Despite escalating tactics to restrain protesters, the suburban City of Wauwatosa has become the epicenter of Milwaukee’s Black Lives Matter movement.
Following a confrontation with protesters at the home of Officer Joseph Mensah, the Wauwatosa Police Department (WPD) pledged to take the gloves off. The threats of arrest and surveillance, however, haven’t deterred The People’s Revolution, a faction of marchers who have been in the streets every day since May 29.
“A lot of it is happening for really no reason,” said Mensah in a recent interview with Dan O’Donnell, a conservative talk radio host. The officer, who has been involved in three fatal shootings over a five-year period, has only recently begun making public statements about the growing movement to have him removed from WPD. “There’s protests that’ve been going on all summer,” said Mensah. “I’m fine with them, I’m okay with them, even if they’re about me. It is what it is.”
That was until the evening of August 8, when a group of at least 50 protesters gathered outside the house Mensah shared with his girlfriend. According to Mensah, his family was hosting a nephew from out of town when the marchers arrived. “I just so happened to not be here as the protest was going on,” said Mensah, who apparently arrived later on. What exactly happened at that point is the subject of ongoing investigations by Mensah’s own department.
Conflicting reports on gun shots
Both Mensah and the marchers accuse one another of initiating a confrontation during which police reports say a gun was fired. Although the investigation is still underway, WPD insists the gun shot was directed at Mensah and his home.
In a press release issued the next day WPD stated, “as Officer Mensah retreated into his home, armed protesters approached the rear door and a single shotgun round was discharged by a member of the group into Officer Mensah’s backdoor. The Wauwatosa Police Department received assistance in disbursing the crowd from numerous neighboring agencies.”
Statements casting doubt on WPD’s version of events quickly circulated from those who were there. Rep. David Bowen (D-Milwaukee) was one of those people, and issued an official press statement on August 10 rebutting WPD.
“The victim narrative put forth by Mensah and now the Wauwatosa Police Department is totally inaccurate, irresponsible, and false,” said Bowen. “In my time at the protest in front of Mensah’s home, I personally felt threatened by his actions: spraying pepper spray into the crowd, yelling and inviting protesters to fight him, taking his dog out to potentially attack people. What ‘responsible’ person, supposedly looking for a peaceful conversation, would do those things?”
Bowen’s statement drew an immediate response from WPD, which accused the representative of lying. “The Wauwatosa Police Department has seen Rep. Bowen’s statement, and the facts do not support his comments,” WPD wrote on it’s official Facebook page.
In it’s initial Aug. 9 press release, WPD states, “a single shot gun round was discharged by a member of this group [the protesters] into Officer Mensah’s back door.” However, Mensah himself posted on Facebook on Aug. 9 that he and his girlfriend were, “both assaulted, punched, and ultimately shot at several times.” WPD hasn’t yet issued a statement to clarify this apparent discrepancy. The investigation remains ongoing.
Wauwatosa Mayor Dennis McBride issued a statement in the wake of the Mensah incident, stating that marchers “engaged in a protest, and began to vandalize his [Mensah’s] home,” reads the press release. “In recent weeks, various groups have protested in Wauwatosa, demanding that Officer Mensah be fired. The City of Wauwatosa has always supported and protected the right to peaceful protest. Last night’s event was not peaceful protest; it was criminal behavior. If the perpetrators of this criminal behavior are identified, they will be prosecuted to the fullest extent allowed by law.”
McBride then stated that he’d be meeting with the police chief, city administrator, city attorney and other city officials to plan for the days ahead. Namely, to “ensure that Officer Mensah is fully protected and that criminal behavior of this kind will not happen again.” He urged community members to, “reflect on their personal responsibility to engage in responsible and civil behavior. Now more than ever, it is essential that we all work together to heal a divided community. This will require patience and an understanding that, though changes must occur, they can only occur through the functioning of democratic processes and not through violence.”
On August 11, WPD Chief Barry Weber appeared on the Mark Belling Show, a conservative radio talk show, to further blast Bowen. “He’s [Bowen] talking about no one tried to kill him [Mensah] and his girlfriend, that’s a lie. No one tried to enter the home, that’s a lie. He even calls it ‘peaceful protest.’ You know what? There’s nothing peaceful about the protest that people say they’re peaceful. That’s a joke, it’s not peaceful anywhere,” said Weber.
Rep. Bowen vs. Chief Weber
Also on August 11, WPD issued a press statement claiming “there is a lot of false information and rumors being circulated on social media and through the news media regarding the events on Saturday night, August 8, 2020.” Bowen’s statement was again attacked for including, “inaccurate information and allegations.” However, on the Mark Belling Show, Weber invited Bowen to come in and make an official statement to ensure WPD’s investigation is complete.
