A group of about 150 people repeatedly clashed with law enforcement in downtown Madison Saturday following a peaceful protest at the Capitol in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis police custody.
The clashes, which largely occurred up and down State Street beginning around 4:30 p.m., came as the group threw rocks, water bottles and chairs from businesses’ outdoor patio sets at advancing police officers, who dispensed “chemical agents,” according to a statement from the Madison Police Department, including tear gas, into the crowd.
It’s unclear what exactly the inciting incident was, but It appeared to have begun in earnest after some smashed windows at Goodman’s Jewelers on State Street. MPD in its statement said officers then responded “and ordered the group to disperse.”
By that time, the peaceful protest, which began at the Capitol at noon, wound around the Square, down East Washington Avenue and over to Williamson Street — where black teen Tony Robinson was fatally shot by Madison police in 2015 — had largely left the area.
There didn’t appear to be much crossover between the individuals clashing with police and those who had demonstrated peacefully hours before. Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway and other local leaders sought to draw a distinction between the earlier protesters and those who conflicted with the police.
After commending the Floyd protest and calling for addressing “systemic racism in all of its forms,” Rhodes-Conway denounced the “relatively small” group of people “who I believe were more interested in trouble than protest” who confronted officers.
“This violence does nothing to support the interests of social justice” or police reform, she said.
As of 9 p.m, MPD Acting Chief Victor Wahl said he didn’t believe any arrests had occurred and noted at least one officer had suffered minor injuries from the events of the evening.
He also defended his officers’ use of pepper spray and other chemical agents that cause people to cough amid the COVID-19 crisis, saying while their use “is not ideal,” that “it’s the best, least intrusive option at that point.”
As the night dragged on, the frequency of the clashes downtown continued. Some smashed the windows of a UW Police car near the Madison Public Library, while others rushed to spray paint it; an MPD car was set on fire and left to burn at the intersection of Broom and Gorham streets; and tear gas and pepper spray continued to be deployed.
The activity largely mirrored what occurred earlier in the evening. After the windows at Goodman’s were smashed, people headed down State Street toward campus, followed by a line of two dozen police officers. They chanted “hands up, don’t shoot” and shouted insults at the officers, who didn’t appear to respond.
At various points, the progress down State Street stopped. Occasionally more officers would join their colleagues as the march continued toward campus.
Eventually, the crowd there dispersed when police dispensed tear gas. Individuals later returned to the base of State Street, smashing windows at Urban Outfitters and Under Armour and turning over large flower planters lining the street.
The clashes continued at the top of State Street, near the Capitol. After a tense, lengthy standoff as crowds pressed up to the new line of officers, police again dispersed tear gas multiple times as people briefly fled the area and later gathered elsewhere.
A knot of three African American women stood next to the Lady Forward statue on the Capitol steps shortly before 8 p.m. alternately capturing videos with their phones and warning a small group of teenage boys and girls to stay clear of the tense standoff a few hundred feet away.
“We’re mothers,” said one woman, who declined to give her name to a reporter. “We’re out here watching over these kids like always.”
They joined others in brief chants of “Fuck the police!” and “I can’t breathe!” while conferring with each other about when to head home.
“I’ve got work tomorrow,” said the mother. “You know I’ve got to get that money!”
They were gone by 8:30 p.m.
It’s unclear how long the activity will continue this evening. As of 9:30 p.m., officers stationed on the upper State Street blocks presided over quiet streets and denied pedestrian access.
Going forward, Rhodes-Conway said officials “are going to continue to monitor the situation,” while Wahl pledged police would maintain “a robust presence” overnight, drawing officers in from surrounding communities.
But in the meantime, as of 9 p.m., Rhodes-Conway that there are no plans to impose a city-wide curfew.
Jason Joyce contributed to this report.
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