Wauwatosa residents decry ‘militarized occupation’ of their community

“People can protest day in and day out. It’s not going to change anything,” says Chief Weber

Protesters gather outside of the Milwaukee Safety Building waiting for the Cole family to come out with DA Chisholm's decision. (Photo by: Isiah Holmes)
Protesters gather outside of the Milwaukee Safety Building waiting for the Cole family to come out with DA Chisholm's decision. (Photo by: Isiah Holmes)

A militarized police presence in Wauwatosa has transformed the once-quiet suburb, creating an occupation-like environment. Over the weekend, following the decision by District Attorney John Chisholm not to charge the Wauwatosa officer who shot 17-year-old Alvin Cole in February, protesters met a stiff brushback from local authorities. 

Before the decision, Gov. Tony Evers activated the National Guard to “support local law enforcement authorities.” 

As protesters marched in the streets, many sustained injuries from rubber bullets and tear gas in clashes which have fueled growing resentment of the police among residents.

Laura Mintz, a Wauwatosa resident who has lived in the area for four years, said the responses by police made her feel “terrible.” Mintz was standing outside City Hall on Oct. 10, a day after protesters were tear-gassed, chased and arrested. Just a few yards away, police in MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicles and National Guard soldiers in Humvees stood ready to break up the crowd. A drone flew overhead, as more protesters gathered to join the group of people who refused to leave as the 7 p.m. curfew drew closer.

“I’ve talked to a lot of Tosa parents, and [am] part of a lot of local community groups and everyone is in complete disbelief,” Mintz told Wisconsin Examiner. “And ashamed. Absolutely ashamed.” 

Joel Kopischke and his wife, who sat nearby holding candles for a vigil, felt the same. “I grew up in Tosa, from when I was born until I was 18,” said Kopischke. “And then we bought a house in Tosa in 2003.”

Kopischke had some strong words to describe his discontent with the behavior of police. “From what I heard maybe half of a plastic water bottle was thrown,” said Kopischke. “And most of the protesters told the kid who threw it to not do that. And then they opened the gates with tear gas and I don’t know what all else. But it’s just ridiculous. And the mayor won’t talk to any of the protesters. The amount of taxpayer dollars going to this bull [expletive] when they could just have a conversation and work with the protesters to help the protesters do things safely.”

Wauwatosa residents stand outside city hall as curfew approaches. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Wauwatosa residents stand outside city hall as curfew approaches. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

The Wauwatosa Police Department (WPD) posted on Facebook about its use of force on Oct. 9. It confirms that bottles were thrown, and posted a picture of common charcoal lighter fluid, a mostly empty water bottle, and a mostly empty Starbucks cold coffee glass. “The materials,” the department wrote, “can be used to start fires.” No fires, or injuries, or property damage occurred on Oct. 9, however. The only officer injury, according to a news report, happened when a squad car backed into a police officer.

For months, WPD has been declaring protests unlawful, using spike strips to stop car caravans, and issuing $1,300 tickets to protesters.

It’s a consistent response which stands in stark contrast to police interactions with protesters in Milwaukee. The difference in atmosphere just across the border is not lost on Wauwatosa residents. “They [police and the City of Milwaukee] work with the protesters,” said Kopischke. “They know the marching routes. They close streets. They handle it like it’s a parade. So citizens are allowed to exercise their First Amendment rights, and you don’t have to call in military equipment from all around the state. It’s ridiculous.”

Anne Camp, a Wauwatosa resident and member of the local group Tosa Together, agreed. “To see what’s been happening this summer, and then the third death by Officer Mensah, and how the city has been treating the protesters,” has been a lot to process, she said. “The way the police respond can either defuse the violence, or escalate the violence.”

On Oct. 10, Tosa Together co-hosted a standing vigil to defy the curfew. Residents stood out on 69th Street and North Avenue, then went into one another’s yards to defy the ongoing order. At 7 p.m., as officers in the distance announced that “the curfew is in effect” from their armored trucks, the group lit vigil candles.

Katie Pennitt and Andrea Goodman also denounced the militarized responses and curfew. “I’m a Tosa resident and also a teacher in the Wauwatosa School District,” said Pennitt, “and I think it’s important that I come out to represent the values that Tosa should really be supporting at this time. Which is justice for people who have been oppressed for a long time. Forever.”

Goodman added, “The inequities we’re seeing are not OK. And the way the police are portraying most of the peaceful protests is not OK.” Goodman called the consistent portrayal of the protests as non-peaceful by city officials over the months “frustrating.” “I’ve walked in it, I’ve seen it,” she told Wisconsin Examiner. “It’s peaceful.”

