Wisconsin’s upside-down criminal-justice conversation

When it comes to the dynamics of rioting and policing, our leaders are telling ever more dissonant lies.

When it comes to the dynamics of rioting and policing, our leaders are telling ever more dissonant lies.

Police light images in illustration via Pixabay.

Kenosha police officers shot Jacob Blake seven times on Sunday afternoon. In the back, in front of his children. In response, Republican leaders in the Wisconsin’s State Legislature put the onus on the public to remain deliberative and non-violent, and continued to play resentment politics with the raging battle over American policing. Democratic leaders, meanwhile, offered mostly feeble responses that are barely worth defending.

The state legislature, where Republicans illegitimately control both houses through the magic of gerrymandering, has not passed a bill since April 15. They’ve dragged their feet on providing relief during the Coronavirus crisis, fueling the outrage and desperation that underly the explosive nationwide protests against police brutality. Republicans have shown little political appetite for taking up even the mildest reforms, including a package of nine bills that Governor Tony Evers and Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes introduced in June. Some of the proposals have teeth, but none of them are a real threat to the culture of violent impunity on which policing is built. They don’t go after police funding and they don’t challenge the basic assumption that we need on-call agents of state violence to address a broad array of societal problems. 

Since Sunday’s events, Evers has called a special session of the legislature to take up those bills. It’s in the legislature’s court to decide whether it’s more politically advantageous to actually take action or to contemptuously gavel in and gavel right back out. Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has announced a task force on racial disparities, which we can only hope will match the glowing accomplishments of his tasks force on water quality and his other task force on suicide, i.e. Robin Vos giving Robin Vos a cookie. 

Vos has a wide array of bad-faith strategies for deflecting any pressure he might feel to actually serve and represent the people of Wisconsin; announcing the formation of a task force is just one. Tasks force can make recommendations, and the people with real power, like Vos, can stick those recommendations in a drawer forever if they please. Legislatures also wield the considerable power of the purse, but Vos has signaled that he’s not going to use it to hold police accountable: His task force announcement on Monday stated that  “this is not a time for political posturing or to suggest defunding law enforcement.” At the same time, he rejected Evers’ call for a special session as “dictating liberal policies,” which is not how proposing legislation works.

One Republican State Senator, Van Wanggaard—a former Racine Police Department officer—has voiced support for some of these reforms, but his response to Blake’s shooting was to state that “Everyone should take a deep breath.” It’s a pitch-perfect thing to say if you come from a profession of gaslighting sadists who excel at suffocating people. As chair of the Legislature’s Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety, Wanggaard has some power to advance policy on this front, but he’s done very little except to say that he’s developing some proposals. 

Abusive policing is not a new issue, and it’s been impossible to avoid it since the May murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, but three months later we have basically no meaningful progress in the legislature. Legislative leaders are perfectly capable of writing and passing extensive legislation in short order when they want to. They haven’t acted because they don’t give a fuck about the people cops have killed or otherwise abused, the people cops will harm today, tomorrow, and every day for as long as cops exist. 

State Rep. Jim Steineke issued a galling Twitter thread on Monday that admonished protestors not to get violent and counseled against “racing towards judgment.” Anyone who wants to can watch Kenosha officers shoot Blake at point-blank range as Blake opens the door to his car (we’re not linking to it here). But do-nothing legislators like Steineke expect us to believe that what we really need to rely on is an “independent investigation” from the Wisconsin Department of Justice, which at the end of the day is still cops and prosecutors investigating cops and prosecutors and is, by design, a hobbled and compromised mechanism for holding police accountable. 

Every single day, the state gives police the resources and legal padding to make deadly snap decisions, but when they do, we’re supposed to act like we don’t know exactly what happened. We’re expected to slow down and parse the blur of the moment, and ignore the fact that every act of police violence has in fact been premeditated for generations. When riots follow police violence, we are supposed to overlook the role that police play in escalating riots, the fact that, as many other people have already pointed out, the police themselves are rioting.

Republican legislators have used the riots in Madison, Milwaukee, and Kenosha to advance their favorite narrative: That Wisconsin’s urban areas are a terrifying blight on the rest of the state, places where radical leftists and people of color run rampant 24/7 with the blessing of local leaders, places that white people in the “real Wisconsin” have the right to tame and crush and disenfranchise. Sometimes that call comes from inside the house, as when Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney claimed that downtown Madison was no longer a safe place to be. (Some protestors in Madison have been rough with reporters and bystanders, but even during the worst of the rioting it was far more dangerous to encounter cops than protestors. You could safely stay out of the way, unless a lingering cloud of tear gas drifted into your apartment.) 

