MADISON – Wisconsin’s capital city smoldered Wednesday, simmering with longstanding rage over the two worlds its Black and white residents live in and new pain brought by violent assaults on the symbols of state government.
Republican legislative leaders stood outside the Wisconsin State Capitol after its windows had been boarded up following a night of destructive protests that also turned violent as a state senator was assaulted leaving the statehouse.
Furious over the lack of protection the night before, they called on Democratic Gov. Tony Evers to rely on police to maintain safety and claimed city leaders were hiding them.
Timeline:How the Madison protests unfolded
Hans Christian Heg:About the abolitionist statue toppled and thrown in a lake
Evers issued a statement that violent actions wouldn’t be tolerated and authorized the Wisconsin National Guard to help local law enforcement protect state buildings and infrastructure.
In response to GOP leaders, the state’s first black lieutenant governor said they were the ones who are directly responsible for the frustration that has turned into a powder keg.
“I stand by my objection to violence against innocent people in all forms. But what I’m not about to do is open this app and see the same far right provocateurs who have used every bit of bandwidth to broaden the chasm of race relations in this state chime in as if they haven’t pushed people to this moment,” Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, a Democrat from Milwaukee, said in a tweet.
Hundreds of protesters marched through downtown Madison Tuesday following the arrest of Devonere Johnson, a Black man who has been protesting George Floyd’s death for weeks in Madison.
He was arrested after entering a Capitol Square restaurant with a bullhorn and a baseball bat, shouting at customers, and later tried to flee from police.
The demonstrations led to acts of violence and destruction, including tearing down two iconic statues — one of an abolitionist who died during the Civil War and the other a symbol of women’s suffrage — and damaging state and city buildings with fists and fire.
The night followed weeks of mostly peaceful protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis.
Ebony Anderson-Carter told the Wisconsin State Journal Tuesday that the statues represented worthy causes but stood for a “false representation of what this city is” given its massive racial disparities and little to no progress in improving them.
Wisconsin has for years earned the distinction of being one of the worst for Black adults and children to live in myriad ways, most notably in academic skills and incarceration rates.
Anderson-Carter said the destruction was, in part, a result of inaction by state leaders to listen to call for change on such issues.
Democratic state Sen. Tim Carpenter was beaten after filming the demonstration, which he said he supported, and now suspects he has a concussion.
“All I did was stop and take a picture … and the next thing I’m getting five-six punches, getting kicked in the head,” he said.
‘I don’t know how long this is sustainable’
Police were largely absent from the demonstrations, even after they turned violent — a hands-off tactic to avoid inflaming tensions used during previous Madison protests that the state’s police union said Wednesday wasn’t working well.
“I don’t know how long this is sustainable,” Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, said. “(Officers) are not to engage unless they’re struck with something. We have to wait until an officer is injured before they can react.”
A big challenge now for law enforcement is balancing public safety while also not exacerbating concerns some have about policing. Palmer said it only gets more challenging when protests are disjointed, like Tuesday’s.
“I don’t even think law enforcement can coordinate with the organizers to arrive at ways the group and their supporters can best express their views,” Palmer said, which has been a tactic used by some police departments to honor First Amendment rights while avoiding freeway closures, for example. “These violent engagements seem to undermine the very thing that people want.”
The action came hours after Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, a Republican from Rochester, said the governor and Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway were leaving the capital city in danger by refusing to commit to a robust police presence.
“Violent protest where a mob forms and government refuses to act is the exact opposite of how change will occur,” Vos told reporters at a press conference. “I do not feel confident with the employees working inside the Capitol to know they will be safe.”
Alderman: ‘We do not have a handle on rioting’
Madison’s alderman who represents the city’s downtown didn’t disagree with the characterization of the situation. Ald. Mike Verveer said city police have not had enough resources to safely respond to rioters.
“Clearly we, as a whole, are not doing a good job. We do not have a handle on the rioting,” Verveer said.