Bowen feels that the statements from Weber and his department speak for themselves. “It’s beginning to highlight that the Wauwatosa Police Department has picked the side of Officer Mensah for the last five years,” Bowen told Wisconsin Examiner. “While he killed three people, discharged his weapon 19 times, they haven’t reprimanded him. They haven’t done anything to correct his behavior, his conduct. So I don’t think it will happen now. But now, I’m wary [about whether] the investigation will actually be done in a fair and unbiased way.”
Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee) also took to social media to defend his colleague. “I wasn’t there Saturday, but David was. And I know David is a man of faith, compassion, honesty, and someone who serves in elected office for the right reasons. As we debate our path forward in criminal legal system reform, we rely on the courage of people speaking up on the front lines like David did. And when that happens we ought to listen.”
Kimberly Motley, one of the lawyers representing the families of those Mensah has killed, shared similar thoughts during a press conference on August 13. Motley and her colleague Deja Vishny filed a motion with the City of Wauwatosa to have Chief Weber removed from office. “The police chief is supposed to be a fair and impartial investigator,” said Motley.
“The fact that there was an eyewitness, a state representative — David Bowen — who came out with a written statement about what happened at that scene and the Wauwatosa Police Department, within less than an hour, responded and said essentially that his statement was inaccurate shows A: They’re not impartial. And B: They should have nothing to do with this investigation,” Motley said. “At that point in time they never tried to reach out to Rep. David Bowen to get a statement from him, to question him, to do basic police work that’s required when you’re doing an ongoing investigation. They shouldn’t be anywhere near this incident, and they should not be anywhere near any witnesses that were at the scene.”
Motley, who has worked as a human-rights lawyer internationally adds, “What’s the incentive for any witness to come forward by the way they’re treating him?”
Narrative control, investigations and the language of white flight
Regardless of what truly happened at Mensah’s home, WPD has pledged to investigate and obstruct what it regards as non-peaceful protests.
“What occurred Saturday night was not an organized or peaceful protest. It was a targeted, planned act of violence against one of our police officers and our community,” the department’s Aug. 11 release states. “Investigators are looking through a large amount of high quality video footage from the scene and are working to identify suspects and vehicles involved in any illegal activity. At the point in the investigation probable cause is developed to support the arrests of individuals involved, arrests will be made regarding this incident.”
Conservative politicians have begun stoking outrage at the protesters. Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Menomonee Falls) issued a letter to Wauwatosa Mayor McBride regarding “the deteriorating security and policing in Wauwatosa.” Sensenbrenner wrote, “the protests, which may have started peacefully, have been growing ever more violent.”
Sensenbrenner criticized McBride and the common council for passing a resolution calling for Mensah to be fired. He blamed protests on the council’s resolution, and suggested that people will begin regarding the once-quiet suburb as an undesirable area.
“While I understand the Common Council wants to bring reforms to the WPD,” wrote Sensenbrenner, “the consequences of their actions are having serious repercussions for the residents of your community. Citizens of Wauwatosa are being harassed by these protesters, who have now laid siege to a residence in your community, where a gun was fired at a home with women and children inside. Actions like this, and the breakdown of law and order, will spread fear and force the citizens of Wauwatosa to reconsider their choice to reside there. The emigration from your city will be devastating to the very fabric of the community, in addition to the detrimental effect it would have on your tax base, schools and city finances.” Sensenbrenner offered to send federal troops to Wauwatosa “in order to bring peace and tranquility back to the community.”
The congressman concluded, “It is critical that we strive to preserve the excellent quality of life that has drawn so many to work and raise their families in Wauwatosa.”
Wauwatosa’s residents are 86.43% white, down from over 90% a decade ago, with a Black population of no more than 8%. By contrast, the neighboring city of Milwaukee has a population that is 36% white and a 39.2% Black. Mayor McBride has made it a goal of his administration to increase diversity both in city government and the police department.
Standoffs at the Tosa border
On August 11 Khalil Coleman, a lead organizer of the People’s Revolution, read WPD’s press release as he marched alongside Bowen and dozens of others through the Wauwatosa Highlands, a wealthy, scenic pocket of the suburb that sits along the border between Tosa and Milwaukee’s at 60th St. “The Wauwatosa Police Department will not stand by and allow this type of intimidating, aggressive, dangerous, illegal behavior to occur, especially under the guise of peaceful protests,” the WPD press release concluded.
After reading that sentence aloud, Coleman received a call over his radio from other protesters about “a lot of police” at the front of the pack. With the marchers just yards away from crossing into Milwaukee, two Tosa squads, marked and unmarked, blocked the exit out of the Highlands. The officers sat silent in their cars, dressed in full riot gear, before moving back to the city limits. Upon reaching 60th St., the marchers were met by the sight of dozens of police vehicles from many departments.
Police vehicles from Wauwatosa, Brookfield and Menomonee Falls were parked alongside blacked-out cars no one could identify. Many officers wore riot gear, and came prepared with plastic cuffs for arrests. None were made, however. Officers told the car convoy not to block the street (which the officers had already shut down). But there were no further interactions between police and protesters. Nor did the police cars follow the march into Milwaukee. There was no heavy police presence over the hours that the march traversed Wauwatosa’s neighborhoods.
