MADISON, Wisconsin — A night of rioting by Black Lives Matter supporters upset over the arrest of one of the group’s activists started just hours after the bat-wielding man allegedly accosted a 40-year-old woman praying the Rosary with her four small children, then went into a downtown restaurant and raged at patrons over a bullhorn about Jesus Christ not being white.
Rioters pulled down two Capitol Square statues — one of them that honors an abolitionist and Civil War hero. While 28-year-old Devonere Armani Johnson sat in the Dane County jail Tuesday night for his alleged harassment on the Square, someone tossed a firebomb into a window of the adjacent City County Building. The incendiary landed near the Dane County 911 emergency-call center. Nearby, Democrat state senator Tim Carpenter of Milwaukee said he was beaten and kicked in the head by up to 10 protesters while trying to photograph the unrest. He was treated at a local hospital.
The wild two days in the heart of Madison saw a significant escalation in violence by anti-racism protesters. Police said a group of up to 300 agitators roamed through Downtown Tuesday night, blocking intersections and driveways, stealing a tow truck and toppling two century-old bronze statues that stood on opposite corners of the Capitol Square. The statues were “Forward,” a woman who depicts the spirit of Wisconsin progress, and Col. Hans Christian Heg, a militant abolitionist who helped slaves escape capture and fought against the Confederacy in the Civil War.
Republican state lawmakers were incensed at the violence. They demanded that Gov. Tony Evers call up the National Guard to protect the State Capitol, which Evers did before the close of business on Wednesday. Wisconsin Guard members will support local, county and Capitol police in protecting public and private property should rioters return for another round in the streets near the Wisconsin seat of government power.
The whole mess started when Johnson, a felon on probation, allegedly accosted a suburban Dane County Catholic mother of four as she prayed the Rosary with her children on the western corner of the Capitol Square. “He had the bat over his shoulder and then it slung down. I just knew he was going to get us,” said the woman, who asked not to be identified by name for fear of reprisal. “He was yelling that he knew I was rich because I was a … b*tch. It had nothing to do with skin. He didn’t yell anything about skin (color). He yelled about praying, he yelled that I was fat, that I was rich. It was crazy.”
The woman said she quickly moved her children in the opposite direction, out of harm’s way. She said Johnson got within about 12 feet of the family. “I just moved as fast as I could. I got the kids all the way back to the car,” she said. “We were only to the third (Rosary) mystery, but I figured it was more important to get them safe. We jumped in the car and as we were leaving I noticed a lot of police. I just guessed that somebody saw his behavior toward us and called the police. It turns out he was also menacing other people.”
The woman said Johnson yelled something along the lines of “don’t think your God’s going to save you” and a few other things “that I could not hear completely because I was focused so much on getting the kids away.”
Police said Johnson then accosted patrons on the patio of The Cooper Tavern, 20 W. Mifflin St. Video released by the Madison Police Department shows a young black man with a bat and bullhorn follow a white man into the tavern, shouting that the white man was a racist. Inside the establishment, the man identified as Johnson shouted into the bullhorn about religion and how the Civil War was fought “to see who gonna control the ni**ers.”
We’re going to talk about this Jesus guy,” the man yelled while looking directly at someone filming the incident. “Jesus was not a white man with blond hair, blue eyes and pink lips.” That was an apparent reference to prominent Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King, who said earlier this week that artistic depictions of Christ as a white man should be torn down.
Video shows Johnson leaving the restaurant and returning to shout at patrons on the patio. Police started arriving shortly after, prompting Johnson to walk north on the sidewalk. He tried to get around one police woman before a group of other officers converged on him to take away the bat. Johnson wrestled with police over the next several minutes. They carried him to a squad car, but he broke free from their hold and bolted across Mifflin Street. He was tackled, restrained and placed under arrest. By this time, at least six squad cars littered the intersection. Some bystanders shouted at police; one woman with a dog appeared to attempt to get by police to get access to Johnson.
