Protestors confront a chasm between their goals and local government.
Photo by Steven Spoerl.
Following the Tuesday, June 23 arrest of Yeshua Musa, a local activist who recently spoke with Madison Police Department Acting Chief Victor Wahl at a protest, demonstrators converged on the Dane County Jail to protest Musa’s arrest and police brutality more broadly. The protest grew through the afternoon, ballooning to a crowd of nearly 400 in the evening.
By Wednesday morning, flashpoints from Tuesday night’s protest gripped media coverage and public discourse: namely, the toppling of statues outside of the Wisconsin State Capitol—Lady Forward and Hans Christian Heg—and the beating of State Senator Tim Carpenter.
Tuesday’s protest was explicitly more militant than most prior demonstrations in Madison this spring and summer, a stark shift that highlights how, despite the early gains of the movement in Madison, there remains a wide chasm between the goals of the movement and the response by public officials.
This is not a riot, this is a revolution: this is the chant that, along with “Fuck 12,” “No Justice, No Peace,” and simply “Black Lives Matter,” has echoed through the streets of Madison since the murder of George Floyd on May 25. Starting on May 30, night after night, there have been protests. Marches, sit-ins, block parties, poetry readings, highway occupations that brought traffic to a halt, and twice, at the very beginning, the looting of businesses along State Street.
These demonstrations have been led by young Black activists who, for the most part, insisted that the crowds remain committed to peaceful forms of direct action. At the same time, protest leaders have rejected the narrative that draws a clean line between peaceful protest and more destructive acts.
But just as the structures of white supremacy remain palpable in Madison (Matty Kenny, the white police who shot dead Tony Robinson, an unarmed Black teenager, in 2015 is still on the Police Department’s payroll, for example), so too has the righteous anger that fueled the riots. If anything, for many of the thousands of protestors who have consistently shown up to demand systemic change, the sense of frustration has only grown as their calls to defund the police—or even just stop police from targeting them—seem to fall on deaf ears. Protestors were widely criticized for destroying property, but weeks of shouting, of patiently imploring officials to take action, has either been ignored or met by the insipid promise of minor reforms.
On Father’s Day, Sunday, June 21, in the aftermath of a hit-and-run that left a Black woman, Alizé Carter, hospitalized, the tone of the protests shifted dramatically. Meeting in James Madison Park, a group of around 50 activists—seething from MPD’s failure to protect Carter from being run over by a white driver in a pickup truck, and outraged that officers on the scene pepper-sprayed her brother as he approached her laying on the pavement—pledged their dedication to make change “by any means necessary,” invoking Malcolm X. “When we chant, we can’t be scared to get non-peaceful,” said one speaker after quoting the Declaration of Independence, “Our repeated petitions have only been answered by repeated injury”.
Held by What’s Next Forum: Madison, a Facebook group that formed three weeks ago as a “think tank” to channel the energy of the protests into concrete policy changes, the meeting—as several of the speakers pointed out—switched the emphasis of the chant from “this is not a riot” to “this is a revolution.” Though the organization had previously focused on community-building events like a carwash June 24 to raise money for State Street businesses that were looted or damaged during the riots, that day they had agreed that those efforts would ultimately fall short of convincing local government to take decisive action. Instead, what was needed, they said, was to make lawmakers and the general white public increasingly uncomfortable—even if that meant breaking the law to disrupt the status quo.
A national movement putting local governments in the spotlight
Across the United States, protestors have targeted the municipal governments who have jurisdiction over the budgets and policies surrounding local police departments. In locations as disparate as Salt Lake City, New York City, Tallahassee, and Madison, organizers are putting pressure on their city governments to establish or strengthen civilian committees for police oversight. Protestors are likewise pushing for cities to redirect funding from police departments and into social services. In Minneapolis, the city council has committed to dismantling the Minneapolis Police Department, while the Los Angeles City Budget and Finance Committee voted on June 22 to cut the Los Angeles Police Department budget by $133 million. Uprisings have also yielded a sudden pivot by school districts to remove police officers in security positions from K-12 schools. The streets are a battleground, but so are previously sleepy local-government Zoom meetings.
