Wauwatosa Mayor Dennis McBride in his office. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Sitting in the office of Mayor Dennis McBride, one might be fooled by the quiet hallways at City Hall and the mundane bustle of suburban traffic traversing the main road nearby. The reality is that the City of Wauwatosa, which is normally a placid, suburban community, has been the site of dramatic confrontations between Black Lives Matter protesters and police. The protests have persisted through the summer and into the fall months and have divided the city.
McBride, who took office only weeks before George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis, launching the wave of protests, finds himself at the nexus of the conflict.
“Based on the emails I’ve been getting,” McBride told Wisconsin Examiner, “and some of the talks I have with various people, you’re still talking about 20-25% on either end, and then people in the middle.”
On one of those ends you have a group of residents who praise the police department and desire a return to the comforts of quiet suburban living, and on the other end are those who see issues with the police department which must be addressed and support the ongoing demonstrations. And then there are those “in the middle,” who McBride believes are gradually growing to disfavor the protests.
“Over time the protests have been counterproductive,” said McBride. “People who I know are progressive people, liberal people — whatever label you want to put on it — they say they support the goals of the protests and Black Lives Matter. And I know these people, so I know that they are sincere, but they’re tired of the tactics.”
Many protests in Wauwatosa have been spearheaded by a group called The People’s Revolution (TPR). The protest group consists of a diverse collective of Milwaukee residents, Wauwatosa residents, local activists, citizens who are concerned about the behavior of local police and others. While a core group of marchers regularly attend the demonstrations, which don’t exclusively occur in Wauwatosa, TPR regularly sees newcomers who’ve never been to a single protest since the first mass marches began on May 29.
TPR demonstrations normally bring marchers into the streets, and are often accompanied by car caravans. The vehicles both offer respite for tired or older marchers and block intersections to allow marchers to cross. Some marchers volunteer to help direct traffic and guide the march on its route. Others serve as security, shining flashlights into darkened driveways, bushes and windows as the group passes. Particularly since tensions in Kenosha erupted after the police shooting of Jacob Blake, marchers say they are concerned about people who may want to drive through a protest, or ambush the march as it passes.
Nevertheless, McBride feels the protesters’ tactics are causing local residents to turn against the protests. “When I say closing down intersections, I mean for long periods of time,” said McBride, listing off the various complaints he receives. “Not just 15 minutes but sometimes an hour or more. Loud music at 10:30 at night. Cars repeatedly honking their horns at 10:30 at night. People using very bright flashlights and strobe lights to flash in people’s houses.” Marchers also attended city meetings back in the summer, and often shouted them down with chants before the city moved its meetings to mostly online. The mayor rejects the notion that the protests have remained peaceful.
“I don’t consider those kinds of protests to be peaceful. They’re not violent, but they’re not peaceful. Peaceful means ‘tranquil.’” Some days the marchers have “shut down” a local Cheesecake Factory restaurant which is near where a Wauwatosa police shooting occurred. The officer who killed 17-year-old Alvin Cole in that incident had also killed two other people over the prior five years. That officer, Joseph Mensah, has been a focal point of the protests in Wauwatosa over the past several months.
Protesters have entered the restaurant during normal business hours, chanted and invited Cole’s family members speak over loudspeakers. Wauwatosa officers didn’t stop the restaurant demonstrations until July 7, when dozens of officers from various departments responded in force to remove the protesters.
McBride asserts that although the protests are non-violent, they also lack the tranquility the suburban community is accustomed to experiencing. “That’s the kind of thing that people are upset about,” the mayor explained. Among the neighborhoods from which Mcbride receives complaints is, in fact, his own.
While the protests happen throughout Wauwatosa, they’re also often concentrated at specific places for specific reasons. Some of the usual sites are Mayfair Mall — where Cole was killed in February — and houses belonging to McBride, members of the Police and Fire Commission (PFC), the home of a Wauwatosa detective who recently pepper sprayed a 17-year-old protester for shining a light in his eyes, and City Hall.
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The pepper spraying incident occurred during a demonstration outside of McBride’s home. McBride has stated in the past that he did not witness the incident. Although the mayor has never felt unsafe when the protests come to his home, he says, he also feels that coming outside — as the protesters often chant him to do — wouldn’t lead to a productive outcome. Although officers are often near McBride’s home in case protests head there, both McBride and WPD deny that a dedicated detail of officers has been assigned to guard McBride’s house.
Protesters have also demonstrated outside the home of Wauwatosa Officer Joseph Mensah, who’s been the focus of the protests in Wauwatosa because he has been involved in three fatal shootings over the last five years, including the Mayfair shooting.
After weeks of protests, PFC suspended Mensah with pay while the shooting is being investigated by the Milwaukee District Attorney’s office. The city is also fast-tracking a body camera program for its officers, after years of pushback against the program from Wauwatosa Police Chief Barry Weber. Both an Equity and Inclusion Commission and an ad hoc committee on racial and policing issues have been added as official city bodies in recent months. In recent weeks, recommendations from the Equity and Inclusion Commission led to a formal ban on choke-holds by police in the city. Mayor McBride has also set a goal to add more minority representation throughout city government and the police department.
But the protesters want more. They demand the firing of Mensah and Weber, that Mensah be convicted for the three shootings and that the department cooperate with the lawyer representing the families of those killed. Further confrontations stemming from police interactions with protesters have been added to the list of grievances.