Johnson was jailed on tentative charges of disorderly conduct, resisting or obstructing police, escape from a criminal arrest, and a probation violation. According to Wisconsin court records, Johnson was convicted in 2017 of being party to the crime of theft of moveable property, a Class G felony. He was placed on five years probation and ordered not to possess any weapons.
By Tuesday night, his arrest caused 200-300 protesters to gather outside the nearby Dane County Public Safety Building. About 1 a.m. Wednesday June 24, a man tossed a firebomb into the City County Building, 211 S. Carroll St., which houses the 911 call center, the Madison Police Department and other city and county offices. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the firebomber. Anyone with information should call Madison Area Crime Stoppers at (608) 266-6014 or online at www.P3Tips.com.
“We are looking to the public to help us identify this individual,” said Jon Ortiz, assistant special agent in charge of the ATF St. Paul Field Division. “This is a serious crime that put a number of lives at risk. Acts like this will not be tolerated. If you know who threw this device, ATF is offering up to $5,000 for information.”
Police said protesters tried to gain access to the Capitol building, but were repelled by security using pepper spray. Windows were smashed in other downtown government buildings. A man reported that he was beaten and robbed when his car inadvertently crossed the path of a group of protesters. He told police a protester threw a bicycle at his car. When he got out to investigate, Madison Police said, he was surrounded by up to 50 people, punched, knocked to the ground and kicked repeatedly. He was being treated at a Madison hospital.
Police recovered the two downed statues. Forward, a bronze statue created by artist Jean Miner, was toppled and left in the middle of the street. It was originally exhibited at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. “Forward” was installed at the Wisconsin Capitol to great fanfare in October 1895. Just two weeks ago, a special Eucharistic Procession in Downtown Madison stopped at the site of the statue for Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.
The statue of Col. Hans Christian Heg was decapitated by rioters, who pulled it from its base and tossed it into a nearby lake. It was later recovered. More than 2,000 people attended the dedication of the Heg statue on October 17, 1926. Heg was honored as the “most distinguished solder of Norwegian birth in the Civil War.” He fought in a number of famous battles and was killed at Chickamauga in September 1863.
This week’s violence was just the latest sad chapter for the City of Madison. On several occasions, peaceful Madison protests brought on by the death of George Floyd, a black man, in Minneapolis at the hands of police turned into riots and looting. Dozens of stores along Madison’s famous State Street are now boarded up, covered in graffiti and elaborate street art.
“The city of Madison is in dire crisis right now, and there is a lack of leadership at the top,” said Republican state Rep. Jim Steineke of Kaukauna, the majority leader in the State Assembly. “Action needs to be taken.”
Dane County Executive Joe Parisi condemned the violence. “What happened overnight in the heart of the city I’ve grown up and spent my entire life in is absolutely heartbreaking,” Parisi said. “The misguided actions of a few jeopardized people’s safety and well-being. Things have gone too far.”
Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Rep. Robin Vos decried the lack of arrests and prosecution of those who looted and destroyed stores along State Street in early June. “People have not been held accountable. That has to change,” Vos said. “It should not be partisan. It should be something that we can hopefully get bipartisan consensus on, that crime is wrong, and that people who commit it should be prosecuted.”
Before Tuesday’s outbreak of violence, Bishop Donald J. Hying of the Catholic Diocese of Madison condemned the calls from activists to destroy or tear down artistic depictions of Jesus Christ because they are viewed as white or European. “I need to denounce such a call to violence and destruction,” Hying said in a letter dated June 23rd. “Our statues, pictures, stained-glass windows, churches, icons and devotions are holy to us. They are sacramentals, blessed and sacred, visible expressions of the love of God poured out in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and made manifest in the Saints.”
Hying said the “secular iconoclasm” sweeping across America will not bring healing. “Such violence will only perpetuate the prejudice and hatred it ostensibly seeks to end,” Bishop Hying said. Only the love of Christ “can heal a wounded heart, not a vandalized piece of metal.”
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