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‘What will Madison do?’: One year after George Floyd murder, those in the middle of State Street unrest reflect

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MADISON (WKOW) -- May 2021 looked much more familiar on the State Street side of the Wisconsin State Capitol. New graduates posed for photos in their gowns as political aides took a stroll on their lunch break.

One year earlier, protests following the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd sparked weekend protests that descended into riots and looting along State Street. The third night of downtown property damage brought would-be thieves to Miar Maktabi's Dubai Restaurant.

Maktabi gained national attention for his use of a sword to chase a small group of teens out of the restaurant. This spring, Maktabi says the attention brought a much-needed boost in traffic during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Matkabi using a sword to fend off protesters last summer.

"The support I got after that night was unbelievable," Maktabi said. "Like I'm straight-forward, it was unbelievable."

For M Adams, those volatile nights in Madison and around the country were about more than a single enterprise. The Co-Executive Director of Freedom Inc. led some of the daytime demonstrations and says the conviction of Derek Chauvin for Floyd's murder represents a tangible gain.

"We demanded and the system conceded so I'm extremely proud," Adams said.

Following the conviction, Adams said they're filled with three emotions going forward: curiosity, hope, and worry.

"What will Madison do? Will Madison just try to go back and restore what it was before," Adams said. "Because there's a particular verdict that charged Derek Chauvin with murder of George Floyd, that people think that's enough. I worry about that."

Protesters clashed with police on about a half dozen occasions throughout the summer, first after the Floyd murder and then again in August after a Kenosha police officer shot Jacob Blake.

Protestors in Madison last summer.

Jarring video of the shooting showed the officer firing multiple shots into Blake's back as he tried to get into a car. Blake, at one point, was also holding a knife.

Activists like Adams maintain Madison Police officers and Dane County Sheriff's deputies used excessive force in responding to the unrest, particularly with the use of tear gas.

Others in the community criticized the performance of then-Chief Vic Wahl, accusing police command of allowing too much destruction of private property before directing officers to intervene.

Wahl referred to those dueling criticisms when asked if there's anything he wished he could change about MPD's performance last summer.

"When you have large crowd dynamics intermixing protected First Amendment rights with violence and disorder and unrest, there isn't just an easy answer for policing those things," Wahl said.

Wahl added the department was still awaiting the results from an outside audit of how MPD handled the enduring demonstrations. Now an assistant chief under Shon Barnes, Wahl said he wished more attention was paid to the days and nights of protest that went off without incident.

"We had about a half a dozen nights of real significant unrest, you know, bad stuff, no doubt about it," Wahl said. "But we had about 180-plus total days of protest over the course of the year."

A fundamental split

Interviews with Adams and Wahl made clear, however, there is a fundamental split in how the view the long-term role of law enforcement in a community.

Adams unabashedly said they believe in an eventual abolition of the police as we know it.

"Use those same resources, and I mean the money and I also mean culture, right? The way we interact with one another as people," Adams said. "So I think either repurposing people who are police and training them to have a different role in society."

Adams cited an incident earlier this year in Columbus, Ohio when an officer shot and killed 16-year-old Ma'Khia Bryant.

Body camera video showed Bryant armed with a knife and winding her arm back with the knife toward another girl when the officer fired.

"I've broken up several fights where there were weapons and I have never killed anyone,: Adams said.

Many who were infuriated by the Floyd killing found the Bryant shooting to be entirely different given the imminent threat to someone else's life. Adams, however, dismissed the idea of examining all key facts from one police shooting to another because initial official accounts have been highly misleading - or downright false - in some previous incidents.

"There have been far too many murders of too many situations and too many different variables, too many people, to try to explain police murders away based on individual actions or individual characteristics," Adams said.

Wahl said the idea of abolishing the police altogether was untethered from reality, especially as violent crime is on the rise in cities across the U.S.

"I think we all have to recognize the world we live in. We live in a violence society," Wahl said. "When you think of how many guns there are in the United States, how much gun violence there is, how many homicides there are."

Wahl said he was open to the idea of alternative responders to certain types of calls, such as those for someone in mental distress, but did not directly say there were certain responsibilities police should relinquish.

"If you talk about mental illness, the real challenge, I think, is not who responds but what services does the community have after the response," Wahl said. "How do we treat the mentally ill and provide them long-term solutions?"

A reason for hope

Maktabi said later in the summer, a teenage came into the restaurant accompanied by his parents. At their behest, Maktabi said the teen admitted to being one of the would-be looters.

"He was just like 'Mak, Miar, I was one of those people who made damage and we didn't know,'" Maktabi said. "His mom, she was really like yelling at him, just like, it remind me of when I was that age."

Maktabi said the apology stuck with him because it was a sign of someone growing. He believed that, paired with the Chauvin verdict, affirmed there can be continued change for the better.

"I still believe we can change," he said. "When I say 'we,' I'm talking about everybody in general."

In a manner perhaps too crude or too simplistic for some tastes, Maktabi explained his reasoning.

"Black people, not all of them are bad and police, not all of them bad," he said. "I'm a Syrian Muslim, doesn't mean I belong to the crazy Muslim people."

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A. J. Bayatpour

Capitol Bureau Chief

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