Rep. David Bowen (D-Milwaukee) speaks to reporters on Monday before the special session on police reform bills was to start. (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)
Once again on Monday, Gov. Tony Evers and legislative Democrats were confronted by the existential fact of the current state Legislature: Republican leaders can and will quash action on any issue just by not showing up.
As was widely expected, both the Assembly and the Senate gaveled in the special session that Gov. Tony Evers called for Monday to address legislation on police reform — then immediately adjourned until Thursday. No Republican lawmakers showed up except those delegated to wield the gavel.
Just before Monday’s gavel-in proceeding, Democratic lawmakers and Black community activists held back-to-back news conferences in front of the Capitol, where they declared just what it would mean if the Republicans declined to actually meet.
“What we are witnessing is the unraveling of the accountability of law enforcement in this country and in this state — people who are defending the status quo of making it okay to kill and hurt black people and people of color,” said State Rep. David Bowen (D-Milwaukee). “It is long past the time for us to wait on our colleagues to get it. If they gavel in and gavel out today, that means they get it quite well. They understand that their silence on this issue, their inaction on this issue sides with white supremacists.”
At a separate press conference immediately beforehand, held by Black community leaders and with Black lawmakers taking part, Madison activist Brandi Grayson of Urban Triage addressed absent state lawmakers directly.
“We’re asking you to take the bills and the work of the Black elected officials seriously,” Grayson said. “They deserve to be heard. They were appointed and elected to be heard to carry out the purpose for Black people and Black communities. Your failure to do so is anti-Black, your failure to do so is white supremacy in action. We will no longer be divided.”
Evers issued his call a week ago, on Aug. 24, for the special session to start Monday. The governor acted the day after a Kenosha Police Department officer shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back — paralyzing him, according to his lawyers and family.
The Republican leadership, however, has not called the Legislature into a working session of any kind after adjourning 138 days ago.
On Monday, Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) put a petition on his website for Wisconsin residents to “demand legislative leadership use their power to call an extraordinary session” to address not only racial equity in policing but also the COVID-19 pandemic, unemployment reform and other economic issues, and emergency education funding. “Our neighbors cannot afford to wait until January,” Larson stated. “We need help now, and it is the Legislature’s duty to answer the call.”
Evers unveiled the bills he asked the Legislature to take up in the special session in late June. They include bills setting statewide standards, training requirements and reporting requirements on police use of force, as well as public posting of police use of force policies. They also include prohibitions on choke holds and no-knock search warrants and additional measures.
State Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) said at the lawmakers’ press conference on Monday, that she and Bowen, State Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee) and State Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Madison), who has now stepped down, began working on use-of-force legislation in 2014. They worked on it over the next three years, first introducing it in 2017. “We introduced this legislation for two consecutive sessions,” Johnson said, “and it never so much as received a hearing because it was written by liberals.”
Now, after the Blake shooting, the protests and at times violent unrest in Kenosha, and the shootings of three protesters, two of them killed, “by a 17-year-old vigilante,” Johnson said, “we are here today as Democrats, as members of the Black Caucus, asking Republicans to help us do our job, and help the state of Wisconsin because we understand the urgency of addressing this issue.”
Bowen said he’s heard from unnamed colleagues who have told him that they are scared of being seen as racists if they fail to take up the legislation. “The best thing they can do is lead with their actions,” he said. “And they get a chance to do that today.”
By the time the Democratic lawmakers and reporters got up to the Assembly chambers — which have been filled with scaffolding now for several months as part of a long-planned renovation project — the process to start and adjourn the bodies had already taken place. The Republican leaders, with majorities in both houses, declared a “skeletal session” with just token attendance.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester), whose response to Evers’ special session call was to announce he would appoint a task force to examine “racial disparities, educational opportunities, public safety, and police policies and standards,” dismissed the special session call in a statement characterizing it as “divisive and partisan politics.” Vos stated that the Assembly majority leader, State Rep. Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) would head the task force and that it would include community members.
Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh) told reporters he hasn’t spoken with anyone in Vos’ office about the proposed task force, but both he and State Rep. LaKeshia Myers (D-Milwaukee) bluntly reflected their weariness with the idea.
“In times like this, a study, a task force, a commission [is] giving off the appearance of governing, giving off the appearance of acting,” Hintz said. “And the worst thing is, you don’t need any more studying. The issues are right there to actually see.”
The bills that Evers is proposing “were incremental,” but being willing to take them up goes to a more fundamental question, he said: “Does our government care enough to do things that, again, aren’t just about police reform, but that are aimed at improving Wisconsin’s sorry, decades-long failure on racial inequality?”
Myers said that “most definitely I would want to participate” in the Vos task force, “because there has to be an African American person at the table to give credence to what real African American issues are and give voice to people of color.” She hasn’t been asked yet, however.
And, she added, “On this particular task force, however, I’m not a fan.” Hearkening back to her background as an educator, she equated a task force to the learning process.
“There’s a time for you to learn things, and then there’s a time for you to get a test,” Myers said. “This is test time.”
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