MADISON, Wis. – Wisconsin’s governor activated the National Guard on Wednesday to protect state properties after a night of violence that included the toppling of two statues outside the state Capitol, one of which commemorated an abolitionist Civil War hero.
Protesters also attacked a state senator, threw a Molotov cocktail into a government building and attempted to break into the Capitol Tuesday night, only to be repelled by pepper spray from police stationed inside. The violence broke out as a group of 200 to 300 people protested the arrest of a Black man who shouted at restaurant customers through a megaphone while carrying a baseball bat.
On Wednesday night, about 40 people gathered peacefully outside the county jail where the man was being held, calling for his release. A crowd of about 100 people congregated outside the Capitol, where one of the statues used to stand, as Madison police watched. There was no sign of the National Guard.
Gov. Tony Evers, who toured the damage from Tuesday night and said the violence was in “stark contrast” to earlier peaceful protests, said he was activating the National Guard "to make sure people can exercise their First Amendment rights while ensuring the safety of members of the public and state buildings and infrastructure.”
“If your goal was to advance social justice and policing reforms in the state of Wisconsin and making sure systemic racism is a thing of the past, you failed," Evers said of the protesters on WTMJ-AM.
Republican state lawmakers and others faulted Evers and Madison's Democratic mayor for not moving more quickly on Tuesday to quell the violence.
“The mob has become very bold,” said Madison Alderman Paul Skidmore. “They see they can get away with a little, and they inch forward more and more. (Downtown Madison) is a battle zone right now, and I fear for my city.”
The violence unfolded in a city long known as a liberal bastion with a long history of protest, dating back to student demonstrations on the University of Wisconsin campus in the 1960s. About 100,000 people protested in 2011 over then-Gov. Scott Walker's anti-union proposals.
It also exposed simmering anger over the 2015 shooting by police of a 19-year-old Black man by an officer who remains on the force. That shooting has been referenced by protesters in recent weeks.
The violence started Tuesday after Madison police arrested a protester who came to a restaurant across the street from the Capitol with a bat on his shoulder. Video released by Madison police shows the man, Devonere Johnson, talking through a megaphone while walking around the restaurant’s outdoor patio and inside, saying he’s “disturbing” the restaurant and talking about God and the police before walking out.
On another video released by police, as many as five officers can be seen taking Johnson to the sidewalk and carrying him to a police squad car after he resisted arrest.
Police said on Tuesday night a group of 200 to 300 people broke windows in multiple buildings, threw a Molotov cocktail into the city-county building, brought down the statues on the Capitol grounds, broke glass at a state office building and smashed windows and lights at the Capitol.
Democratic state Sen. Tim Carpenter was assaulted after taking a cellphone video of protesters.
“Punched/kicked in the head, neck, ribs,” Carpenter tweeted around 4 a.m. “Innocent people are going to get killed.”
One of the statues toppled, decapitated and dragged into a lake about a half-mile away was of Civil War Col. Hans Christian Heg. He was an anti-slavery activist and leader of an anti-slave catcher militia in Wisconsin who fought for the Union and died from injuries suffered during the Battle of Chickamauga.
The base of the Heg statue was defaced with graffiti Wednesday morning that read “Fire Matt Kenny,” a reference to a white Madison police officer who shot and killed 19-year-old Tony Robinson, a Black man, in 2015. Kenny said Robinson had attacked him. Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, who is Black, cleared Kenny of any criminal wrongdoing and he remains a Madison officer.
The other statue taken down represents Wisconsin’s motto “Forward.” The statue was first installed 125 years ago but replaced with a bronze replica in 1998. It sat prominently outside the Capitol, facing the University of Wisconsin campus and State Street, an avenue lined with bars, restaurants and small businesses. That corridor has been the target of much of the vandalism since the death of George Floyd on May 25 in Minneapolis after a white police officer used his knee to pin the handcuffed Black man’s neck.
The destruction followed similar unrest nationwide following Floyd’s death, but in other cities statues of Confederate soldiers and other symbols of slavery were destroyed.
Protester Micah Le said the two statues paint a picture of Wisconsin as a racially progressive state even though slavery has continued in the form of a corrections system built around incarcerating Blacks.
“The fall of the statues is a huge gain for the movement, though I think that liberal and conservative media outlets will try to represent last night as senseless violence rather than the strategic political move it really was,” Le wrote.
Republicans called on Evers and Madison's Democratic mayor to do more to protect the Capitol. Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos branded the protesters as “thugs.” Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Tiffany, who until last month had served in the state Legislature, called on Evers to resign. Evers called that a “ridiculous statement.”
“Why doesn't he resign?” Evers said on WTMJ.
Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said ilater Wednesday that city leaders and law enforcement were working “on a number of fronts” to keep any additional protests calm.
“I am not in that room, I do not micromanage our law enforcement response,” she said. “There has been broad agreement among law enforcement that deescalation and protecting people is the top concern.”
Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, the first Black person to hold that office, condemned the violence in a tweet but said “far right provocateurs” had “fanned the flames of hate.”
Robert Bowhan owns August, a clothing store that was looted during the first night of protests following Floyd's death. Bowhan, who is white, has boarded up his windows like many other merchants. He said he didn't know what to expect in the coming days.
“Everyone is probably a little frustrated. (Merchants) feel they don’t have support from cops,” Bowhan said. “They feel threatened and feel like their livelihoods are in jeopardy and they don’t trust the government. This just scratches the surface of what our Black friends and colleagues go through on a daily basis.”