A crowd of more than 1,000 people gathered peacefully on the state Capitol grounds in Madison on Saturday to condemn the death of George Floyd, a black man who died last week after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
The protest, which shut down traffic at multiple intersections around the Capitol and later moved down East Washington Avenue, was organized in response to Floyd’s death — an incident those in the crowd decried as all-to-familiar for people of color.
A large crowd protesting Floyd's death gathered later Downtown and stayed late into the night, destroying property and looting stores while police used tear gas and pepper spray to try to quell the riot. Some in the crowd torched a police cruiser and threw water bottles and rocks at police.
But the earlier protest was largely peaceful, with people listening to speeches and marching with signs -- all focused on their frustration over how people of color are treated by police.
“I can’t believe that someone, for nine minutes, was killing someone on the street and nobody did anything to stop it,” Jean-Rene Watchou of Madison said during the earlier protest. “I see that as a threat to me as an African American, that American society does not care about my life, does not care about me. … How do I explain what happened to George Floyd to my kids?”
Floyd died after the former officer, Derek Chauvin, pressed his knee on the 46-year-old man’s neck while Floyd cried out he couldn’t breathe. The actions by Minneapolis police and the echoes of police killings of black Americans nationwide have prompted riots and protesting in that city and across the nation, including in Milwaukee.
Minnesota authorities Friday afternoon announced that Chauvin, who was fired along with three other officers who were at the scene, had been arrested and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter.
In Madison, protesters — the large majority wearing masks due to the COVID-19 pandemic — carried signs that read “Stop Police Murder” and “I am George Floyd” and broke into chants including “Black lives matter,” “No justice, no peace” and an expletive directed at police.
Protesters also invoked the names of other people of color who have been killed by police, including Sylville Smith and Dontre Hamilton in Milwaukee, and Tony Robinson, an unarmed black teenager who was shot during a physical altercation with a white Madison police officer in a narrow stairwell at a Williamson Street apartment house in 2015.
Robinson’s grandmother, Sharon Irwin, said Saturday’s protest bore a strong resemblance to similar rallies in the city following her grandson’s death five years ago.
“It’s overwhelming, I’m traumatized,” Irwin said. “I’m glad to see this. You know what I hope transpires? That sweeping changes go across the country.”
Erin Beehner and Gina Nolan, who are both Madison educators and created the Facebook group for the protest, said the idea started with hopes of providing a place to come together. Beehner and Nolan, who are both white, said they felt it was important to try to confront a difficult conversation.
“We’re coming from a place of support and we’re not taking charge of anything,” Beehner said on Friday. “I think it’s just creating the space for that, for people to share their support, to share their protest, to share their disgust, to share their grievances, to share their anger.”
As the protest moved south from the Capitol toward the intersection near the Dane County Courthouse, Taylor Tai, of Madison, sat near the Capitol with a sign around her neck that read “Black lives are not disposable.”
“I’ve been feeling exhausted of people of color — and specifically black people — having basically no baseline safety in this country,” said Tai, who is Taiwanese. “It feels like I have a responsibility to be a part of creating change as a person of color.”
While the afternoon protest was largely peaceful, a motorist drove a vehicle into a group of protesters shortly before 3 p.m. at the intersection of Williamson Street and Few Street.
Madison resident Canaan Odeh, 20, was next to the SUV when it struck an individual on a bicycle. Odeh said he and several protesters encircled the vehicle and struck it while shouting for the driver to stop. Cell phone video from the scene shows the SUV accelerate and drive through the group of people.
Odeh said the driver was stopped by police shortly after and nobody appeared to have sustained any major injuries.
“Regardless of anybody being injured, the intent was dangerous,” Odeh said. “We want to see people being held accountable when we’re peacefully protesting.”
In a separate incident, the rear window of a van on the 500 block of East Washington Avenue was smashed.
In Milwaukee, what began as a peaceful protest Friday turned violent as protesters clashed with police. The Journal Sentinel reported a 38-year-old officer suffered a minor gunshot wound early Saturday on the city’s south side.
On Saturday, Gov. Tony Evers authorized 125 members of the Wisconsin National Guard to support local law enforcement in Milwaukee.
“It is critical that people are able to peacefully express their anger and frustration about systemic racism and injustice, in Milwaukee, the State of Wisconsin, and our Nation,” Evers, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley said in a joint statement. “This limited authorization of citizen soldiers from the Wisconsin National Guard will help protect people who are exercising their First Amendment rights and ensure the safety of the public.”
Several state and law enforcement officials, including Evers, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes and Attorney General Josh Kaul, this week condemned the actions of the Minnesota officers who arrested Floyd.
“People are hurting,” Barnes, Wisconsin’s first black lieutenant governor, said Friday. “People are tired. We are done dying. I am tired of addressing the disregard for Black life in this country. Those who are protesting this injustice are doing so in order to save this nation, and they should be protected. To see a city burn on the outside is devastating but hardly compares to the implosion brought by systemic inequity and injustice.”
Wisconsin is considered one of the worst states in the nation for racial disparities between white and black communities. Indicators include unemployment, income and education.
On Thursday, chiefs of police across Dane County spoke out against police brutality during an online town hall meeting.
Photos: Madison protest of Minneapolis man's death turns destructive
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