And in Madison, the movement has made significant political wins in a similarly short period of time.
Days after the initial protests downtown, Madison Teachers Inc. (MTI), the union representing Madison teachers, reversed its position on police officers in security positions at Madison schools—long a contentious issue, and a focus for Freedom Inc., one of the main organizations leading protests in Madison. The union, which had long supported the presence of School Resource Officers (SROs) in the city’s K-12 schools, released a letter demanding the removal of all officers from school, on the condition that the City also provide for support staff and psychologists, per American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) guidelines.
The City of Madison was quick to support the installation of temporary protest art adorning Madison’s main commercial drag: In the days after major protests downtown, Black artists and other artists of color, commissioned by the City of Madison, painted murals up and down State Street. The installation turned the site of protests and riots into a visual display that approximated celebration: of Black life and of the memories of Black people murdered in America. Some of the art along State Street is more blandly positive, and has touched off a multi-layered discussion about the role of race and privilege in Madiso’s cultural landscape and whose interests the public-art program serves.
Sirena Flores, who was commissioned to contribute a piece on State Street, painted a memorial to Tony Robinson on the 100 block of State Street.
“Tony was my friend, so this was the first thing I thought to do. I’m a portrait artist specifically, so I just pictured his face,” Flores said. “This is so that we can still have a piece of Tony.”
But beyond supporting protest art—which undeniably serves the simultaneous function of beautifying Madison’s commercial downtown—the City has taken up the Black Lives Matter movement only as a result of a concerted and ongoing push by organizers.
Putting the pressure on Madison’s elected officials
After the Madison Police Department cracked down on protestors on the nights of May 30 and 31, amid public outcry, the city’s Common Council voted—albeit narrowly—to block an extension of the Mayor’s standing 9 p.m. curfew and state of emergency order. District 7 Alder Donna Moreland highlighted the significance of the debate over the City’s curfew, which had provided the pretext for the police to use tear gas and projectiles on protestors the night before: “There are bad cops, and the people in the Police Department know exactly who they are…this is not about a curfew. This is not about a state of emergency. This is about people knowing there are bad eggs in the department and letting it go on,” Moreland said at the June 2 meeting.
In the weeks since, protests have continued nearly daily, and pressure mounted for the Common Council to act before its June 16 meeting, as Madison residents sent city alders thousands of emails urging the council to implement a long-debated resolution to create an independent civilian oversight board and auditor position for the Madison Police Department. Outrage also erupted when activists learned that a seemingly ho-hum MPD budget request included funding by $50,000 for launchers that fire “less-lethal” projectiles, like the ones unleashed on protestors in Madison and across the country.
During the June 16 Council meeting, members of the public spoke, one after another, about the injustices inflicted by the Madison Police Department—several people using their time to hold a moment of silence for Tony Robinson, slain while unarmed by MPD officer Matthew Kenny in 2015, or for people cops have maimed or killed with “less-lethal” weapons— and the disproportionate show of force by MPD during protests in the past weeks. In a unanimous vote, the Common Council voted to approve a resolution allocating no funding for the requested grenade launchers. By an overwhelming majority, the alders also approved the resolution to establish a civilian oversight board.
But even as protests prompted the City to move on the civilian oversight board (5 years in the making) and to limit the power of the police in the short-term by keeping curfew at bay and declining to fund the provision of more weapons to the department, the City of Madison has done little to address the most pressing demands of the protests: defunding the police and firing Officer Matt Kenny.
When confronted by protestors, Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway and Acting Police Chief Vic Wahl have both dodged questions about Kenny, pointing to the Police and Fire Commission, which has the power to discipline and fire officers—while conspicuously declining to take their own position on the issue. By throwing their hands up and blaming the Police and Fire Commission, Wahl and Rhodes-Conway are fronting as helpless— public officials stymied by the process, absolved of responsibility.
But in doing so, they also refuse to leverage their platforms for justice, staking out a position that’s diametrically opposed to the movement.