For the first time in more than three weeks, police officers in riot gear showed up to confront protesters following some vandalism throughout the evening Tuesday into early Wednesday morning.
The night ended with both of the statues on the State Capitol grounds brought down and dragged away. The “Forward” statue sat in the middle of State Street near the Overture Center, while the statue of Hans Christian Heg was dragged to Lake Monona and thrown in.
The protest was another event in the ongoing nationwide movement to bring attention to systemic racism and police brutality.
The action came hours after a controversial arrest of a demonstrator on the Capitol Square who entered Coopers Tavern with a megaphone and a baseball bat, which a friend said he has carried around throughout the protests peacefully. The arrest, caught on video from multiple perspectives, involved multiple officers tackling Yeshua Musa to the ground and carrying him to a police car.
Protests began nearly a month ago following George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. A police officer knelt on the neck of Floyd, a Black man, for nearly eight minutes while he was in custody, as Floyd repeatedly called out “I can’t breathe.”
The first weekend of protests in Madison, May 30 through June 1, began as peaceful marches and later at night involved vandalism and looting of State Street and Capitol Square businesses. Police responded in riot gear each night and used tear gas to disperse the crowds, which included many people not involved in any vandalism.
But beginning with protests on Tuesday, June 2, police had been almost entirely absent and protests have generally remained without major property damage, as protesters chanted, marched and focused on what solutions they wanted to see — “defund the police,” for example.
That changed last night, as a Wisconsin State Journal reporter tweeted that protest leaders said early in the evening it would not be a peaceful protest.
Police were not present during the evening protest until a little before 1 a.m., after the group of a few hundred had set a small fire in the police station at the corner of Carroll and Doty streets and damaged lights and windows at the Capitol.
According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a small group also attacked state Sen. Tim Carpenter, D-Milwaukee, after he got out of his car to take a photo of the group on the Capitol Square. Carpenter was later taken to the hospital in an ambulance.
No tear gas was used, and by the end of the night only a small group of about three dozen remained. Officers in riot gear had retreated to about 50 feet away on Hamilton Street after the protesters told them the group would leave if the police left first.
Gov. Tony Evers in a statement pledged that any individuals who committed acts of violence against another person “will be held accountable,” adding that “it should never be tolerated.”
“Our cause and our purpose must continue to be the pursuit of the promise of an equitable, just, and fair state and country, and we cannot delay delivering on these promises any longer,” he said.
Statues come down
Around the country, protesters have been tearing down statues of Confederate generals and slaveowners as part of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The “Forward” statue is “an allegory of devotion and progress,” according to the Wisconsin Historical Society, which were qualities sculptor Jean Pond Miner felt Wisconsin embodied. Heg, meanwhile, was a Union soldier and anti-slavery activist who died in the Civil War.
Activist Ebony Anderson-Carter said neither represent the state right now, given its status as among the worst for Black people to live. She said actions Tuesday night would “send a message” to elected officials who have not done enough, in her opinion, to respond to the protesters.
“The people in this community that are able to make change and able to stand with us are not,” Anderson-Carter said. “The city itself doesn’t have the same values (as the statues represent).”
While talking with reporters in front of the Tommy G. Thompson building, which protesters broke the front glass of moments earlier, a resident in the building across the street yelled out as more glass fell. Anderson-Carter and others present yelled back that the glass had been broken earlier and was now continuing to break on its own.
Anderson-Carter tried to end the conversation by saying “Black Lives Matter.” The woman yelling down replied, “No they don’t, not if they do this kind of shit.”
Anderson-Carter told reporters that she wanted to see Musa released and was unhappy with how the police had handled his arrest earlier in the day. The arrest led to what happened that night, she said.
“This is the definition of don’t start no shit, won’t be no shit,” she said, adding that she hoped someone would call her Wednesday to discuss getting Musa released.
The group marched from the Capitol Square around various downtown streets throughout the night, often putting barriers behind them to keep traffic away.
That included on John Nolen Drive as the group put the statue in the water. A man tried to drive around one of the barriers and hit a bike. He jumped out of his car with fists raised, and a large group of people quickly surrounded him. According to a Wisconsin State Journal reporter, the group eventually dispersed and called a medic for the driver; the biker did not appear to be seriously injured.
Later in the night, as the group returned to State Street, a gunshot went off and sent the crowd running quickly. According to an account by someone involved, which Anderson-Carter shared a video of, a confrontation between a white man and protesters began when the man began pushing down some of their traffic cones and asking them if they’d physically confront him.
The person in the video said another person came up shortly after and fired a gun into the air, then both men ran the other way down State Street away from the group. The group soon gathered back together and continued marching toward the Dane County Jail.
Once there, the group began chanting “Free Yeshua,” lit a small fire in the police station across the street and broke some surveillance cameras in the area. The group then moved up to the Capitol, where they broke lamps and windows on the building.
Officers arrived shortly after, and the group chanted as many held their hands up about 10 feet away from the police. The group was around 100-strong at that point, continuing to chant over the police’s repeated announcements: “You are part of an unlawful gathering. Leave the area immediately.”
Around 1:25 a.m., a protester encouraged the group to go home through a megaphone.
“Understand we proved our point tonight,” he said, adding that they needed to be able to come back out the next night and more after that.
A smaller group, around three dozen, remained and continued chanting toward the police, who continued their dispersal announcements. After some discussion back and forth, a protester told them, “When y’all leave, we’ll leave.” Protesters sang “Na na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye,” as the police walked backwards down Hamilton Street, stopping about half a block away.
That retreat wasn’t enough for the protesters, who began playing music and made clear that they wanted the police to leave the area entirely before leaving themselves. According to a tweet from an Isthmus reporter, the groups dispersed without any tear gas used around 2:40 a.m.
Evers said Wednesday that officials are assessing the damage made to state property, including the Capitol building, nearby area and Thompson Center, adding both statutes had been recovered. He noted both Capitol Police and the Wisconsin State Patrol were involved in Tuesday night's events, as Capitol Police addressed "attempts to breach" the Capitol while State Patrol officers aided MPD.
He also warned the state is prepared to activate the Wisconsin National Guard in order "to protect state buildings and infrastructure" and he noted his administration is working with local law enforcement officials "to understand their response to last night's events and their plans to respond to similar events in the future."
Elected officials respond
Local and state officials began issuing statements early Wednesday about the overnight events.
Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said in her statement that "what happened last night in Madison was far from peaceful and exceeding dangerous."
"We need to separate First Amendment protests from those engaged in criminal conduct," the statement reads. "People engaged in violence and criminal conduct against people or property on the streets of Madison will be held accountable."
But top Assembly Republicans criticized her and Evers' handling of and response to the events and the lack of visible police presence for much of the evening.
Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, denounced the regular occurrence of "acts of violence" into early Wednesday morning and said that "protesters learned from weeks ago that there are no consequence to their actions."
"This is a failure of leadership at all levels in the city of Madison," he told reporters at the Capitol. "It has to end. Press releases aren't going to do it."
Rhodes-Conway also said Madison police are involved in a "wide-ranging investigation of activities that lead up to the arrest on the square yesterday" and will provide further information on that and a Sunday night hit-and-run.
After citing the work the City Council has done to review MPD's use of force policies and moving forward with creating an independent police auditor and civilian police oversight committee, Rhodes-Conway said in the statement that "every single person who lives here deserves to be and feel safe in our city."
"It is up to every single one of us to make that true," the statement reads. "Everyone — police, protester, elected official, business owner, resident — everyone must find it within themselves to show compassion and kindness for each other and to care about each other's safety and well-being."
Briana Reilly contributed to this report.
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