Demonstrators march through Milwaukee on May 29 to protest police brutality.
Demonstrators march through Milwaukee on May 29 to protest police brutality. (Photo by Samer Ghani)

Chief says police are being ‘crucified’ by complaints in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and several aldermen told police officials on Friday that they do not want the Milwaukee Police Department to use rubber bullets on protesters whatsoever, and that officers should only use tear gas in extreme circumstances.

The criticisms came in a Public Safety and Health Committee meeting, one day after 14 of the city’s 15 aldermen condemned an arrest of a peaceful protester who got too close to the police line; in the arrest, an officer knelt on the protester’s neck and head in a similar manner to the officer who killed George Floyd in Minneapolis. Following the arrest, police shot tear gas and fired rubber bullets on the crowd, which was chanting, “We are peaceful.”

“It seems as if we’ve replaced water hoses with tear gas; we’ve replaced German shepherds with rubber bullets,” said Alderman Ashanti Hamilton. “There was a justification then (in the 1960s) as to why that level of force was being used on protesters at that time, and those arguments still seem to be very much the same as to why we’re using tear gas and rubber bullets today.”

The incident, at the intersection of Sixth Street and McKinley Avenue in downtown Milwaukee, has drawn intense scrutiny from local politicians and advocacy groups. Assistant Police Chief Michael Brunson, who was sitting in on the committee meeting for Chief Alfonso Morales, who was occupied at a press conference, stood by the officers, saying they have been “under siege” during the protests.

But Barrett and aldermen condemned the officers’ actions, even though Brunson advocated for continued use of tear gas and rubber bullets.

“I do not believe that using rubber bullets to disperse crowds is appropriate,” Barrett said. “I don’t think we should be using tear gas unless it’s a very, very, very, very serious situation — but certainly not with peaceful protesters.”

Milwaukee police claimed without evidence that protesters threw frozen water bottles and molotov cocktails at officers before the cops opened fire at Sixth and McKinley. When that was challenged, the department released photos of a single, empty plastic bottle with an unknown item next to it. No witnesses or media have corroborated the molotov-cocktail claim. 

Brunson said the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, is now investigating the alleged molotov cocktail.

Still, there was skepticism abound among aldermen.

“I have seen (protesters clashing with police), but I have also seen police escalate activity and disorder,” Hamilton said.

Alderman Nik Kovac said he was at the protest when police opened fire at Sixth and McKinley. He did not believe there was a molotov cocktail or frozen water bottles thrown.

“It sort of sounds like an after-the-fact justification for what I’d describe as a clear mistake,” Kovac said. “I was hoping there would be some acknowledgement that the police made a mistake. That’s not what I’m hearing. Maybe we’ll hear it eventually, or maybe we’ll hear it from the Fire and Police Commission.”

During the committee meeting, Morales delivered a press conference announcing federal charges against a different protester who allegedly threw a molotov cocktail through a business window. In a fit of anger, Morales, who marched with protesters a day earlier, compared police to Jesus Christ and said “throughout our nation, law enforcement (officers) are being crucified.” 

He pointed to recent accountability measures the department has taken as a reason protesters should not be angry with Milwaukee police.

“Something happens in another city, another state and it’s very, very easy to jump on the bandwagon and say ‘Milwaukee can do better,’” Morales said. “Shame on those (people). That’s an easy narrative. It’s a very easy narrative to jump on.”

He continued, “Two thousand years ago, an angry mob came before people to say, ‘Crucify that man’ — that man being Jesus Christ. What are angry mobs doing today? We say we’re civilized, but are we really? … The Police Department’s not going away.”

Morales said he was angered that there was skepticism over reports of an officer being shot during a violent protest on May 30, that protesters “surrounded” Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney’s home, and that Milwaukee officers are being followed home.

Thirteen aldermen lambasted Morales’ statements in a joint statement issued Monday, telling him to “say their names,” referring to seven people killed or seriously injured by Milwaukee Police, but also mentioning seven police officers killed in the past three decades, writing “we say all of these names.”

“Had you been present at Friday’s hearing of the Public Safety and Health Committee instead of at a press conference, you would have known that it is not ‘another city, another state’ that is at stake here,” the aldermen wrote.