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Violence? Well, we’re against it

Two empty resolutions find Madison liberals in sync with Wisconsin Republicans.

Two empty resolutions find Madison liberals in sync with Wisconsin Republicans.

Last week the Madison Common Council voted down a resolution “condemning the use of violence and destruction in any form and for any reason.” A couple days later, the Wisconsin State Assembly unanimously approved a resolution of its own declaring that “political violence in any form has no place in the American system of government and should never be tolerated.” In between these events came the deadly right-wing attack at the U.S. Capitol, and a great deal of trauma and anguish as a Kenosha police officer predictably got away with shooting Jacob Blake seven times in the back. 

These vacuous gestures read very similarly, and created an eerie parallel between Madison liberals defending the status quo and Assembly Republicans Robin Vos and Jim Steineke trying to absolve their party and president of their clear role in fomenting violence. Both resolutions are symbolic and one is dead in the water, but what’s important is what both reveal: A politics that flattens the context of violence and blurs many different forms of violence into one amorphous social ill, a rhetoric that creates impossible virtuous islands of neutrality in the middle of dire struggle. When the problem is this nebulous, the absolution is all-encompassing, and there can be no accountability and no solutions. The violence is just… vaguely out there, going around, like a stomach bug or a sour mood. 

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The mushy and opportunistic language at work here reminds me of a line in the 1996 Farrelly Brothers comedy Kingpin: “You know what it says in the Bible about not forgiving people… well, it’s, uh, it’s against it.” Like slippery bowler Roy Munson, both resolutions make broad appeals to our better nature without really addressing any of the problems at hand.

Sponsored by Council President Sheri Carter and grimacing third-tier Dickens villain Paul Skidmore, the resolution before the Common Council focused on violent protest and gun crime, mentioning them almost in the same breath. Carter and Skidmore, who in normal times would be attending Council meetings in a room a few floors below a jail, didn’t bother to include language about the violence of police brutality, the violence of mass incarceration, the violence of economic deprivation, or the violence of a pandemic that disproportionately impacts poor people and people of color. Similarly, Vos and Steineke’s resolution didn’t have a thing to say about the economic deprivation and needless deaths Wisconsinites have suffered thanks to the legislature’s willful neglect of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Activists were quick to condemn the hypocrisy of the Council resolution, as Madison365 reported ahead of the January 5 Council meeting. At the meeting, a handful of residents spoke in opposition of the resolution, and it fizzled pretty quickly, with most Alders abstaining. Only Carter, Skidmore, and 10th District Alder Zachary Henak voted in favor. 

Had it passed, this resolution would have been an absurd denial of the Council’s own powers and responsibilities. Carter and Skidmore both know that the Council, despite its limited control of MPD, can enable or limit MPD’s violence through the power of the purse. It is, of course, nonsensical for a government at any level to condemn violence “in any form and for any reason,” because governments use violence every day in the name of maintaining order and protecting property—we can all agree on that, whether or not you support the coercive power of the state. 

Madisonians should take advantage of the opportunity this spring’s election presents to shake up the Council. Brandi Grayson is challenging Carter in the 14th District, and Skidmore faces challenges in the 9th District from Nikki Conklin and Doug Hyant. Those are just two key races in what is already a crowded and interesting field—keep up via this spreadsheet from Twitter user @robwisc

Carter has had plenty of opportunity to condemn property destruction in the wake of this summer’s protests, and Skidmore never misses a chance to defend the excesses of Madison police. Skidmore is in no position to lecture others on political civility. During a September 2 Council meeting, someone got caught on a hot mic calling local activist Shadayra Kilfoy-Flores a cunt. Kilfoy-Flores is certain it was Skidmore, and 14 of Skidmore’s fellow Alders signed an open letter stating, without naming him, that “There is little question as to the source.” But Skidmore has denied it, prompting the city to spend $10,000 on a forensic IT analysis to identify the culprit. There are few people who could have had their Zoom audio unmuted in the late hours of a long Council meeting, and fewer still with gravelly male voices, but liability concerns obligate media and fellow officials to give Skidmore the benefit of the doubt, for now. 

This resolution offered no insight into the root causes of violence, other than to say that “violence begets violence.” It offered no solutions and set no benchmarks for action, other than to say that “we must work diligently with all levels of government, community organizations, and outreach agencies.” The resolution bizarrely pointed out that violent protest especially harms “employees in the service industries,” but didn’t point out the risks created by reckless idiots dining out or by re-opening policies crafted with the heavy involvement of the business lobby. Its language fuels the exaggerated narrative about a crime wave sweeping Madison. Its omissions highlight a sick need to believe that the Madison Police Department is progressive and largely innocent of the broader sins of American policing, despite the facts

The mentality at work here also requires us to treat the destructive 2020 riots as if there is no reason whatsoever that they should have happened here. A large body of research, and former MPD Chief Dave Couper, indicates that a hostile police response makes riots worse, and sometimes turns protests into riots in the first place. I personally watched that dynamic play out in downtown Madison last summer. 

Council members have no obligation to condone political violence, but they have a responsibility to try and understand that it springs from profound misery and disaffection. They also need to grasp that it takes different forms and happens for different reasons. While vocally condemning property destruction, most Alders have pointedly failed to place anywhere near the same emphasis on forms of right-wing violence, including anti-masker rallies that spread a deadly virus; repeated incidents of people trying to hit protestors with cars; repeated instances of fascists menacing the public by open-carrying assault rifles; and a noxious car caravan clearly timed with the intention of intimidating Madison voters before Election Day. 

Whatever your stance on political violence, you can’t talk about it honestly without first acknowledging that we’re all inheritors of it, in complex and vastly different ways. We live in a country that exists because several gruesomely violent European empires formed some colonies, the colonies violently rebelled to establish a new government, and the various powers involved violently slaughtered and drove out Indigenous people while violently enslaving Black people to build wealth. At present, most of us pretend that we are civilized and peaceful because we elect politicians who delegate out violence through police, the military, immigration agencies, the CIA, the prison system, and so forth. Political violence happens every day and accomplishes things every day, and we pay for it and enable it. 

This week I received a new book documenting the mural art that sprung up along State Street after rioters smashed downtown storefronts and business owners put up plywood. In the package was a letter from Carter, on Common Council letterhead. The property destruction downtown, and the threat of more, created a vast public canvas and shook up the conversation about who gets to exist and express themselves in central Madison. Something good came out of the destruction, like it or not. “We transformed the core of our city, came together as a community in support of artists and small businesses; we insisted that Black Lives Matter on the most iconic street in Madison,” Carter writes in the letter accompanying the book. Carter deserves credit for seeing an opportunity to do something constructive and working to re-direct some of the city’s meager public art funds to support this project. But at the same time, Carter’s failed resolution would have us believe that political violence does no good. Well, which is it?

What also gets lost in all this is that no one is particularly happy about political violence, except for the sadists and accelerationists of the far right. At the same time, it’s hard to believe that local and state elected officials who deal in such empty, self-absolving rhetoric will ever do enough to address the root causes of that violence.

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