U-Haul taken by police
“Rather than return these items of humanitarian aid to the church, Zao MKE Church requests that law enforcement in Kenosha distribute the confiscated items to their rightful recipients - the unarmed and peaceful protestors advocating for Black Lives Matter,” said a church representative in a statement Wednesday. (Photo by Ethan Duran)

Confiscation by officers in unmarked vehicles continues a practice by law enforcement that has been occurring in Black communities for decades. 

Nearly a week after officers in an unmarked vehicle stopped a U-Haul truck, detained its occupants, and confiscated its load  of soft drinks, food, COVID-19 masks, and medical supplies for demonstrators in Kenosha, the Milwaukee congregation that provided the supplies says they were “unconstitutionally seized.”

“Law enforcement on both a local and federal level forcibly and unconstitutionally seized these items without legal justification in violation of the protesters’ Fourth Amendment rights under the United States Constitution,” said Justin Padway with Zao MKE Church in Milwaukee in a statement Wednesday. “Zao Milwaukee Church feels that all persons should be free to peacefully stand up against systemic racism and should not be denied access to food and water while doing it.”

The Kenosha Police Department said during a media briefing Monday and again in a statement Tuesday that the department could not provide details, as the investigation is ongoing. 

Kenosha police said in the statement that on Aug. 27, the fifth night of consecutive demonstrations against police violence and systemic racism, members of the department’s Gang Unit received a tip about a U-Haul truck parked facing the wrong way on a one-way street near the Civic Center Park. The park is across the street from the Kenosha County Courthouse and the Dinosaur Museum. The museum has been the target of several attempted arsons.

The department said the Kenosha Police, with assistance from US Marshals, approached the U-Haul to identify its occupants and investigate the vehicle’s contents. 

The occupants were detained and a perimeter was created to allow for a safe investigation of the vehicle. The police statement said the situation “quickly destabilized” and the U-Haul was towed to a “safe location” where the investigation continued. No details were provided on how police say the situation destabilized.

“The brother that was driving, he was taken out of the U-Haul unjustly,” said Oscar Walton, a protester from Milwaukee. “He wasn’t doing nothing but offering medical supplies to the people because we know the tragedy that went on last night. They need to give those supplies back.”

The man who was pulled from the U-Haul truck was eventually released from custody and walked with the protest for the rest of the night. Videos circulating on Twitter show similar arrests in the Kenosha area by unidentified law enforcement.  

In a statement Tuesday, the department said it reached out to Zao Milwaukee Church to return the property but that church officials declined to speak with investigators and did not want their property back.

The contents inside a U-Haul van that were seized by law enforcement officers a week ago Wednesday. (Photo by Ethan Duran)

“Rather than return these items of humanitarian aid to the church, Zao MKE Church requests that law enforcement in Kenosha distribute these confiscated items to their rightful recipients—the unarmed and peaceful protestors advocating for Black Lives Matter,” said Padway. 

The church has operated a large-scale supply depot for protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement since early June. The depot is open daily from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. on weekdays and 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekends. It is staffed by volunteers and stocked through community donations. 

“Zao MKE Church feels that all people should be free to peacefully stand up against systemic racism and should not be denied access to food and water while doing so,” Padway said. 

The two people apprehended with the U-Haul were not the only individuals detained a week ago Wednesday. 

Jennifer Scheurle, a board member for Riot Kitchen, a Seattle-based nonprofit that provides people with free meals, told UpNorthNew’s national affiliate COURIER that law enforcement officers detained eight of its volunteers that night as well.

Scheurle said she had no idea why her volunteers were arrested. “Riot [Kitchen] is a mutual-aid organization feeding activists and homeless people,” Scheurle said. “We’re focused on providing warm meals to anyone who wants it for free.”

A video of the encounter shows vehicles with no license plates pulling up to and blocking a silver van. A group of officers—some of whom are in plainclothes—then jump out of the unmarked vehicles and surround the van. One aims his gun at the driver and another smashes the passenger’s side window, dragging a woman out of the car. 

Last week’s incidents aren’t isolated ones. The same tactics were used by federal officers in Portland, Oregon, and police officers in New York last month, raising concerns about violations of Americans’ civil liberties and constitutional rights.

“Plainclothes officers jumping out of unmarked vehicles without warning to arrest people is something that has been reported in Black and brown neighborhoods in many cities around the country,” said Carl Takei, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). “It’s a terrifying vehicle for racial profiling in many circumstances.” 

Eliza Orlins serves as a public defender in Manhattan and is currently running for Manhattan District Attorney. She told COURIER that she has represented countless clients who’ve been arrested this way. 

“This is the kind of thing that happens over and over and over and I’m glad attention is finally being paid to it,” Orlins said. “But this is not new. This is the kind of thing that’s been happening for years, for decades. It’s common practice.”

Keya Vakil with COURIER and Ethan Duran contributed to this report.