As progressive icons fall, Madison feels the pain and heaviness of history

Statue of Lady Forward, blindfolded, in the snow during a February 2011 protest of Gov. Scott Walker's budget repair bill
Blindfolded Forward statue, Feb. 27, 2011, on day 13 of protests against Gov. Scott Walker's budget repair bill in Madison, Wisconsin. (Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

It was a shocking, bruising, terrible week.

Worst of all was the horrifying attack on Althea Bernstein, a bright, loving young woman who was sitting in her car when four white men yelled the N-word at her, threw lighter fluid through her window, and then set her on fire.

Althea Bernstein (screenshot from Good Morning America)
Althea Bernstein (screenshot from Good Morning America)

Despite her physical and emotional scars, Bernstein appeared on Good Morning America just days after the attack. She hoped the men who attacked her know that they hurt her, “and that this is something that is going to affect me for a while,” she said, “and I really hope that they choose to improve themselves.”

Bernstein’s open-heartedness seems almost superhuman.

Meanwhile, Madison is in turmoil over protests that turned destructive last week. 

Protesters who said they represented a coalition of Black Lives Matter groups broke windows in the Capitol, threw a Molotov cocktail into the City County Building and tore down two iconic statues on the Capitol square.

The destruction of those two statues — symbols of Wisconsin’s progressive history — hit close to home for Madisonians.

The bronze likeness of abolitionist Col. Hans Christian Heg had stood in front of the Capitol since 1925. “Forward,” representing women’s progress, by sculptor Jean Pond Miner, was first erected at the Capitol (and later replaced by a replica) in 1895. Dragging them down and, in Heg’s case, breaking off his head and throwing him in the lake, felt like a personal attack on Madison’s identity as a liberal university town and on Wisconsin’s progressive tradition.

Statue of Hans Christian Heg
Hans Christian Heg memorial by Paul Fjelde (1892–1984), outside the Wisconsin State Capitol (Photo by Daderot, CC0 1.0 universal public domain)

Why tear down Heg — an ardent opponent of slavery who died in the Civil War and who championed rehabilitation over punishment in Wisconsin prisons? And why tear down the very image of progressive idealism embodied by “Forward”?

In addition to their historical significance, these statues were rallying points for the massive protests against former Gov. Scott Walker when he launched his assault on unions. They were dressed up in clever costumes, held protest signs and were featured in selfies with countless Wisconsinites who saw themselves as part of a grand, historic progressive movement against injustice in all its forms. 

But neither the dusty history of Wisconsin’s progressive movement nor those more recent moments of uprising were ever fully inclusive. 

Racist violence and structural oppression are a repressed reality in our community.

And now that fact is right in our faces.

Protesters explained in interviews with my colleague Melanie Conklin that for Black people, Madison is not very progressive, and Wisconsin’s motto, “Forward,” rings hollow. The statues, one protester told her,  “are the symbols of this sort of fake liberalism that we have. This idea of our city being so progressive, so positive, yet it has some of the worst inequalities in the country.”

“We’re not moving forward, we’re moving backwards,” protest leader Ebony Anderson-Carter told Channel 3000. “This (statue) doesn’t need to be here until we’re ready to move forward.”

Anderson-Carter called on the governor and the Legislature to come to the Capitol and meet with Black youth. 

But right now, any movement forward feels like it’s slipping away. After weeks of multiracial protests against police brutality and the murder by Minneapolis police of George Floyd, Republicans at the state Capitol and the White House seized the opportunity afforded by the statue-vandalism in Madison to double down on law-and-order rhetoric.

Donald Trump swept into Wisconsin just in time to take advantage of the situation, mocking Democrats for not being able to protect public safety.

As Conklin keenly observes, the Republicans and the protesters alike are focusing their criticism on Democrats in our divided state. 

Where does that leave us?

Still reeling from the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, and just emerging from the last round of window-breaking downtown, local shop owners who had taken down the plywood started boarding up their windows again.

It’s a dark moment.

It’s easy enough to blame protesters for playing right into the Republicans’ hands. Even progressives who are inclined to be supportive are turned off by the destruction, and moderates, especially local business owners, may become suddenly more receptive to the law-and-order argument that we need more police protection, not less.

But that’s not really the point.

The deeper point is that we are feeling the impact, close to home, of deep, historical injustice that it is frankly pretty easy for white liberals to overlook. 

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We live in one of the worst places in America to grow up as a Black child. There are so many ways, large and small, in which the deep segregation of our community creates two different worlds of experience for white and Black residents. Despite our state’s worst-in-the-nation Black male incarceration rate, our schools where Black children are too often automatically treated as delinquents from the youngest ages, our terrible Black child poverty statistics and casual discrimination of every form, Madison feels, to white people, like a progressive utopia.

“What you see happening in Madison are people who are fed up — who are marginalized, experiencing unaddressed trauma, poverty, and experiencing a lack of economic opportunities in under-resourced communities,” writes Michael Johnson, CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Dane Co., in an open letter published in Madison 365

Michael Johnson (photo courtesy of Boys & Girls Club of Dane Co.)
Michael Johnson (photo courtesy of Boys & Girls Club of Dane Co.)

Johnson has a list of suggestions for Madison to address racial inequality, including transferring money from the police department to community services, hiring peer support coaches to replace school police officers, a $30 million endowment to help Black Madisonians start businesses and purchase homes and bringing together youth organizers and philanthropists to work on a plan to end racial disparities.

“Our generation is witnessing the unraveling of the social fabric of our city right under our collective watch,” Johnson writes, “and we owe them a real response with a plan that funds these priorities.”

Bernstein’s grace and Johnson’s optimistic leadership offer hope that we can find the path forward.

Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.