Wauwatosa residents stand outside city hall as curfew approaches. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Wauwatosa residents stand outside city hall as curfew approaches. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

Residents who witnessed the events of the weekend, and heard about the windows that were broken on  Oct. 7 — the day Cole’s case was decided — saw these as isolated events. The individuals who broke the windows and stole food from a nearby gas station were not recognized as people who regularly attend the protests, according to residents who regularly attend the protests, and who noted that they saw people arriving from Chicago and Sheboygan on the first day.

Kopischke, Pennitt, Goodman and others also wondered what the police department’s priorities were on the nights of the property damage. No officers confronted the marchers when the damage occurred or when food was taken from a gas station, but lines of armored police prevented any access to city hall and Mayfair Mall.

“More fun from the upside down,” and the violence of action

Some Wauwatosa residents described the property damage as a form of terrorism, citing their growing fears and their desire for a return to normalcy.

“I don’t condone destruction of property. I also certainly don’t condone loss of life. And it seems like people are more upset about the property than the loss of life,” said Kopischke. He is bothered by “the argument that police departments have used for years, yeah there were some ‘bad apples’ in that group. And that was unfortunate.”

Mary Lockwood, a Wauwatosa resident of seven years who is active in the group Indivisible Tosa, also takes issue with the excessive enforcement of the curfew. On Oct. 10, Lockwood posted a video she took near her home after officers chased the protesters out of town. An officer from an outside department warned her that, despite having her young daughter beside her, she would be arrested if she didn’t go back inside. She wrote a heading for her post: “more fun from the upside down,” a reference to the Netflix series “Stranger Things” about terror in a small town.

“This curfew is racist and I believe it violates our constitutional right to protest,” she said. “It feels like we are harkening back to the days of sundowning and I firmly believe that [Wauwatosa Mayor Dennis] McBride’s irrational drive to protect Mayfair mall is at the heart of this. He is prizing buildings over people and we continue to pay for the poor decisions of our local leadership.”

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“I thought serve and protect was the motto of the police,” Kopischke added. “So I haven’t seen a lot of that this summer. When you got all this military equipment, everybody looks like an enemy. If that’s what you’re going to train them in and that’s what you’re going to spend your money on, they’re going to think that way. They’re going to think this is a war, and that we’re the enemy. We’re citizens. We live here.”

Surprise, arrest, vanish

On Oct. 8-9, protesters who fled the scene as tear gas canisters exploded found themselves unable to locate their friends. Tracy Cole, the mother of Alvin Cole, was injured by officers and arrested alongside her daughter Taleavia, who also sustained injuries. The elder Cole was taken to a hospital, while Taleavia says she was taken first to an empty parking lot, and then to the Waukesha County Sheriff’s Department on Oct. 8.

Although the WPD posted on Facebook that no National Guard “participated in the custodial arrests,” Erik Fanning, a Wauwatosa resident who was arrested just feet away from Taleavia, said it was men in camouflage who broke his windows and dragged him out of his car. He doesn’t know who they were or which law enforcement agency they were with.

“The Tosa police made it a point to not be involved in the physical altercation,” Fanning told Wisconsin Examiner. “That’s what I can tell. They were there to be the officials, and be there and be present, and process everyone so that these are all Wauwatosa tickets and all, but they were not the ones pulling them out. … I remember seeing a lot of camo. I didn’t see any black. It was all the camo gear.” Tracy Cole, however, was pulled out and arrested by Wauwatosa officers according to her daughter. The Coles were apprehended near Wauwatosa East High School, and livestreamed their arrests.

A National Guard spokesperson told Wisconsin Examiner that no soldiers participated in the arrests in Wauwatosa.

Numerous residents reported seeing armed men dressed in camouflage and driving unmarked cars, with no clear identifying markings. Matthew Procknow filmed one of the unidentified men ordering him back inside his home. The following day, a Milwaukee officer arrived to ask Procknow who the men were, he says, and if they mentioned “being proud,” which sounded to him like a reference to the Proud Boys. Procknow recalls that the officer appeared unsure which law enforcement agencies were in town and what each was doing. He says he found the conversation “chilling,” and continues gathering video of the unidentified men from his neighbors. One neighbor said he saw “five white guys in a pick-up truck.”

“This was around the time that the Speedway [gas station] was looted, I believe,” Procknow says. “They told him they were there to ‘keep the peace’ because ‘the National Guard did not have ammunition. And when pressed and asked where they’re from, the individual said, ‘America.’ I have Black Lives Matter signs in my window, I have Democrat political signs in my yard, and I don’t know if they know who I am now.”

