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You can’t compare the two

Madison police offer absurd deflections about protests and the Mifflin Street Block Party.

Photo by Ken Fager on Flickr.

One of the most craven and telling things a Madison Police Department official has said recently came in a discussion about how MPD handled two different situations. MPD officers brought tear gas and piles of riot gear to summer 2020 protests against racism and police violence, but showed up to the 2021 Mifflin Street Block Party (one of campus’ most tiresome traditions) ready to play beer pong with unmasked drunken goobers and stand back as they destroyed a UW-Madison student’s car. Community members have, understandably, demanded some explanations about this stark contrast.

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The Capital Times reported on June 10 about a recent Public Safety Review Committee at which MPD leaders fielded questions about their distinct approaches to protests and Mifflin. Recently arrived Chief Shon Barnes said the department was “simply maintaining a sense of community,” as reporter Addison Lathers puts it. That by itself says a whole lot about the kind of “community” police consider worth defending. But there’s so much more to unpack in the kicker:

Capt. Mindy Winters, the lead commander of the special events team, clarified that officer conduct during the protests and during the Mifflin Block Party cannot be easily compared due to the nature of the events.

“Our officers enjoy opportunities engaging with people, but they’re humans who are going to engage with people who are offering friendly banter, more so than perhaps an expletive or a gesture that is less than welcoming,” Winters said.

The argument is that you can’t compare these two events because police were operating in two very different contexts. What this argument doesn’t acknowledge here is that police have the power to create that context. The way Winters tells it, police at last year’s protests had to behave differently than they did at Mifflin due to factors over which they had no control.

We know that this is false. Take May 30, 2020, the first major day of protests following the murder of George Floyd. During the first part of the day, there was a massive, peaceful march on the Capitol Square, in front of the Dane County Jail, and down Willy Street to the house where MPD Officer Matt Kenny shot Tony Robinson in 2015. During this part of the day, MPD officers were around but fairly hands-off with everyone. People were of course out there because they were very upset with the police, but there weren’t any violent confrontations that I’m aware of between protestors and the cops on the scene at that time. 

Later that afternoon and into the evening, protests continued on State Street and police took a much more hostile approach, massing up in riot gear and occasionally charging up and down the street while they fired tear gas. When someone shows up in heavy military-style gear, that’s a clear sign that they are getting ready to hurt you, or at the very least intimidate you into leaving a public space. Most people out there at the time weren’t involved in looting local businesses or any other illegal activity. But if you were there, you were included in the collective punishment police were doling out. 

I fail to see where people engaged in these protests had a chance to “offer friendly banter” to the cops. The expletives and gestures were plentiful, because people have a right to express their anger when agents of the state murder people. Yes, some people threw rocks and plastic bottles at the cops, but there was never any doubt as to who presented a greater threat to whom. We often talk about “social unrest” as if it’s just some vague force that cops have to confront, but the truth is that police help to provoke that unrest through their own behavior.

We should recognize the police response to the protests here in Madison, and across the country, for what it was: the police retaliating against the public for criticizing the police. A content-specific crackdown on speech. For all of MPD’s talk of “facilitating” free speech, Captain Winters’ remarks make it clear that if you call out police on their behavior—behavior that you pay for—they have a free hand to treat you violently and unequally. It’s not illegal, strictly speaking, to demand accountability from the police or even flip off a cop, but if you do anything along that continuum, police are clearly excused from their supposed obligation to protect everyone equally.

The people at Mifflin, on the other hand, destroyed property and endangered others, but none of it really contained a political challenge to policing. It’s just a little white hooliganism, and policing is so often just white hooliganism in a slightly more regimented form. People were there to act like idiots but not to challenge the police, so the police took a more calm approach. A few of the people who destroyed cars or violated alcohol regulations at the Mifflin Street Block Party will face citations or prosecution, but the consequences are nothing like the surveillance and severe charges that several anti-racism activists in Madison have experienced over the past year. God forbid that anyone at MPD should find this climate less than welcoming.

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