MADISON, Wisconsin — A Black Lives Matter activist who allegedly harassed and threatened a mother of four praying the Rosary on the Capitol Square on June 23 has now been charged by the U.S. Attorney with two counts of extortion for allegedly using threatened “force, violence and fear” to seek cash, food and beverages from Downtown businesses.
Scott C. Blader, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Wisconsin, on June 26 announced a federal criminal complaint against Devonere Armani Johnson, 28, of Madison. Johnson will be arraigned on the extortion charges in U.S. District Court in the near future.
He was already in the Dane County Jail on Madison Police Department charges related to a disturbance at Coopers Tavern on the Capitol Square June 23.
According to the federal charges, on June 22 Johnson told a Downtown business owner that his establishment’s windows would be smashed if a payment wasn’t made to Johnson’s Venmo account. Venmo is a mobile online payment system. The same day, the complaint alleges, Johnson threatened to shut down and destroy another business if he and his associates were not given free food and beverages.
“Those who attempt to take advantage of recent events to extort local businesses under the guise of community activism will be vigorously prosecuted,” Blader said in a news release. “All citizens have a right to feel safe within their communities. Extortion is not activism, it is a crime and it will not be tolerated.”
Johnson’s June 23 arrest by Madison police for allegedly taunting and harassing Coopers Tavern patrons sparked a night of rioting, the firebombing of the City County Building, destruction of two state Capitol statues, the beating of a state senator and widespread vandalism in Downtown Madison.
Earlier in June, protests over the death of a black man, George Floyd, at the hands of police in Minneapolis sparked rioting and looting in Madison’s State Street shopping district. This week’s violence prompted Gov. Tony Evers to activate the Wisconsin National Guard’s Quick Reaction Force to help protect the State Capitol and Downtown Madison.
Johnson was seen carrying a baseball bat and berating patrons at the tavern on West Mifflin Street. Video released by the Madison Police Department shows him fighting police officers who took the bat away, then bolting from their custody as they were putting him into a patrol car. For the June 23 incidents, Johnson was charged with disorderly conduct, resisting or obstructing police, escape from a criminal arrest, and a probation violation.
He is on probation for a 2017 Wisconsin felony theft conviction. In 2015 he was acquitted in a Minneapolis shooting that left another man paralyzed from the neck down.
Prior to the restaurant incident, Johnson allegedly harassed and threatened a 40-year-old Catholic mother of four who was walking and praying the Rosary at the corner of State Street and the Capitol Square. She told CWR the man she later identified as Johnson slung the bat around while dishing out insults and walking towards her family.
“I felt like his goal was to scare people, and he did a great job,” the woman said in an interview. “It was only after the fact when I watched the video that I realized that was his goal. When I was in the situation, I thought he was going to hurt us because of how threatening he was acting; that he was going to come get us.”
The woman did not report her interaction with Johnson to Madison police. She said she fears retribution against her family if she files a complaint. Told of the federal charges against Johnson, the woman told CWR: “That is such a relief. You have no idea.” Despite the harassment, the woman has gone back to the Capitol Square each of the past three days to pray the Rosary. She said she won’t allow the incident to deter her from praying with her children.
If convicted on the federal extortion charges, Johnson faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in federal prison for each count.
The charges against Johnson are the result of an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Madison Police Department, Blader said. Johnson has not yet made a Dane County court appearance on the local charges.
On June 25, Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said she hoped to see Johnson released on bail because “we need better options to deescalate situations and offer restorative justice in our community.”
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