late Saturday afternoon.
Police have said that 75 businesses were damaged, although most of the people we saw on State Street on Saturday afternoon and evening were not indiscriminately targeting small businesses. We personally witnessed the reaction after someone smashed a big window at PowerNine Games—a lot of people in the crowd were upset about it, and accusations have circulated on social media about a couple of white women simply using the protests as an excuse to break that window and several other shop windows.
Nada Elmikashfi, a candidate for Wisconsin’s 26th District Senate seat, attributed the early looting to “misguided white allies and possibly undercover instigators.”
Meanwhile, several downtown business owners posted messages of support for the protestors, saying that they didn’t condone property destruction but would accept it in the interest of social change.
“If burning everything to ground brings proper attention to the disgusting injustice in our country…So be it… Our property is replaceable. Black lives aren’t,” State Street mainstay Hawk’s Bar and Grill stated on Facebook. Chef and restaurateur Tory Miller, of Graze and L’Etoile on the Square and Estrellon just off State Street, posted a similar message on Instagram.
A Room of One’s Own, also just off State, expressed full-throated support for the protests and riots:
“We are proud of those who rioted last night & who kept George Floyd’s name on a live news feed for an entire day & disallowed the march to become a two minute segment on the evening news. We are proud to be part of a community that flushed teargas out of protester’s eyes at 1am & that came together at 7am sweep up glass & board up windows. We believe this is all tandem necessary work. The looting & rioting last night, on any night, in any city, could never cause the same kind of damage the police have caused Black communities for centuries. Windows & merchandise will never, under any circumstance, be more important than human lives. “
The Urban Outfitters on the 600 block of State Street has already had stylized “broken” glass in its entryway for years now. By 7 p.m, almost all the store’s floor-to-ceiling front windows were authentically shattered. A small group of people stood outside and tried to physically stop a young man from leaving with a pile of looted clothes. The would-be protectors of Urban Outfitters didn’t seem to be involved in the actual protests, and didn’t succeed in stopping the looting.
Protestors and others were smashing windows and overturning the large flower pots up and down State Street. That said, no one has accounted for the possibility that police action, including the use of tear-gas canisters, contributed to the damage.
By Saturday evening, former Alder and mayoral candidate Scott Resnick had already organized a cleanup effort for damaged businesses on State Street. A crowdfunding campaign for downtown business relief has raised more than $100,000, and hundreds of volunteers came out on Sunday morning to help with the cleanup.
Madison’s leaders say they get it, but they have not put forward new measures to curb brutality
Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, Acting Police Chief Victor Wahl, State Rep. Chris Taylor, and members of the Madison Common Council, including Alders Sheri Carter and Samba Baldeh held a press conference on Saturday evening.
All of the elected officials who spoke condemned the property damage on State Street, while acknowledging the injustice of George Floyd’s death and the systemic racism that surrounds it. But there was no concrete talk about renewed efforts to hold police accountable or address the growing demands to defund or outright abolish policing as we know it. (Taylor has sponsored some police accountability measures that made it into Wisconsin law, including a bill requiring cops to retain body camera footage for at least 120 days and an earlier one requiring outside agencies to investigate when cops kill people.)
Saturday’s press conference became an absolute farce when Police Chief Wahl took the podium. He condemned Minneapolis police’s killing of George Floyd: “What we saw in that video was completely at odds with what our culture and values and philosophy are at MPD.”
But that’s at odds with Madison Police Department’s own history of gratuitous violence and resistance to change. Wahl then tried to put a friendly, administrative face on the things his own officers were doing on State Street.
“Even a fully robust fully staffed police response to a protest or a crowd, the officers are always gonna be greatly outnumbered by the crowd and we have to make sure that we make smart decisions…. Even when we get to a high level where we’re taking rocks and bottles and are in a clearly unsafe situation, we want to avoid escalating it even further…”
The statement is jaw-droppingly dissonant. The very presence of squads of cops in riot gear, with tear gas, batons, and pepper spray at the ready, clearly escalated the situation on State Street, over and over again—preventing no property damage, and brutalizing protesters. Along with their counterparts in cities around the United States, Madison police spent Saturday demonstrating once again why so many Americans are fed up with cops.
There’s another phenomenon at work in all this. Police officials around the country are using George Floyd’s murder to make statements that give them cover. Chiefs and sheriffs from around the area have condemned the killing, or at least its methods. Even some police unions, which tend to engage in inflammatory rhetoric to defend all manner of misconduct, are taking that approach. The Wisconsin Professional Police Association released a statement on Friday that says, in part: “The actions of the Minneapolis officers were outrageous, deplorable, and revolting, and would not satisfy the use of force standards and best practices employed by law enforcement in Wisconsin. The outright abuse inflicted upon George Floyd not only failed to meet the legal and professional standards that require officers to exercise force reasonably, it desecrated the most basic notions of human decency.”
But proclamations of sorrow ring hollow as police continue to lay siege on the very protests whose cause they claim to acknowledge. It’s as if the injustice of Floyd’s death has given cops and public officials a gruesome PR opportunity, rather than a call to take a hard look at themselves.