Disparate treatment of militia, protesters in Kenosha

Officials question police response after shooting

People look on at the clash between police and protesters in Kenosha on August 24, 2020. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
People look on at the clash between police and protesters in Kenosha on August 24, 2020. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

As more Wisconsin National Guard troops pour into Kenosha alongside hundreds of state and federal law enforcement officers, residents are bracing for more turbulent nights. Some are objecting to a 7 p.m. curfew and the lack of explicit protections for press and legal observers.

“The curfew in Kenosha is without precedent,” Milwaukee County Supervisor Ryan Clancy told Wisconsin Examiner. “Every single time that a municipality issues a curfew, there’s a pretty specific order that’s listed … You can’t be on the streets near such and such.”

When Milwaukee imposed a curfew shortly after protests began there in early June, certain parties were exempted from the order. Law enforcement, elected officials, press and legal observers could still move around after curfew. Clancy, who has been in Kenosha as a legal observer during the first few days of protests, believes that  officers targeted a press pool on Tuesday night. “The authorities fired tear gas directly at the media,” said Clancy, “I can only assume to obscure their vision of what was going to happen next.”

County supervisor Ryan Clancy, District 4 (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Milwaukee County supervisor Ryan Clancy, District 4 (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

Clancy was standing in the group of reporters, filming with his phone, and later uploading the footage to his Facebook. He urges the mayor and other local officials to consider explicitly protecting legal observers and press under its curfew orders. “It is unprecedented that a municipality does not make those orders public,” said Clancy. “It doesn’t look to me that the media was exempt, and it looks like they were targeted yesterday … It looks to me that Kenosha is targeting journalists. That is, generally, not a good sign. For a democratic society under the rule of law, I hope we’re somewhere above that bar at this point.”

The tear-gassing occurred shortly before a 17-year-old from the Village of Antioch arrived on the protest grounds, as militarized officers in armored vehicles continued flowing into the city. Later identified as Kyle Rittenhouse, the teen, who was carrying a long gun, arrived with a wave of right-wing milita and white supremacist groups, Clancy said.

“People were sharing screen shots in which it looked like a lot of pro-authority, certainly some racist types were planning to show up in Kenosha,” said Clancy. “And were definitely talking up a big game. Saying, ‘we’re going to have tons of numbers there. They were talking about the specific guns they were going to bring. And they were making extremely explicit threats about killing protesters … under the guise of defending property.”

The county supervisor noted that he reported the posts to Facebook, which informed him the posts did not violate their terms. “Many people also reported it to the authorities in Kenosha,” said Clancy. “Again, not as ‘these folks have specific opinions, but as ‘they are planning to kill folks.’ So my hope would’ve been that out of the more than 300 law enforcement officers that were on the scene of Kenosha over the course of the evening, that some of them would have been taking those explicit threats seriously.”

Although he suspected that only a fraction of the people posting would show up, Clancy worried that “all it would take is one or two impressionable people to take this kind of bluster seriously … and it could get really bad … and it did.”

As chaos gripped Kenosha on Tuesday night, thinly veiled racially coded language was flowing thick from the Republican National Convention (RNC). According to Buzzfeed, Rittenhouse sat in the front row of a Donald Trump rally in January.

Ryan Clancy looks on as a legal observer as protesters block an intersection, before continuing on. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Ryan Clancy looks on as a legal observer as protesters block an intersection during the second day of Milwaukee’s mass protests. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

“I am sick,” said Rep. Jonathan Brostoff (D-Milwaukee) in a press release issued the morning after. “Last night, a white terrorist was allowed to cross state lines, enter Kenosha, rub elbows with and receive encouragement from Kenosha police officers, and then go on to murder two protesters and injure a third. And when he walked towards the police, hands up, after having fired upon protesters just a few hundred feet down the road, he was allowed to walk free, undisturbed. And only this morning did the police begin conducting a search for him and asking for tips from the public, after they had both cause and the opportunity to arrest him immediately after he had murdered two people!”

Rep. David Bowen (D-Milwaukee) had similar feelings. “What we saw last night was an escalation into deadly violence by armed white supremacists who have shown that their only objective was to menace, maim, and murder under the guise of ‘protecting property.’ Despite the fact that these armed ‘militia’ members had broadcast an intention to harm protesters online, instead of being questioned or arrested by police, these armed vigilantes were allowed to roam the streets freely, leading to the murder of two protesters and injuries to another.”

Bowen asserts, “I was in Kenosha last night to observe the protests, and I saw firsthand these armed agitators provoking the crowd, damaging cars, and generally intensifying the situation, all while police officers stood by and let it happen.” Rather than protect the protesters within the park, Clancy feels police failed to protect the protesters after “the explicit threats that were made on their lives from other people there.”

Instead, he told Wisconsin Examiner, “They went, unfortunately, exactly the opposite way. And they spent hours clearing out the park using tear gas, using pepper balls. Using their LRAD’s and the flash bang grenades. They eventually pushed people out of the park, onto the road.” He recalled one young woman, who was in the press pool, flailing on the ground in pain after being tear gassed.

Comparing the reactions by law enforcement to media and protesters to the welcoming response to  militia members, Clancy says there should be federal investigations into any ties that  may exist between Kenosha law enforcement and some of these groups. Footage also surfaced on Twitter depicting officers in an armored vehicle offering water to armed White milita members and offering thanks, one of whom appears to be Rittenhouse.

“There is no reason that the disparity in treatment between peaceful protesters, and militia members who were literally there to kill them, should be that stark.” Looking ahead  to the nights to come, Clancy worries that the presence of federal troops “is going to make this worse.” The office of Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian and the Kenosha County Sheriff’s Department didn’t respond to Wisconsin Examiner’s requests for comment.