“In that same press release, Chief Weber made the point that he’s going to use the full force of their police department against people who are peacefully protesting,” Bowen told Wisconsin Examiner, after passing by the scores of officers. “So here we are,” said Bowen, who hoped to meet with McBride the next day to discuss what he’d just witnessed. The representative later said that the meeting fell through.
McBride issued a new press release on August 13 which outlined a slew of new restrictions on protest in the city. “For almost three months, Wauwatosa has been the site of continuing protests,” it reads. “Protesting is a right guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The City of Wauwatosa has always supported and protected peaceful protests. Nevertheless, the U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that that right is subject to limitations: protests must be peaceful, and communities may impose ‘time, place, and manner’ restrictions on them.”
The mayor warned that the city would begin enforcing rules including a ban on the use of fireworks, protesting on private property, picketing of private residences, trespassing inside private businesses, obstructing or blocking traffic and failure to disperse once a protest is deemed unlawful. Wauwatosa also imposed a time limit of 12 pm – 8 pm for the marches. Activists and residents who violate these rules will face arrest or forfeitures of up to $5,000, and other penalties.
The threat of crackdown came after McBride met with Weber to discuss plans to ensure Mensah’s safety and to respond to further protests. Wauwatosa’s protest restrictions, however, were challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Wisconsin. The following day, Tosa dissolved the orders.
The same night that the mayor issued his edicts, protesters with The People’s Revolution gathered to defy those orders. Marchers gathered in Milwaukee and then marched towards the Tosa border, which had been closed off by numerous WPD cars. Essentially, the 60th St. border had been closed by the police. Marchers walked through Milwaukee neighborhoods on the other side, to supportive chants from residents, some of whom ran out to offer marchers water, food and encouragement. Several Milwaukee residents who watched said they were shocked at the way their suburban neighbors were responding to the marches.
Eventually, the marchers found a point along the border where they decided to walk into the suburb, despite police just feet away. “Take one step forward,” Coleman said over a loudspeaker, as the first line of marchers locked arms. With each step, the officers’ squad cars began to retreat. The protesters had won the standoff.
Protesters reach mayor’s house
Later, the marchers took the car convoy on the highway toward the Wauwatosa exits. From there, the convoy went to the WPD station, down North Avenue, through Wauwatosa’s darkened streets, and towards McBride’s house. Marchers threw toilet paper in the trees of McBride’s home, played music, made speeches over a loudspeaker, and lined the bushes with police caution tape.
Further protest actions are on the horizon for Wauwatosa, as are likely police responses. Since responding in force at the border, Tosa PD has been taking pictures of marchers, journalists and ACLU legal observers at the marches. Spike strips have been laid out by officers to impede the car caravan and when people exited their cars to march, officers took down license plate numbers.
What began as a push against a single officer has evolved into a battle of wills between marchers and the police. In a press conference on August 13, members of the Wauwatosa police union stated that many officers lack confidence that the Common Council supports police, and are considering leaving the department.
Bowen, speaking to the marchers, proclaimed that what’s being decided ultimately is the legacy of Chief Weber, who’s been in his position for nearly 30 years.
“They can come for me,” said Bowen, “we got a team with us, ya’ll. And we’re too strong, and we’re scaring the mess out of them … That’s why I’m proud to be in this moment. And if I have to do it again I’ll do it again. If I never get elected ever again, and they squad up against me, that’s cool. It’ll be worth it. Because Officer Mensah’s badge will be on my desk.”
Officers the next day confronted the marchers shortly after they crossed into Wauwatosa. A protester who, along with several others, routinely goes ahead of the march to direct traffic away early on was tackled to the ground and arrested by Tosa officers.
What then ensued was a several hours-long standoff, where more and more officers from numerous agencies streamed into the tight suburban street with riot gear and shields. The marchers were unable to leave the neighborhood because officers had blocked off all the exiting streets. No other marchers were arrested during the tense confrontation, which drew out residents in the area some supportive of the marchers, and others against them.
Several community figures including lawyers, state representatives Bowen and Jonathan Brostoff (D-Milwaukee), the chairman of Tosa’s Equity and Inclusion Commission, and others were there and attempted to convince officers to de-escalate the situation.
Eventually the line of police began to retreat a step at a time. The group, consisting of officers from Waukesha County, New Berlin, Wauwatosa, Glendale, West Allis, both the City and Village Brookfield, Butler and others eventually left, and didn’t confront the protesters again for the rest of their activities that night.
The marcher who was arrested was released a little over an hour later, was served disorderly conduct tickets which the officers claimed would be referred to District Attorney John Chrisholm. In a march the following day, no police presence was witnessed except for a single sighting of a black unmarked vehicle.
Before concluding the night, like every evening, the group gathered at their original meeting spot. They sang and shared announcements and testimonials, readying themselves for yet another day of marching. Before dispersing the marchers shouted into the night: “Long live the revolution!”