Tensions rise over Kenosha County appointments to emergency, equity panels
Kevin Mathewson, right, in downtown Kenosha on Aug. 25, 2020. On that day, Mathewson issued an invitation on Facebook for armed people to come to Kenosha and "defend" the city after two nights of protests following the police shooting of Jacob Blake. Illinois teenager Kyle Rittenhouse shot and killed two protesters with a rifle that evening and wounded a third. (Scott Olson | Getty Images)
Three appointments to volunteer boards in Kenosha County have sparked uproar in the community with echoes of the unrest that rocked the city on the shore of Lake Michigan more than two years ago after police shot and paralyzed a Black man.
On Friday, Kenosha County Executive Samantha Kerkman named a controversial self-styled militia leader to a county emergency planning committee.
On the same day, she named two people to the county’s racial equity commission: a retired police officer who killed a man in custody 18 years ago, and an attorney who was part of the defense team for Illinois teenager Kyle Rittenhouse, who killed two Kenosha protesters and wounded a third and was subsequently acquitted.
All three appointments provoked outrage on social media over the weekend and on Monday. All three had their roots in the August 23, 2020, police shooting of Jacob Blake and the nights of protest that followed. And all three were the result of a turnover almost a year ago that changed the ideological cast of Kenosha County government.
Kerkman appointed Kevin Mathewson, founder of the Kenosha Guard militia Facebook page, to the Local Emergency Planning Committee, a specialized panel that deals with cleaning up chemical spills.
Mathewson gained national attention after declaring himself a militia commander on Facebook and encouraging people armed with guns to come to Kenosha to “defend” the community on Aug. 25, 2020, the third night of protests after Kenosha police shot and paralyzed Jacob Blake.
That evening, Rittenhouse came to Kenosha from Illinois armed with a rifle, and that night shot and killed two men and wounded a third.
A former Kenosha alder, Mathewson works as a freelance private investigator and publishes a website that covers crime news and political topics in Kenosha County. Kerkman appointed him as one of the emergency planning committee’s media representatives. He declined an interview with the Wisconsin Examiner on Monday.
The two other appointments were to the Kenosha County Racial and Ethnic Equity Commission (REEC). The county board created the equity commission in April 2021, eight months after the Blake shooting, in response to the shooting and the protests that followed.
The resolution declared the commission’s mission was “to realize great racial and ethnic equity and dismantle racism in Kenosha County through research, education, and on-going review of current policies and procedures so as to implement transformative ideas born of research, collaboration, and community engagement.”
In April 2022, the makeup of the board and of county government in Kenosha shifted. The majority elected to the officially nonpartisan board were members supported by the Republican Party, along with Kerkman, formerly a GOP state representative.
Kerkman’s appointees to the equity commission are:
- Albert Gonzales, a retired Kenosha police officer who in 2004 killed Michael E. Bell, a white man who was under arrest. The police department cleared the officers in the case, but Bell’s father has repeatedly sought to have the investigation reopened, citing inconsistencies in the police accounts of the incident.
- Xavier Solis, a Kenosha County lawyer. Solis came to prominence for helping to raise funds for Rittenhouse after the teen’s arrest in the shooting of the three protesters. Rittenhouse was acquitted in November 2021 after a trial.
Both Gonzales and Solis cited their upbringing and identities as qualifications for serving on the commission.
“I believe my life and work experience as a minority will bring a diverse perspective to this commision,” Gonzales wrote on his application.
The appointments of Gonzales and Solis led two members of the equity commission, Brad Backer and Derrell Greene, to resign on the spot Friday.
“Your lack of interest in the development and success of the REEC since assuming the duties as the County Executive has convinced me that you have no desire to help this commission to meet the objectives set forth by the Kenosha County Board,” Greene wrote in his resignation letter. “The nomination of the two people you selected today clearly indicates to me that you do not have a clue or belief that racism exists in Kenosha.”
In an interview, Greene told the Wisconsin Examiner that he, Backer and other commissioners had urged Kerkman in October to appoint an African American woman to the commission.
In a prepared statement Monday, Kerkman said she thanked Backer and Greene for their service on the body.
“I have absolutely no wish for it to fail,” she said of the commission. “I believe that the commission needs a balance of experience and perspective in keeping with the diverse nature of our community, and I have tried to strike that balance with my recent appointments.”
Kerkman stated that her office would take applications for the two new vacancies through March 17.
Backer told the Wisconsin Examiner that in February, the commission presented a report to the county board executive committee on increasing disparities in arrests in the county over the past several years, with Black adults 6.7 times more likely to be arrested than white adults in 2021. The executive committee rejected the report, he said.
He said Kerkman’s choice of appointees underscored increased opposition by county government leaders to the work of the commission.
“The first charge of our commission was to study issues of race in connection with law enforcement and policing,” Backer said. “The common denominator of these two people is they each represent the two most polarizing individuals in terms of an uncritical view toward the police here in Kenosha County.”
Andy Berg, a Kenosha County Board member who was alarmed by Mathewson’s appointment and who has been critical of the current board leadership, said that on Monday he’d received email messages from “30 or 40” constituents, who appeared to be divided evenly in their opinion for or against the decision.
“There’s plenty of people on both sides of the aisle that do not support this,” he said.
The appointments will go before the board when it meets Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. The usual procedure is for the appointments to be referred to a committee for a recommendation, which the board would then vote on at a subsequent meeting, Berg said.
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