After a police officer in Kenosha, Wis., grabbed 29-year-old Jacob Blake’s T-shirt and fired seven shots into his back on August 23, Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes tweeted, “Last night, Jacob Blake was shot in the back seven times in front of his children. This wasn’t an accident. The officer’s deadly actions attempted to take a person’s life in broad daylight. Like many of you, the video is burned into my mind like all the past videos just like it.”
In the days that followed, Barnes was on the streets in Kenosha and on TV screens nationwide–calling for a reckoning with issues that have for too long gone unaddressed. This was not new activism for Barnes. Long before he was elected, at age 32 in 2018, as Wisconsin’s first African American lieutenant governor, he joined Black Lives Matter demonstrations and advocated for criminal justice reform as a young legislator from Milwaukee. I spoke with Barnes about his frustration with roadblocks to change in Wisconsin (where Republican legislators have blocked changes proposed by Democratic Governor Tony Evers), and about how Democrats must press these issues in 2020 and beyond.
People have been marching for months and for anybody to witness that sort of action and engagement by people in all parts of the state, all parts of the country, and then see an officer shoot somebody seven times in the back, it weighs on you. That is heavy stuff.
So I’m talking about being tired in a literal and figurative sense.
JN: The video from Kenosha was so jarring. You knew there would be a reaction.
MB: I knew that there was no way that people would calmly react to any of that. I mean, one, it is anger-inducing for some. It is depressing for others. It is downright frightening for more people. And to think that, like I said before, for people to have marched all these months, you’d think that police departments, sheriff’s departments, would have rushed to implement reform in any way possible.
People expected things to change after every business had put out their statement about how [they recognized that Black lives matter], after people had awakened in corners of the state that had not seen any sort of protest or civil rights activity, maybe ever. These people assumed that things were on the mend with society.
JN: Jacob Blake survived the shooting, but he is paralyzed from the waist down.
MB: And it didn’t have to be that way. Nobody thinks that that’s a responsible way to carry out justice, shooting someone in the back [multiple] times.
That’s not just bad police work. That’s beyond bad police work. There were three or four officers… So a number of police officers tried to prevent him from getting to the car. They felt that he was that much of a threat. There was more than enough opportunity for at least two of those officers, not just one of them, to try to [subdue] him.
JN: On the third night of protests in Kenosha, a 17-year-old white gunman, who was interacting with militia groups and the police, shot and killed two protesters. What’s your sense of what went wrong?
MB: Well, the sense of what went wrong there has to do with the things that are accepted, right? Like it’s accepted, it’s OK, even in the video, that these armed dudes were walking around. They were walking around police officers. They weren’t trying to hide from law enforcement. They were out in plain sight, making a claim that they were there to help. That’s a problem.
It’s a problem that that was even accepted by law enforcement as something that was even reasonable. No reasonable person thinks that that is OK, especially in a situation that is as tense as what was going on in Kenosha that night. That is literal fuel to the flames. Their presence absolutely made a particularly volatile situation potentially more destructive—and it happened to end up becoming more destructive because lives were lost.
JN: What needs to happen on the ground in Kenosha?
MB: Law enforcement leaders need to step up. [At a press conference,] the police chief alluded to the fact that people being out after curfew is what caused lives to be lost—not actually calling out the problem, which was the person who actually shot and killed someone. The last press conference I saw from the sheriff, he was asked about the video. He said he never even saw the video!
So what needs to happen first is these officers need to have a reckoning with the communities that they are there to protect and serve. They need to have open and honest dialogue. They need to be held accountable.
JN: And beyond Kenosha?
MB: There’s got to be action at every level. There needs to be federal action on qualified immunity. There needs to be state-level action. There needs to be local action, whether it’s city councils or whether it’s police departments themselves and sheriff’s departments.
There has to be a system-wide approach to addressing this, and there are a number of simple measures that the state of Wisconsin will take up in the understanding that they will not solve every problem or prevent every incident, but they will go a long way as a signal showing people across the entire state—whether you’re a private citizen, whether you’re in law enforcement—what will be tolerated and what won’t be tolerated.
There’s no reason why [Wisconsin] Republicans in the legislature have failed to act. Look at the state of Iowa. They passed their package unanimously. Unanimously. They have a Republican legislature and a Republican governor. They came in and they got it done.
JN: Why hasn’t that happened in Wisconsin?
MB: I couldn’t tell you. The same reason they haven’t acted on extension of BadgerCare [a health care program for low-income Wisconsinites]. Same reason they haven’t acted on cannabis reform. Same reason they haven’t raised the minimum wage. Same reason they refuse to take up any serious piece of legislation.
JN: Pundits are talking about backlash against protests.
MB: I would challenge those same people to look a little bit deeper and ask, “Why are people protesting?” Ask, “Why are people so upset? Why are people frustrated?”
I hope that they’ll understand that people don’t just get upset like this out of the blue. People don’t just protest because it’s [a meme] or something fun to do. People are putting themselves on the line, literally, in hope for a better world!
These people aren’t protesting because they want things to go up in flames. People are protesting because they want the world to be better. Ultimately, they want that to lead to a better life for everybody.
I read one protest sign that said, “We’re not trying to start a race war, we’re trying to stop one from happening.” That really stuck out to me, and that’s a message that I would like for the individuals who are growing weary of protest to see.
JN: How should Democrats in Wisconsin and nationally be talking about all of this this fall? What should their message be?
MB: That’s a good question, because clearly the RNC was all about this. They have chosen their angle and their response to people calling for justice. They are responding with aggression and animosity….
What I want to say to Democrats running for the fall is to understand the real urgent things that people are dealing with: that systems of inequality and inequity are universal.
It’s the same system, no matter what issue you’re talking about, whether it’s racial injustice, whether it’s income inequality, whether it’s lack of access to health care, whether it’s environmental protection.
All of these things fall into a long line of injustice and inequity that has to be addressed at every level. It would not be wise to separate what’s going on right now in the fight for racial justice from any other set of issues that Democrats have traditionally taken on.
JN: The Kerner Commission Report in 1968 focused on many of the things that you’re talking about. So we’ve known for a long time what needs to be done, and yet somehow it hasn’t happened. Is it your sense that now it could happen?
MB: It depends on at what level. I think that the people who are in charge in the White House right now, they aren’t willing to do anything. [They don’t have a sense of] people’s concerns. And Republicans in the legislature here in Wisconsin have also shown that same disregard.
So theoretically, of course things can change. Things should change. And elections do matter.
But it’s also important to note that it doesn’t [guarantee fundamental change] if you elect a Democrat…. It doesn’t mean that they automatically are going to do the right thing. We still have to get organized.
Like I said on Twitter, November 3rd isn’t the finish line. It’s a mile marker. It’s an important mile marker, but we have to keep organizing.
JN: Tell me what you mean when you say “an important mile marker”?
MB: We obviously have the best chance at reform with Joe Biden and Kamala Harris because at least they are acknowledging the pain that communities are feeling. Both Joe Biden and Kamala Harris spent an hour on the phone with Jacob Blake’s family, and there’s that level of compassion, and then there’s also the stated desire to act, and they’ve said as much.
If people want them to go further, then organize to push them further once they’re elected…. But I think that there is zero chance with who we have in the White House right now.