Madison’s reaction to Kyle Rittenhouse’s acquittal went off Capitol Square Friday night, with activists holding a “speak out” at Penn Park on the South Side.
About 50 people gathered at the event, with a microphone and loud speakers available to anyone who wanted to speak their mind about Rittenhouse being found not guilty by a Kenosha jury. Freedom Inc., a social justice group, organized the gathering, where people arranged small candles under the pavilion at Penn Park to honor people in Madison who had been killed or injured by the police.
A jury on Friday acquitted Rittenhouse of all charges after he pleaded self-defense in shooting three protesters in August 2020, killing two, following the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, by a white police officer. Rittenhouse could have gotten life in prison if found guilty on the most serious charge, first-degree intentional homicide.
Shyra Adams, an organizer with Freedom Inc., told the crowd that a Black teenager would have been treated far differently for doing the same things as Rittenhouse, who is white.
“A Black child could never walk by police with an assault rifle and live to see another day,” Adams said.
Adams also contrasted Rittenhouse’s treatment by the justice system with how students at East High School had been pepper sprayed by police during a massive melee at the school earlier this month.
Ian Kpachavi, an organizer with Freedom Action Now, another local social justice group, also compared Rittenhouse with how Black adolescents in Madison have been treated by police, noting a case earlier this month in which 20 Madison police officers responded to an incident where two teen girls damaged a bus after being kicked off for not wearing masks.
In anticipation of demonstrations Downtown following Rittenhouse’s acquittal, Madison police established an incident command post there and placed officers on standby in the event any protests turned destructive, like those in the summer of 2020.
“The Madison Police Department understands and recognizes there are strong emotions concerning today’s verdict in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial,” police spokesperson Stephanie Fryer said in a statement. “The department has been working with outside agencies on response plans and is prepared to protect the constitutional rights of the public should demonstrations occur.”
Gov. Tony Evers, echoing calls from local Kenosha community leaders, asked that any protests be conducted safely and peacefully.
“We must have peace in Kenosha and our communities, and any efforts or actions aimed at sowing division are unwelcome in our state as they will only hinder that healing,” he said in a statement.
Republican U.S. Senator Ron Johnson, in a tweet, said “justice has been served” and called for peace.
“I hope everyone can accept the verdict, remain peaceful, and let the community of Kenosha heal and rebuild,” he said.
In Madison, staffing holds ensure the Police Department has adequate officers if any protests take place, Fryer said.
Madison Police Chief Shon Barnes, at a news conference earlier this week, said the department had been talking with protest groups and activists in advance of the verdict.
“We’ve already reached out to members of our community to get their perspective about what a verdict could or could not mean for our community,” he said. “That’s very, very important. Making sure we’re proximate in our community before something happens.”
Building trust with protest leaders before protests happen was one of 69 recommendations made by an outside group that reviewed the department’s response to protests in the summer of 2020 that frequently escalated into violence and destruction Downtown.
The recommendations by the Quattrone Center, an affiliate of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, released this week also include having community representatives within the crowds to communicate what’s happening on the ground to the police department, removing squad cars from active protest areas to avoid vehicles being damaged or set on fire and avoiding use of tear gas on crowds unless there’s a significant public safety risk.
‘Very divided’ country
Conditions Downtown were calm Friday evening with people going to restaurants and admiring newly hung Christmas decorations on the Square. A few State Street business owners and organizations said that while they were not taking precautions such as closing early, they also weren’t ruling it out.
“It’s hard to say,” Downtown Madison, Inc. president Jason Ilstrup said. “Potentially, I think (protests) are a possibility. The country is very divided right now.”
Safety risks are of concern to Downtown business owners, many of whom saw their store windows smashed during destructive protests in the summer of 2020. Miar Maktabi, owner of Dubai Mediterranean Bar and Restaurant, said if he and his staff “notice any suspicious things” they will take the same precautions they did that summer, including boarding up windows and even having employees sleep at the property to monitor conditions.
“People have the right to take action, but not against small-business owners,” Maktabi said.
Amy Moore, owner of State Street shop Little Luxuries, said she isn’t boarding up because she assumes Downtown will remain calm.
She added, however, that “there is justified anger in response to this case.”
State Journal reporter Emilie Heidemann contributed to this report.