Mayor McBride told Wisconsin Examiner, “I don’t have a list of all the agencies that are currently supporting the Wauwatosa Police Department. There are many from around the state. That is only something the WPD would know. As far as I know, the people in camouflage are members of the National Guard, but I don’t know that for sure. Assistance from the National Guard and other police departments was requested by the WPD, which, as always, is in charge of policing Wauwatosa’s streets.”

When asked why American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) monitors and press were threatened with arrest the first night of the curfew, McBride replied, “We are modifying the emergency declaration to allow ACLU observers, if they have proper credentials, to be on the streets after curfew. The declaration already allows credentialed members of the press to be on the streets. The problem is that many people who claim to be members of the press, but really are just individuals, do not have credentials. We’re trying to deal with that issue.”

Over the two nights of protest, protesters tracked down their arrested allies at the West Allis Police Department, Waukesha County Sheriff’s Department, and the Wauwatosa Police Department. While some experienced routine arrest procedures, others had more unnerving experiences.

Jackie Bogenberger, a protester in her late 20s, was arrested on Oct. 9 as the protesters dispersed back to Milwaukee. Police were attempting to pin the protesters in, and unmarked vehicles filled with undercover officers patrolled the darkened side streets. “People were moving forward on North Avenue and we were in the back,” Bogenberger told Wisconsin Examiner, “and finally we found our other friend and we decided to turn left and we kind of got trapped in a parking lot that was surrounded by a fence. So then we were sitting in a backyard by a retaining wall, by this time there were six of us, and after about 15 minutes there was a drone above our heads.”

Jackie Bogenberger (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Jackie Bogenberger (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

They attempted to hide from the police, but were being shadowed by “beat-up pickup trucks” that Bogenberger said an officer later told her were filled with undercover Wauwatosa police. The group was arrested and as they were being loaded into police cars, one of the officers made an announcement. “You won’t believe who’s here,” Bogenberger and other protesters later recalled, “it’s Jackie!” Bogenberger said the Tosa officers appeared to be looking for specific protesters, and were gleeful when they found them. 

During her detention Bogenberger says she was taken to Mayfair Mall. “They took us to the parking garage and it went underground. And I believe it was an old shipping and receiving dock for the mall,” reported Bogenberger. “It seemed like a new command post.” Bogenberger says she was booked and fingerprinted by Wauwatosa police in an office they had set up at the mall.

When she was eventually released, Bogenberger didn’t get her phone back, and neither did Fanning or Taleavia Cole. Bogenberger was told the following day that the Wauwatosa Police were holding the phone while they waited for a warrant to extract data. Taleavia Cole and Fanning also didn’t receive their phones.

Cole believes that the police were interested in her phone because of her connection to the protest movement. “I’m the sister of Alvin Cole, everything’s in my phone,” she said. Bogenberger noted that although WPD stated it hadn’t received a warrant yet, when she tried to log into Facebook the next day, she had to verify her identity due to suspicious login attempts dated the night before.

WPD did not respond to Wisconsin Examiner’s questions regarding how many phones were taken, or for what purpose. However, Chief Weber responded to a question about cell phones during the Oct. 12 press conference. “I’m not sure at this point,” he said. “If we have anything that we’ve kept, it’s for evidentiary purposes. And once we’re done with that then they’d probably be released.”

The days ahead

The curfew is no longer in effect in Wauwatosa but local police remain alert as do outraged locals.

“As far as we’re concerned it’s business as usual,” Chief Weber said at a press conference on Oct 12. “And hopefully people will remain calm and peaceful, as they have been over the past few nights, and we get back to living our lives as citizens.” Weber added, “People can protest day in and day out. It’s not going to change anything. It’s not going to change what we do because the law provides that we are going to keep the peace. That is what our intention is, and that’s what we’ll do.”

And the protests continue. “As of today,” said National Guard spokesperson Captain Joseph Trovato, “Wisconsin National Guard members remain on state active duty in response to the request for assistance received from civil authorities in Wauwatosa.” The captain was unable to confirm reports of a base or staging area beneath Mayfair Mall. “That’s a question you’d have to ask local law enforcement officials. I honestly don’t have any awareness on that.”

“I have been protesting every day since May 29,” said Bogenberger. “I did it because it was the right thing to do in my heart. I couldn’t do anything else. And I suggest that the Wauwatosa residents do the same. Because everybody I’ve walked with, everybody I’ve gotten to know over these past few months, are humans with good hearts.”