In Wisconsin, Democrats have a Kenosha problem — from the police shooting of Jacob Blake, to the protests and riots that followed, and now the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict.
And it could cost them the state’s governorship and a senate seat next year.
Even before Rittenhouse’s acquittal on Friday, it was clear that the incidents in Kenosha were going to cast a long shadow over the 2022 elections in Wisconsin. But the verdict once again highlighted the deep partisan divisions and particularly the problems that Democrats face in the crucial battleground state.
Moments after the Rittenhouse verdict was announced, Sean Patrick Maloney, the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), issued a statement denouncing the acquittal. “It’s disgusting and disturbing,” he said, “that someone was able into carry a loaded assault rifle into a protest against the unjust killing of Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man…”
The only problem? Jacob Blake was not killed (he was paralyzed), and he was not unarmed. He was, in fact, holding a “razor blade-type knife” when he was shot. And the “protests” also included riots, vandalism, and looting that caused more than $50 million in damage and destroyed many local businesses.
But Maloney’s statement (which he later corrected) reflected the tyranny of the powerful — and often misleading — narratives that remain central to the ideological battle over the events here.
Since the video of a police officer firing seven shots into Blake’s back went viral in August 2020 — a moment when anger over the killing of George Floyd was still at its peak around the country — much of the media and political world has insisted on seeing the incident through the prism of Black Lives Matter. More than a year later, Wisconsin Democrats remain committed to that template, even though much of the original narrative surrounding the shooting of Blake has been discredited by subsequent investigations.
Just last month, the Biden Department of Justice found that there was insufficient evidence that the police officer who shot Blake “willfully used excessive force.” That finding mirrored the decisions by the local district attorney, the state’s own Justice Department, and an independent review by the African American former police chief of the state’s most progressive city.
The initial video of Blake’s shooting seemed to provide incontrovertible evidence of unwarranted police violence — Blake was shot in the back seven times. But subsequent investigations showed a much more complex picture.
In January, when he announced his decision not to file charges against Officer Rusten Sheskey, District Attorney Michael Gravely — an elected Democrat — explained that officers were responding to a domestic disturbance call and were attempting to arrest Blake “because he had a felony arrest warrant for domestic violence offenses and a sexual assault.”
His 87 page report — which is largely based on an in-depth investigation by the state Justice Department’s Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) — painstakingly dismantled the narrative that Blake was an innocent victim. Laquisha Booker, the mother of Blake’s children, had called police after Blake took the keys to her rental car and refused to return them. When police arrived, she flagged them down, telling them: “My kids are in the car.”
She told the officers that “she was afraid that Jacob Blake was going to take her vehicle and crash it as… he had done before.” When the officers attempted to arrest Blake, he resisted, wrestling with the officers, putting one in a headlock. The officers tried to subdue him with a Taser, but Blake pulled out the prongs.
Before the shooting, Blake repeatedly ignored police orders to drop the razor-like knife that he held in his hand. “By the time he was walking in front of the SUV,” the report says, “the knife was opened and the blade was exposed.” (The knife is clearly seen in enhanced video images.)
In reaching his conclusion not to charge the officer, the district attorney relied on an independent report from former Madison, Wisconsin police chief Noble Wray, one of the state’s most prominent African American law enforcement officers.
Wray concluded that Officer Sheskey “feared that Blake was going to stab him, and he could not retreat because the child could be harmed, taken hostage, or abducted by Blake.”
While the number of shots might have seemed excessive, Wray noted that officers are trained to continue shooting a person “until the perceived threat is stopped.”
“The officer was pulling on the shirt of Blake and took just over 2.5 seconds to fire seven rounds,” Wray writes. “I found that they applied the correct force option to each situation to mitigate threat and stop the active resistance on the part of Blake.”
Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice came to the same conclusion.
But, by then, leading Democrats had already staked out their positions.
“Tonight, Jacob Blake was shot in the back multiple times, in broad daylight,” Democratic Governor Tony Evers tweeted the night of the shooting. “While we do not have all of the details yet, what we know for certain is that he is not the first Black man or person to have been shot or injured or mercilessly killed at the hands of individuals in law enforcement in our state or our country.”
Lt. Governor Mandela Barnes had an even more strident reaction: “Last night, Jacob Blake was shot in the back seven times in front of his children,” he wrote on Facebook. “This wasn’t an accident. The officer’s deadly actions attempted to take a person’s life in broad daylight.”
Law enforcement groups — including the Badger State Sheriffs’ Association, the Sheriff’s and Deputy Sheriff’s Association, chiefs of Police Association and Police Executive Group — complained that the comments by Evers and Barnes were “premature, judgmental, inflammatory and only add to the anger and divisiveness of an already dangerous situation.”
Initially, the protests in Kenosha were peaceful, but within days, violence erupted as businesses were burned and whole blocks reduced to ashes. As former New York Times reporter Nellie Bowles wrote last week: “The part of Kenosha that people burned in the riots was the poor, multi-racial commercial district, full of small, underinsured cell phone shops and car lots.”
Republicans denounced Evers for inflaming the unrest and criticized the governor for what they saw as his slow and tepid response to the spreading violence.
