Oct.7 proved to be a tense, anxiety-choked day in the City of Milwaukee and its suburban western neighbor Wauwatosa. A crowd of protesters, many local residents among them, gathered outside the Milwaukee City and County Safety Building, where District Attorney John Chisholm shared his decision not to pursue charges in the Alvin Cole shooting with the deceased 17-year-old’s family. The family was inside for nearly three hours before emerging with the news.
Then on Thursday night, things became even more excruciating for the family of Alvin Cole. On social media, their lawyer briefly describes the interaction with his mother that happened around 8:30 pm. “They arrested Tracy Cole for peacefully protesting tonight! She ended up in the hospital.” Other accounts, including a Facebook Livestream, recorded the event between Tracy Cole and the police. This contains audio, but not video of the arrest as the phone had been dropped, showing the inside of the car with the reflection of flashing red then blue police lights. Tracy Cole, 48, is heard screaming “Don’t touch me,” multiple times and asking why she is being arrested, then she shouts “I can’t breathe.” A police officer responds that it is state orders and says, “You are under arrest.” A moment later the officer tells her, “You’re going to get Tased.”
A Mother of a son killed by a officer who previously killed 2 other young men is left tased, a possibly broken arm & a large knot on the forehead. This was a “F you” message to the greater community without actually saying it. 🤦🏿♂️ pic.twitter.com/TlGAML3GWY
— Rep. David F. Bowen (@DavidFBowen) October 9, 2020
She informs the police that she is bleeding and that she thinks her arm is broken as they discuss an ambulance. “My arm is hurting so bad,” she tells the officers in the 18-minute recording. Later the officer asks, “Ma’am, are you able to walk at all?” She says her head is bleeding, and the officer replies, “Well, that’s too bad.”
Later that night, Kimberley Motley, the lawyer representing Cole’s family posted an update on both Alvin Cole’s mother and his two sisters: “Tracy & Tristiana Cole just discharged from the hospital. Outrageous that they were attacked tonight for peacefully protesting!!! Taleavia Cole still missing and police are refusing to provide answers!”
The People’s Revolution, the group that has organized many of the protests in Wauwatosa, put out a statement after the arrest of the three family members reading, in part, “It is despicable that the Wauwatosa Police Department would arrest the members of the family of Alvin Cole, who their officer killed. The police, while arresting Tracy Cole, used such excessive force pulling her out of her vehicle, that she was transported to the hospital by ambulance. … These disgusting acts of police violence, inflicted on the grieving family of victims of police violence, are the clearest example of the abuses of the abuses, injustice, and cruelty we are all marching to end.”
State Rep. David Bowen (D-Milwaukee), who has regularly marched in protests in Milwaukee and Wauwatosa, criticized the arrests on Twitter: “A Mother of a son killed by a officer who previously killed 2 other young men is left tased, a possibly broken arm & a large knot on the forehead. This was a “F you” message to the greater community without actually saying it.” In the thread Bowen added: “Tonight’s over aggressive actions by Wauwatosa Police to arrest dozens of ppl including the 3 sisters & Mother of the slain Alvin Cole, assaulting Mom in the process, a day after his killer was announced not to be charged, were deplorable & clearly an attempt to provoke negativity.”
On Wednesday after the charges were announced, Attorney Motley explained that although Chisholm didn’t charge the Wauwatosa officer who killed Cole in February, he also didn’t defend the shooting. “He did not call the shooting ‘justified,’ Motley told Wisconsin Examiner. “He just said that he can’t prove it [was wrongful] beyond a reasonable doubt, essentially.”
A night of unrest following the announcement resulted in one arrest, broken windows in businesses and homes, and the use of tear gas and rubber bullets by police, but no reported injuries among either protesters or law enforcement.
Cole was killed in February by Joseph Mensah, an officer of the Wauwatosa Police Department (WPD). The 17-year-old, alongside some of his friends, ran from the mall after security responded to an argument among a group of mall-goers. Wauwatosa officers arrived on scene, with Mensah being one of the last to arrive. Motley has highlighted over the past several months that Cole was shot as he surrendered to officers. A handgun was recovered from the scene, which police say Cole fired at them. Motley has countered the narrative of events put forward by WPD.
She puts emphasis on absence of the usual language of a “justified” shooting in this case. “Normally that is the terminology that is used in these situations,” Motley told Wisconsin Examiner, “so the fact that it’s not there is really important. So that’s why we keep stressing that.”
The morning of the decision, Wauwatosa’s Police and Fire Commission (PFC) released a report compiled by an independent investigator which found grounds to fire Mensah for violating department policies in his public statements. The officer had done radio and podcast interviews where he alluded to details of the Cole case, and his two prior fatal shootings over the last five years. A hearing is scheduled on the matter next month, although Motley is pushing for it to occur no later than October 22.
In the meantime, her legal team plans to keep pushing in the case of Cole’s killing. “We’re going to regroup,” said Motley. “We’re going to look at our different options, we’re going to be filing some things pretty quickly. And move forward, and continue to fight. We still believe that Officer Joseph Mensah should be charged with something, with some form of homicide. We still believe that he should be accountable for his actions within the criminal justice system.”
Unease spreads as Wauwatosa boards up its businesses
Business owners in Wauwatosa had been hearing warnings about the impending decision from city officials for at least a week prior to Wednesday. Mayor Dennis McBride relayed reports of fear brewing in the suburb, with the destruction in downtown Kenosha still fresh in people’s minds. Some businesses boarded up their windows, while others seemed to have declined the offer. City Hall closed down as did the local school district.