The department has increasingly escalated its tactics and surveillance against the protests as the months drag on — particularly after the demonstration outside Mensah’s home, during which a protester fired a gun during a confrontation between the suspended officer and marchers. While the incident is still under investigation by the Wauwatosa Police Department, three protesters were later arrested. Witnesses disagree with the narrative of events put forward by the department, which slightly differed from Mensah’s own re-telling of the incident in a Facebook post.
This incident, coupled with how quickly the situation in Kenosha deteriorated into chaos, has some Wauwatosa residents uneasy, including the mayor. “I want people to work together,” said McBride. “Even if they disagree, we should have one common goal. And I’ll give you one common goal right now. Everybody’s very worried about what’s going to happen when the District Attorney issues his next decision on Officer Mensah … Everybody asks me about that. ‘What are you going to do? What’s going to happen? I’m scared.’ And I say to people, ‘Focus like a laser on one thing. ‘I don’t want anybody to get hurt.’ In Kenosha we saw people get hurt. And then we saw people get killed.” Noting the non-fatal shooting of two Louisville police officers after the Breonna Taylor decision McBride asserts, “as much as we can, we’re not going to let that happen in Wauwatosa.”
As high as tensions are, the mayor implores both sides of the debate to not stoke the flames. Recently, the Wauwatosa Peace Officers Association— the union representing the police — called for the disbanding of the ad hoc committee on race and for official rules to be adopted to exclude anyone associated with TPR from any city proceeding involving a Wauwatosa officer along with other more minor demands. On October 1, the police union issued a press release warning the common council that if the union’s demands weren’t heeded, it will use “any and all legal means to secure a less hostile work environment.”
Union president John Milotzky singled out ad hoc committee chairperson John Larry and two alders who called for Mensah to be fired. “We further defy Alderperson Kuhl, Alderperson Byrne, the mayor, and the rest of the Common Council to substantively explain how firing (Black) Officer Joseph Mensah — and condoning the violence and incessant ‘White-watosa’ remarks of Chairperson John Larry, are a remedy for ‘addressing the systemic racism’ that allegedly permeates every aspect of our society,” Milotzky wrote.
The press release comes just days after a city meeting where council members discussed racist housing covenants which once existed in Wauwatosa that banned Black home ownership, a segregating practice known as red-lining, as well as other aspects of the city’s checkered history.
“We still have all the lingering impacts of years and years and years of not just racism in Wauwatosa, but the federal government, through the Federal Housing Administration and others, imposing red-lining,” said McBride. “Wauwatosa, at the time, was an enthusiastic supporter of red-lining and restrictive covenants. The Supreme Court struck down the restrictive covenants, but we still have tremendous racial segregation in Milwaukee.” Wauwatosa’s police department has its own checkered past that includes a scandal involving officers dressing in Black face for Martin Luther King Day in the 1980s, as well as a disproportionate rate of traffic stops involving Black residents.
Practices like red-lining ultimately formed Milwaukee into one of the most segregated cities in America. Wauwatosa’s demographics have shifted from a 90% white population 10 years ago to around 84% white today. However, incidents of outright racism continue to occur.
‘We’re all kind of crazy, right now’
Looking back at the prior year of pandemic, protests and economic decline, McBride says the increased stress has taken a toll on people and all sides are acting out right now. He points to PR wars that are being waged between the two sides via news releases as augmenting those feelings.
“We get crazier when we start having press release wars with each other,” said McBride, speaking of the recent Wauwatosa Peace Officers Association’s press releases, and those which followed from TPR and its allies. “It’s not helpful,” asserted McBride. “Everybody’s asked me to make statements about everything they’ve got on their mind.”
While both the protesters and the police have called on McBride to make statements against the other, the mayor has adopted a more pragmatic approach. It’s an approach he developed during his time practicing law, which sometimes put him at the table mediating between two sides that were trying to sue one another.
“A lot of times when you get so polarized, you can’t even see the other side,” McBride told Wisconsin Examiner. “And what we’ve been trying to do is to get people to realize that the other side has a concern. It may be a concern that’s based on misinformation or something, but it is a concern that is legitimate at that point.”
The mayor said that bringing opposing sides of the Tosa debate to the table has been a priority for him and for other city officials in recent weeks. “We’ve been doing that quietly,” said McBride. “Everybody’s so polarized that anytime anybody makes a statement it makes it harder to do it. So we’re going to have to attack this in a variety of ways. Sometimes it’s just a matter of time. Sometimes people just have to develop a level of trust. You know, the police union has accused me and the common council of not supporting the police department. I have told them publicly, I’ve told them privately: I support the police. That doesn’t mean that I agree with the police on everything. I support the protests, in general, as a concept. I don’t support all the tactics of the protesters. I don’t agree with the protesters on everything.”
As McBride sees it, people can disagree, but should never be disagreeable. “A lot of problems arise because people don’t like the idea of compromise either. And sometimes the best you can get is half the loaf. You can’t get the whole loaf,” said McBride. Resisting compromise, he says, is “not realistic.” For now the protests continue, and the mayor is bracing himself for community reaction to a pending court decision on Mensah’s last shooting. In the meantime, McBride urges people in Wauwatosa to remain non-violent and for both sides to reflect on the possibility of a perhaps uncomfortable dialogue
“The protests will continue, that’s fine,” said McBride. “I just don’t want anyone to get hurt.”
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