Evers has since insisted that he responded to every request for help he got, but the images of a burning city became a flashpoint in the presidential campaign.
Donald Trump, Joe Biden, and vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris all visited the city. Trump made his unconditional support for law enforcement clear, blaming “domestic terror” for the violence in Wisconsin. In contrast, while condemning the violence, Biden and Harris repeatedly expressed sympathy for Blake. During one conference call, Harris told Blake that she was “proud of him and how he is working through his pain.”
Given the new evidence about the shooting of Jacob Blake from the state and federal investigations, Democrats in Wisconsin could have pivoted. Instead, they remain committed to a storyline that fits their ideological template.
In January, Barnes — who is now the leading Democratic candidate for the senate seat held by Ron Johnson next year — lashed out at the prosecutor, calling his decision not to file criminal charges against the police officer “another instance in a string of misapplications of justice.”
“The non-prosecuting DAs are as negligent as the officers in these situations,” he tweeted.
Evers has also failed to correct the record or clarify his earlier statements. On the one year anniversary of the shooting in August, the Democratic governor made no mention of the officer involved, nor did he apologize or even acknowledge the new conclusions of the investigations, writing instead: “One year ago today, Jacob Blake’s life was forever changed. While we are grateful Jacob survived his injuries, we also know Jacob, his kids, and his family have and will face challenges.”
The same divisions played out during the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse.
Republicans rallied to his defense, seeing the shootings as lawful acts of self-defense during a period of unjustified civil unrest. But inevitably, Democrats viewed the Rittenhouse case through the prism of the Blake shooting — to them, it became a trial about the propriety of the police shooting and the legitimacy of the protests.
So last week, while Republicans applauded his acquittal, Barnes was ripping the verdict in racialized terms. “We have seen so many Black and brown youth killed, only to be put on trial posthumously,” he declared, “while the innocence of Kyle Rittenhouse was virtually demanded by the judge.”
And he again expressed sympathy for the victims of the shootings, referring to them by their first names.
“Across Wisconsin and across the country,” Barnes wrote, “countless people are coming together in this moment to remember Jacob [Blake], Anthony [Huber], JoJo [Joseph Rosenbaum], and call for justice.”
Joseph Rosenbaum was a convicted sex ofender, while Anthony Huber, who is seen on video swinging a skateboard at Rittenhouse, served prison terms for domestic violence — details that Republicans are sure to point out in next year’s campaign.
So far, Democrats do not seem especially worried.
Rittenhouse may have been acquitted but the attempt to glorify a vigilante teen is unlikely to appeal to suburban women voters — who are still more likely to be soccer moms than AR-15 moms.
Democrats also point to polls late in the 2020 campaign that suggested that the Kenosha riots had only a limited impact on the presidential race in Wisconsin. But that same poll contained some numbers that should have troubled Democrats: a sharp drop in the approval of protests over police shootings of Black Americans — from 61 percent in June 2020 to just 47 percent in August. And approval for the Black Lives Matter movement also dropped by 10 points over the same period.
The polls also failed to fully capture the post-Kenosha slippage in Biden’s lead. In June, Biden led the Marquette University Law poll by six points, but he ended up winning the state by just 20,600 votes — well under 1 percentage point.
Election analyst Jesse Richardson, who blogs at Political Kiwi, wrote that he found “strong evidence that the rioting in Kenosha resulted in increased support for Donald Trump [in the 2020 election], and that if we’d seen a similar level of rioting in say, Milwaukee, it might’ve cost Joe Biden the state.”
Since then, the political climate has soured for Biden and Evers. A recent Marquette poll found Evers’ approval rating has dropped to 45 percent, a point above Biden’s own ratings. And, while Ron Johnson is considered among the most vulnerable GOP incumbents, there is little independent polling about Barnes, his challenger.
There is also reason to believe that the politics of Kenosha have turned darker for the Democrats; the multiple investigations have changed public perceptions of both the police and the subsequent riots, while the Rittenhouse verdict reminded voters of the breakdown of law and order.
Republicans are convinced that all of this — the Democrats’ premature judgments about the Blake shooting, their failure to control the violence, and the rhetorical response to the Rittenhouse verdict — will be potent wedge issues in next year’s elections. The most recent Marquette poll found that more than two-thirds of Wisconsinites — 69 percent — say that crime is rising nationally.
So it was hardly a surprise when the leading GOP candidate for governor next year, former lieutenant governor Rebecca Kleefisch, launched her campaign with a video that made Kenosha a central theme in her bid to unseat Evers.
Speaking into the camera, Kleefisch says:
“One year ago, Kenosha burned while Tony Evers failed to lead. $50 million up in smoke. Our police deserted and disrespected. Jobs destroyed. Lives were lost and small businesses were burned because our governor sided with rioters instead of the people of this community.”
Last Friday, after the Rittenhouse verdict, Kleefisch tweeted out: “The prosecution in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial was a complete disgrace, praising the mob who burned our streets as ‘heroes.’”
“As your Governor,” she wrote, “I’ll always stand for law and order.”
Her rhetoric may be hyperbolic and demagogic, but Democrats should expect a lot more of the same over the next 11 months.
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