It was 6:30 p.m. on August 28 in Kenosha, 30 minutes before the Wisconsin state-imposed curfew was set to begin and an hour after the end of a rally called by the family of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man who was shot seven times and left paralyzed from the waist down by a police officer on August 23.
Earlier in the afternoon of August 28, the streets of Kenosha had been filled with more than 1,000 Black Lives Matters protesters, chanting, singing and handing out Gatorade and hand sanitizer. Now, the streets were marked by empty stretches of shuttered businesses, each sealed with fresh plywood. The rally for racial justice followed five days of energetic protests in Kenosha against the police shooting of Blake, and police brutality more broadly.
President Donald Trump has depicted the city as a site of lawlessness — a place that, without the presence of the National Guard and a dystopian lockdown order that closed highway exits and shut off gas station pumps, would quickly descend into chaos. And Democratic politicians — most prominently, presidential nominee Joe Biden — have failed to sufficiently repudiate Trump’s racist rhetoric, reflexively appealing to white fear with a less overt version of the president’s “tough-on-crime” script.
Trump has taken credit for forcefully quelling the Kenosha rebellion: “If I didn’t INSIST on having the National Guard activate and go into Kenosha, Wisconsin, there would be no Kenosha right now,” he tweeted on August 31.
But it was Wisconsin’s Democratic Governor Tony Evers who initially called for the crackdown.
Last week marked the third time Evers has called the National Guard to tamp down protests in Wisconsin this summer. In June, the governor also authorized troops to back up riot police in Madison and Milwaukee. In Kenosha last week, Evers argued that the unrest was so dire that he needed to send for reinforcements, requesting battalions of National Guard members from Arizona, Michigan and Alabama.
In an agreement between Evers and the federal government, over 1,500 National Guard troops, and up to 200 federal agents were deployed and patrolling the city by September 1. Protesters endured tear gas, pepper spray and “kettling” — an often dangerous tactic used by police to corral, and ultimately trap, protesters in a restricted area. Federal agents seized a van filled with medical supplies and food, and, as in Portland, Oregon, detained civilians in unmarked vans around the city. In all, over 200 arrests were made in Kenosha last week.
One Milwaukee organizer, Ashton Monroe, told In These Times that to provide protest support in Kenosha on August 27, he was forced to drive through back roads because “they have [the exits] closed down to Illinois, so you get trapped, going around there for hours.”
And amid the heightened presence of riot police and National Guard troops in Kenosha — ostensibly to maintain order — Kyle Rittenhouse, a “Blue Lives Matter” enthusiast with an assault rifle, shot and killed two people during a protest on the night of August 25.
Many feared Trump would use his September 1 visit to Kenosha to incite more vigilante attacks. He had already defended Rittenhouse, who he claimed acted out of self-defense and tweeted praise for the pro-Trump caravan that pepper sprayed and paintballed Black Lives Matter protesters in Portland on August 29.
Once in Kenosha, Trump continued to praise the police as well as demonize protesters while remaining silent on Rittenhouse’s acts. “Violent mobs,” the President told an audience of law enforcement officials and sympathetic Wisconsin politicians, had “demolished or damaged at least 25 businesses, burned down public buildings, and threw bricks at police officers. Trump continued, “These are not acts of peaceful protest, but really domestic terror.”
Even though Trump did not comment on Rittenhouse directly that day, his pro-cop Kenosha rally — following his defense of Rittenhouse — sent the message that it is not only acceptable for vigilantes to target protesters, but at a moment when the legitimacy of law enforcement is being called into question, it’s actually necessary. Unlike Trump’s 2017 statement that there were “very fine people, on both sides” after a white supremacist ran over anti-racist protester Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia, his comments on Kenosha endorsed only one side: that of the police and their vigilante proxies.
As Trump allies himself with militant white supremacists in anticipation of the 2020 election, establishment Democrats are tacitly complicit. By failing to distinguish between protesters demonstrating against police brutality and white supremacists like Rittenhouse, Democrats in Wisconsin and on the national stage have helped lay the groundwork for Trump’s fascistic escalation.
Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin (D) wrote, on August 26, “The vandalism, armed militia, gun violence and fatal shootings in Kenosha are not advancing the cause of racial justice in the wake of the police shooting of Jacob Blake.” She lumped anti-police-brutality protesters allegedly committing vandalism with white supremacist militants and murderers.
Biden also weighed in on August 31, in a pre-recorded speech, to deny Trump’s claim that the former vice president’s presidential campaign was anti-law enforcement. Now more than ever, Biden said, he believed that “rioting is not protesting. Setting fires is not protesting… it’s lawlessness, plain and simple. And those who do it should be prosecuted.” Biden’s statement, addressing civil unrest in cities across the country, was prompted by Trump’s Kenosha visit on the same day.
But Biden doesn’t need to compete with Trump by doubling down on “law and order” lite rhetoric; whatever Biden says, Trump will lash out with baseless attacks on his credibility. Shortly after Biden uploaded his “tough on crime” speech, for example, Trump dismissed the former Vice President’s comments, suggesting, absurdly, that Biden was secretly being controlled by “People that are in the dark shadows,” alluding to QAnon, a right wing internet conspiracy theory.
Establishment Democrats want us to think there is a wide rift between them and a president who condones white vigilantism. But the dispute over the Kenosha uprisings has revealed Democrats’ inability to articulate a clear moral vision that is distinct from, and opposed to, Trump’s ultra-racist, law-and-order politics. When it comes to beefing up law enforcement and cracking down on protesters, both sides are complicit in perpetuating systemic racism and upholding military-style policing.
This does not mean both sides are equal: The Trump administration clearly is taking the racist war on Black Lives Matter to new, terrifying levels. But Trump’s move to the farther right does not give Democrats an excuse to vilify protesters or imply that violence against them is justified.
And as the high-profile politicians struggle to prove their “law and order” bonafides, protesters are left to deal with the consequences.
At the August 28 rally held by Blake’s family, before the curfew emptied the streets of Kenosha, Jacob Blake’s father stood on a podium in Civic Center Park, a central square that has served as a gathering spot for demonstrators since early in the protests. Nearby, at the county courthouse, a massive stone building that spans several blocks, a contingent of National Guard members — clad in desert camo, and carrying assault rifles — surveilled the crowd from behind a chain link fence.
“You see they brought these cats over here back behind that fence to put a cap in your ass,” said Jacob Blake’s father, Jacob Blake Sr., while pointing to the soldiers. “That’s what they’re here for, [but] I don’t want no caps no more.” He also pointed out the diverging responses to his son and Rittenhouse.
“We’re still suffering because there are two justice systems. There’s one for that white boy that walked down the street and killed two people and blew another man’s arm off. And then there is a justice system for mine.”
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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Alice Herman is a journalist covering politics and labor in the Midwest. She is a contributing reporter at the Guardian US and a former investigative reporting fellow with In These Times.