Tuesday’s chaos came nearly a month after a similarly destructive night in Madison following Floyd’s death, when business storefronts were smashed along State Street and police vehicles were damaged and set on fire.
Verveer called that night, on May 30, “the worst thing that ever happened to downtown Madison.”
After weeks of peaceful protesting, he was shocked Tuesday’s demonstrations took the turn they did.
“I’m at my wit’s end. We’re back to square one,” Verveer said. “My mood changes from anger one minute to sadness the next.”
Verveer said he spent Wednesday morning in calls with Rhodes-Conway and Madison Police Chief Vic Wahl, crafting a plan for Wednesday night and the rest of the week.
The focus of that meeting was to establish appropriate police staffing, he said.
“Despite the best efforts of law enforcement, we have not done a good job because violence was allowed to continue for way too long last night,” he said.
Later Wednesday, Rhodes-Conway pushed back against claims she was restraining the police response.
The Madison Police Department works directly with State Capitol Police and other local law enforcement, Rhodes-Conway said in late afternoon news conference. She emphasized that she’s not giving any orders.
“They make decisions together. I am not in that room,” Rhodes-Conway said. “I do not micromanage our law enforcement response.”
Madison police also announced a $5,000 reward for the ID of the person who threw the Molotov cocktail into the City County Building.
She said Madison city and school district leaders had agreed to end a contract for police resource officers in high schools with a resolution to be introduced Thursday.
Republican state Sen. Dale Kooyenga of Brookfield said the money it takes to repair the Capitol and state buildings will come out of Madison’s shared revenue because of what he described as anarchy being allowed by Madison’s city leaders.
GOP state Sen. Van Wanggaard, a retired police officer from Racine, was more direct: “The time for platitudes is over. This is bullshit.”
Newly elected Republican congressman Tom Tiffany, a former state senator, went as far as to call on Evers to resign.
“If he cannot or will not regain control of the streets, he should resign immediately. Enough is enough, Tiffany said in a news release.
Senate Minority Leader Janet Bewley, a Democrat from Mason, said the GOP lawmakers “have shown more outrage over statues than the senseless murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery,” referring to Black deaths that have spurred national outrage against police practices and inaction.
“The sad part is that all of this could have been prevented. The Republicans who control the legislature have refused to act to address the systemic racism that threatens the fabric of our society; they won’t even acknowledge it,” she said in a statement. “They have the power to protect the rights of people of color who are suffering, yet they do nothing.”
Vos said he is considering legislation called for by Evers that seeks to prevent police brutality, which also addresses issues protesters have been calling for action on for weeks.
He said there’s an agreement among his caucus to ban chokeholds, but said he did not have a timeline for when any measures would be taken up.
The arrest that spurred violent unrest
Devonere Johnson, 28, is known as Yeshua Musa and has participated in every protest held in Madison that Journal Sentinel reporters have covered in recent weeks.
While he was arrested Tuesday, he carried a baseball bat with the message Black Lives Matter inscribed on it.
Johnson has been tentatively charged with disorderly conduct while armed, resisting arrest and attempted escape, according to the Madison Police Department. As of Wednesday afternoon, no charges had yet been filed, according to online court records.
Rhodes-Conway said in a news conference late Wednesday that she has asked for his initial appearance to be expedited so that his case can be resolved.
While there are no current cases open against Johnson, he has been charged before, mostly for smaller offenses. In 2016, Johnson was convicted of felony theft and sentenced to five years of probation, according to online court records.
The charge stemmed from an incident in which Johnson and three other people took cellphones from two Chicago men whom they had arranged to buy the phones from, according to an incident report.
Johnson and the three others held the Chicago men at gunpoint and then shot at them.
No one was hurt, and a judge dismissed charges of armed robbery, recklessly endangering safety and bail jumping in that case.
Police say he was arrested Tuesday as he was leaving the restaurant where he used a bullhorn and displayed the bat.
Officers and Johnson suffered minor injuries after Johnson tried to escape the squad car before being tackled.
Laura Schulte of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.