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 was on the streets in the city and on screens nationwide calling for a reckoning. This was not new activism for Barnes.
Before he was elected in 2018, at age 32, as Wisconsin’s first African American lieutenant governor, he joined Black Lives Matter demonstrations and advocated for criminal justice reform as a legislator from Milwaukee. I spoke with him about his frustration with justice delayed. Here are some highlights of our conversation.
People expected things to change after every business had put out their statement about how [they recognized 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.
But when that happened in Kenosha, I think it painted a very different picture and one that caused a lot of heartburn, a lot of heartache.
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.
JN: On the third night of protests in Kenosha, a 17-year-old white vigilante 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 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 fuel to the flames.
JN: What’s your sense at this point of what needs to happen in Kenosha?
MB: What needs to happen first is [the Kenosha police chief and the Kenosha County sheriff] need to have a reckoning with the communities that they are there to protect and serve…. At this level right now, especially when there is so much distrust, they need to be having those difficult conversations. And if they aren’t ready to have those conversations, this may not be the role for them.
JN: And beyond Kenosha?
MB: There has to be a systemwide approach to addressing this [standards for police use of force], and there are a number of simple measures that the state of Wisconsin will [need to] 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.
JN: Pundits are talking a lot now about backlash against the protests.
MB: 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.