Of course, the truth is that our cities are racist, over-policed, and racistly over-policed, and that “liberal” and “progressive” leaders play an active role in making them that way. In right-wing fantasy realms like the “Recall Satya” campaign, Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway hamstrung the local police and left property in Madison wide open to riotous destruction. Back here in reality, Wisconsin mayors actually have little power to micromanage the police, the structure of Police and Fire Commissions enshrined in state law shields police from discipline, and Rhodes-Conway used what power she did have to declare an emergency curfew during the initial few days of protests and riots in late May and early June, giving a gloss of legitimacy to a violent police crackdown. Madison’s Common Council has taken some meaningful steps toward improving police oversight, but several members have shown a reluctance to curb MPD’s access to riot weapons. Evers authorized Wisconsin National Guard troops to help police suppress protests in Madison, Milwaukee, and Kenosha, which is a poor way to signal that he’s serious about police reform. Last week’s excellent cover story in The Capital Times, meanwhile, lays out a strong case that Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne has failed to behave like the progressive DA he claims to be, and notes that racial disparities in criminal justice have actually gotten worse on Ozanne’s watch. In fact, Ozanne is helping federal prosecutors throw the book at several protest leaders in Madison. Democratic State Senator Tim Carpenter, after protestors beat him up in June, partnered with Republican legislators to introduce a bill making it a felony to damage public monuments, and threw a disgraceful tantrum to defend it

It’s a mixed bag, but the idea that Democrats are throwing cops to the wolves is simply not true. Democrats, as always, trip over their own contradictions and undermine themselves, making it hard to have faith in even their most feeble efforts at positive change. They often act like the central problems we’re dealing with in racist, violent policing have nothing to do with them. Then Republicans label Democratic leaders as extreme radicals anyway, and police unions explode with trolling and threats when faced with even the slightest pushback. We end up getting the worst of both worlds.

Our wildly twisted discourse on policing in Madison and Wisconsin generally reached its apex in an August 18 op-ed by Scott Grabins, chair of the Republican Party of Dane County, in The Capital Times. We know that Republicans lie and that their ideas are just window dressing for a political party that really only cares about greed and racial grievance. The American right is a cult, and like any cult uses misinformation to wall off its members from the outside world. Dane County Republicans lie with a desperate abandon, playing up their supposedly victimized status even though Republican voters in Dane County are an important bloc for Republicans in statewide races. There isn’t really a good argument for giving these people a platform, unless you want to give readers a window into some of the most diseased minds on this planet. 

Anyway, Grabins claims that “Under a President Joe Biden, every city in America would look like Mayor Rhodes-Conway’s State Street.” As plenty of people have already pointed out, the riots around the country are literally taking place in Donald Trump’s America, and right-wingers are trying to claim they’re a harbinger of what happens if we abandon the iron-fisted incompetence of this fascist regime. The article achieves escape velocity from the realm of facts in its first paragraph, which claims that Biden wants to defund police but also links to a fact-check article that debunks that claim. If only—Biden has in fact called for giving police more money, has accused Trump of wanting to defund police, and has chosen former prosecutor Kamala Harris as his running mate. Biden and Trump are fighting over the same piece of law-and-order red meat, but this op-ed cannot even accurately frame the status of the debate. 

The lies turn more local as Grabins writes that “violent rioters destroyed 75 businesses on State Street” and that police “fought violence, rioting, and looting on the front lines for weeks.” Rioters did extensive damage to downtown businesses and stole a lot of inventory, but destroyed? “To bring to a complete end the physical soundness, existence, or usefulness of“? There’s no evidence that the riots alone put an end to any local business. The pandemic and years of rapid gentrification will do plenty of destroying without help from looters, thank you very much. Additionally, State Street businesses—admittedly in a hard spot—have at least some resources to fall back on, from insurance to crowdfunding to a dubious proposal for a city-funded relief scheme. There have also not been “weeks of rioting.” Between May 30 and this past Sunday night, there have been a total of five or six days when actual rioting occurred in Madison. Grabins complains about all the cops who’ve been injured in riots across the country since May, failing to note that these cops set out to inflict indiscriminate violence upon the public. 

There’s more, but an op-ed that completely shits the bed in its first two paragraphs is hardly worth further engagement. At the same time, an absolutely deranged pro-police Facebook page in Madison is essentially calling for vigilantism and citizen-on-citizen surveillance, and crowing that “police officers are standing down there alone tonight.” Alone with nothing but piles of weaponry and deeply entrenched layers of impunity, I suppose.

Add to this the absolutely repulsive framing that basically says you can’t mention police brutality without wagging a finger at property damage, as if these things are anywhere near in the same moral universe. We get that even from leaders who claim to be against racist policing and sympathetic to marginalized communities.

The people leading protests in the streets in Madison, Milwaukee, and Kenosha have shown real clarity, and we should be proud of them. Whether their actions are peaceful or not, they continually reveal the hollowness of our political institutions. Our most useless elected officials wring their hands about violent protests, but rioters are simply redirecting the violence that’s always been there. And whatever form protests take, they’ve consistently kept the focus on the state’s systematic devaluing of human life. Protests in Madison this week alone have focused not only on police violence, but also on UW-Madison’s reckless plans to reopen campus. It’s reassuring, day after day, that people across the state and across the country aren’t letting the dissonance distract them.

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