Cleaning graffiti at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (photo by Ruth Conniff)
Hundreds of Madisonians carrying brooms, sponges and cleaning fluid converged on State Street early Sunday morning, to clean up the graffiti and broken glass left behind from Saturday night’s vandalism spree.
“I’m really heartened by how many people are down here helping out,” said Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, as she walked down State Street. The mayor said she remains convinced that the vandalism and looting of local businesses was not the work of those who came downtown Saturday to participate in a peaceful march to protest the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
“The organizers of the protest made it clear that their event was concluded when this happened,” she said.
Katie Hepler, who works in marketing for the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, and her boyfriend Daniel Ronbinson, who works in video production for the Department of Natural Resources, were scrubbing graffiti off a bank building.
“We were there at the protests yesterday, so we thought it would be helpful to clean up,” said Hepler, who saw a post on Facebook from Michael Johnson, president of the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County, calling for volunteers to come help with the cleanup effort. “Obviously we’re pretty upset and devastated.”
“I think we have a lot of frustrated people and people act out in different ways,” said Robinson. “I’m not going to condone it or condemn it.”
He doesn’t know who was responsible for the vandalism, he added, but the feeling at the Saturday afternoon protest, he said, was positive and peaceful — quite different from the scenes of people breaking windows and looting shops under a cloud of teargas that he saw on the news later in the evening. “It was a different vibe. Earlier in the day it was all about trying to work together to make change,” he added.
Taking part in the group cleanup effort, with volunteers jumping in wherever they could help, gave the couple a good feeling. “That’s Madison,” said Robison.
“I’d say my motivation was for us to clean up all this mess so we can get back and focus on the reason why these protests were happening,” said Will, a westsider who was scrubbing graffiti off the outside of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA), and identified himself only by his first name.
He wasn’t at the protest Saturday, he said, because he was spending the day with his children, but he made the decision to come down and help clean up when he saw news footage of the destruction.
“As a man of color, I understand people are angry,” he said. “I’m angry. But these are people’s livelihoods as well. They’ve got kids, too.”
Oscar Mireles, a board member of both MMoCA and the Boys & Girls Club, was sweeping up glass outside the art center gift shop, which was strewn with broken pottery.
Mireles shared the mayor’s impression that the destruction happened separately from the protest. “I see it more as vandalism,” he said. “The major gathering yesterday was peaceful and over. The spirit of today is the spirit of our community. People are willing to come early on a Sunday morning and bring their own cleaning supplies — that is the spirit of the city.”
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Outside the Chocolate Shoppe Ice Cream store, Jasmine Holland, 25, a lab tech at a local pharmaceutical company, Anna Lane, 17, a West High School student, and Leah Vredenbreght, 19, a Memorial High School grad who currently attends the University of Missouri, were using a wire brush, cleaning fluid and rags to scrub graffiti off the side of a building. “We didn’t know each other before this,” Vredenbreght said.
“I was up at 5:30 and I was like, OK, I gotta do this,” Lane said.
“We need to take care of each other,” said Holland. “Racism is everywhere. People want to see change. Because there hasn’t been any.”
“People who don’t feel heard act out,” she added. “This is very similar to Rodney King — this keeps happening. Unarmed black men and women are being murdered and nothing is happening.”
Standing on the other side of the street, Steve Heaps, the owner and manager of the Chocolate Shoppe ice cream store on State Street, choked up as he watched the young women scrubbing his store.
“This is awesome. Brings a tear. Very surprised. Very happy.” he said.
“I wish I could have done more. I gave them all the towels I had, all the coupons I had in the store. I knew there would be some people here, but not anywhere near this many,” he said, gesturing to the hundreds of volunteers hard at work along the mile-long stretch from the Capitol to the University of Wisconsin’s Library Mall.
“We were open yesterday. I was talking to people, and they were saying what a great protest it was,” Heaps said. “The speakers were awesome. Everybody was happy. I went home about 8. Someone calls me up and says, ‘You better check your store.’ As I’m on the phone, I hear sirens. We shut the store and hoped for the best.”
Heaps watched the news until late at night, as the destruction continued.
“From my perspective, the first protest was really awesome and what we see now is awesome and unbelievable,” Heaps said. “I’m still proud to be from Madison. Great town. Great people.”
Heaps doesn’t know what his total financial losses are, he said. ”All my employees got home safe and sound and that’s the main thing.” One Chocolate Shoppe employee was pepper sprayed, and Heaps helped douse her face with milk until she recovered, he said.
“We’ll open up today and hopefully everybody will be fine,” he added. “Fingers crossed.”
Madison Police Chief Victor Wahl said there would be “robust staffing” to enforce a 9:30 pm curfew on Sunday night.
In his comments at a press conference at State Street’s Peace Park on Sunday morning, Wahl also emphasized that the large group of protesters who converged on the Capitol Saturday and the vandals who broke windows, looted stores and damaged three police squad cars were two different groups.
“It’s the type of protest we’ve policed dozens of times,” Wahl said, adding that, by 4:30 pm, he was about to send his police officers home, and thought they were done for the day.
But then, “a small group of 150 people started following the officers, harassing them,” Wahl said. That same group, several of whom were armed, set fire to a squad car and broke into Goodman’s Jewelers.
“It was clear … that the behavior of this group was distinct from the larger group earlier in the day,” Wahl said.
He noted that there was looting at East Towne and West Towne malls, and in other locations throughout the city on Saturday night.
Addressing rumors that white supremacist groups had come to Madison from out of town to provoke violence, Wahl said, “We did see people moving around the crowd with long guns. They didn’t engage anybody or do anything except walk around with rifles. I don’t know where they’re from.”
Former Mayor Paul Soglin, who became famous after being arrested and beaten by police as a leader of the student anti-Vietnam War on the UW campus in the 1960s, was walking down State Street wearing a black face mask, surveying the damage.
“This is what happens when a small group of fascists infiltrate progressive peace and justice movements,” he said. “My guess is in the next month Donald Trump’s approval will be at an all-time high.”
Asked if he sees any parallels between the violence breaking out in cities across America over the last few days and student protest era memorialized in the documentary film in which he appears, The War at Home, Soglin said, “There are some similarities — easily manipulated people get caught up in the moment and do things that would make them ashamed if they did them in front of their grandparents.”
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“The difference,” he said, is “in the ‘70s it was principally fueled by ignorance. Now it’s fueled by carefully trained provocateurs and saboteurs who have no commitment to democracy.”
As for the Madison police, Soglin said, “They’ve done very well. And one measure of that is the cleanup this morning. If the police were responsible for inciting the people and accelerating the destruction there would not be 500 members of the community here cleaning up, because they would not have wanted to be associated with re-establishing peace.”
At the Sunday morning press conference at Peace Park, Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said, “We must work to heal. But I need everyone to understand that papering over the problems of racism and injustice does not bring healing.”
“If you are angry about property damage, be more angry about the unjustified deaths of black people,” she added. “Property can be repaired. But we can’t bring people back to life.”
While she is angry, the mayor said, she is also hopeful.
“I am hopeful because so many people in our community speak and work for justice. I am hopeful because so many people came to State Street today to help.”
Asked about a tweet by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who wrote, “Citizens in Madison and Dane County should be outraged that elected officials are allowing these acts to happen without penalty,” Rhodes-Conway responded, “The thing we should be outraged about is when black people die without consequence.”
“I know that we can support the black community and our small and local businesses at the same time,” she added. “There is no contradiction there. … We can do everything we need to do to heal this community. And we can do it together.
“That violence last night brought us together today,” said Madison Common Council President Sheri Carter. “And we are going to remain together. It has to stop.”
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