“Whether Officer Mensah will face charges or not,” read a letter sent out to parents by the Wauwatosa School District, “we understand that individuals may find themselves dealing with feelings of pain, frustration, and anger, and there may be protests that take place in our community. While we hope any protests remain peaceful in nature, we also recognize that there is great uncertainty ahead.”
With the schools closed, Wauwatosa students were moved to virtual-only learning Although after-school activities were also cancelled, the letter notes, “extracurricular activities and sports may still take place, but cannot be held on district property or in Wauwatosa.”
A 7 p.m. curfew was also announced, which some Wauwatosa residents considered unnecessary. “I think what I’m seeing in Wauwatosa today is just unfounded and out-of-control fear,” said John Etter, a Wauwatosa high school teacher of 14 years, reflecting on the divide which has grown in the suburb over the months of protests. “I think it’s a knee-jerk, kind of racist response to the situation. It’s people feeding into conservative narratives that are conflating peaceful protest with rioting. It’s people giving into fear. And it deeply saddens and sickens me to see that.”
Suzelle Lynch, a Wauwatosa resident and minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church West echoed Etter’s sentiments. “There is a lot of fear-mongering going on,” she said. “And there is a lot of blaming of protesters from supposedly ‘outside the community,’ but they’re not. People protesting are from Wauwatosa. Yeah, there are leaders from outside the community. But there are also plenty of leaders from inside the community, like me.”
Both Lynch and Etter compared the community’s discomfort to growing pains. “I think in some ways, it’s the kind of thing that happens when change is happening,” said Lynch. “With things like the Equity and Inclusion Commission, we are seeing change happening. And that’s scary to some people.”
Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee), whose legislative district includes Wauwatosa, also was disappointed by the fear spreading in the community. “I find the narrative that suggests the protestors have not been peaceful very unfortunate, and the boarding up of structures is directly in line with that same thinking,” said Taylor. “That thinking shows their disconnect with the community in which they police. It also shows their style of policing lacks the ability or will to de-escalate matters with persons of color in the community, an approach that far too often leaves its Black citizens dead.”
Protests have been ongoing in Wauwatosa for around 60 days, largely remaining non-violent. Mayor McBride doesn’t regard the protests as “peaceful” due to the traffic jams created by car caravans as well as loud music, strobe lights and loud chanting. Wauwatosa police have gradually escalated their tactics against the protesters, and routinely declare the gatherings unlawful.
But a joint statement the groups Tosa Together, Tosa Moms Tackling Racism, and Indivisible Tosa denounced the fear. “Outside agitators are a concern, but the expected sharp escalation in militarized policing practices is vastly disproportionate, the groups said. “We need calm to prevail. A counter-productive culture of fear and misinformation about the protesters as ‘outsiders’ and violent has been needlessly created at a time which demands more understanding and humility,” the groups said in their statement. “The impact of collective trauma is large in our city, and little attention has been paid to healing and restitution. Our mayor has decided to take actions this week that show how much control the police have.”
Erik Fanning, a Wauwatosa resident, feels the “scare tactics” prevent bridges from forming between the marchers and the community. “It keeps them away from this kind of event,” said Fanning, standing outside the Safety Building alongside Etter, Lynch and dozens of others. “It keeps [Wauwatosa residents] away from this kind of situation where you can have dialogue, and you can have conversations, and kind of start to repair things.”
Protests on the highway, teargas and broken windows in Wauwatosa
After hearing the announcement that Mensah would not be charged, the crowd marched from the Safety Building towards the I-94 highway entrance. There about 150 protesters were met with Milwaukee County Sheriff’s deputies, and marched through the line. Traffic slowed to a halt as officers in riot gear began to warn reporters to stay away or face arrest.
Although protests throughout the year have normally been led by specific groups, the Oct. 7 demonstrations had no official group leadership. Many of the marchers were Milwaukee and Wauwatosa residents, although many others had driven from as far away as Kenosha and Sheboygan.
After arriving in Wauwatosa they marched up North Avenue, clearing the street of construction barriers as they went. Between 88th and 95th Street, some marchers began breaking the windows of businesses and homes with rocks. Others protesters, some with megaphones, called for the window-breaking to stop.
National Guard troops and numerous law enforcement agencies, clad in riot gear and driving armored vehicles and humvees, met the marchers on Menomonee River Parkway near Mayfair Mall, where Cole was killed in February. Tear gas was launched into the crowd, and rubber bullets were fired as marchers retreated and marched north towards Milwaukee. Along Burleigh Street, some of the marchers broke more windows.
Protesters attempted to make their way through the winding, darkened suburban side roads along the Milwaukee-Wauwatosa border for hours. It seemed as though they were trying to find their way to Mayfair, but were consistently met with the line of officers. Mayfair Mall, and the routes to it, were closed.
With more protests planned for Oct. 8 and the coming days, the boards will stay up and City Hall will remain guarded by police and National Guard.
Fanning urges his neighbors who value “feeling safe” in their community to weigh their own sense of comfort against the methods used to create that feeling.
“They didn’t understand the methods that made them feel safe,” said Fanning. “They just walk to and from with blinders and say, ‘Yeah I feel safe.’ They’re trained and conditioned to not look. Just don’t look and feel safe.” Alluding to Mensah’s second shooting, of 25-year-old Jay Anderson Jr., who was shot dead after falling asleep in his car, Fanning adds, “just don’t be driving around the parking lots at 3:00 in the morning to see how we keep you safe. And what we do to keep this community safe.”