‘Completely Exasperated’: Wisconsin’s Lieutenant Governor Confronts Kenosha

“It takes political leadership to fix this sort of moment,” Wisconsin’s lieutenant governor says. But Trump, he suggests, “is only making things worse.”

Mandela Barnes, Wisconsin’s 33-year-old lieutenant governor, is only a few years older than Jacob Blake, who was shot seven times by a police officer in Wisconsin last month.

It’s hard, Barnes told me on the latest episode of The Ticket, to be months past the Black Lives Matter protests set off by the death of George Floyd and feel like nothing has improved. It’s harder, he said, to acknowledge this to others, as when he met with the Milwaukee Bucks in the conversations that initiated the temporary NBA and wider sports strikes late last month.

“‘What has changed since the death of George Floyd?’” he said the Bucks star George Hill asked him. “And I said, ‘Honestly, not a whole lot.’”

After a week in which both President Donald Trump and the Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden traveled to Kenosha to try to address the shooting and the violence that followed, Barnes said, many people are misunderstanding what actually needs to be done to confront police violence and structural racism.

Listen to our conversation here:

Subscribe to The Ticket on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or another podcast platform to receive new episodes as soon as they’re published.

Here’s a sample of the conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Edward-Isaac Dovere: When the news came that Jacob Blake was shot, you posted something very simple: “You’ve got to be kidding me.” That is not shock that this happened in America. It seems like you were just exasperated.

Mandela Barnes: Completely exasperated. I had just got done reading a book by the lake, sitting outside having a great day, getting ready to go into the week. And then I look online—you know, opening Twitter is always a mistake—but I open Twitter and see Kenosha trending, saw the video and I honestly thought, You have got to be kidding. This did not just happen. After months of the largest movement for racial justice in this nation’s history. People in all corners of Wisconsin have been showing up, marching, holding demonstrations small and large.

The audacity that I saw in that video, for an officer to shoot a person in the back seven times. After all of this. After all the marches. After all the demonstrations. After all the protests. Everybody seemingly coming together to acknowledge that this is a crisis that we face and have faced for some time, that this could still happen.

Dovere: What was your reaction when you saw the video of Kyle Rittenhouse walking by the police with his gun?

Barnes: Oh man, that was another “You have got to be kidding me” moment. Because that’s the dichotomy that we’re talking about. It’s the reason why people show up to march. That this armed person who shot three people, killed two, is able to just walk the street. Police didn’t even give him a second look.

It begs the question—and it’s a very rhetorical question: What are police officers actually threatened by? What threatens them in actuality? Is it a person who is walking the street who claims to be some sort of militia member with a long-rifle assault-style weapon? Or is it somebody who is unarmed and Black? Who is more frightening to you?

Dovere: You said you didn’t want President Donald Trump to come to Kenosha like he did at the beginning of the week. Why not?

Barnes: Donald Trump has yet to condemn the killings of two people in our streets. We see this young man, who was transported across state lines by his own mother, killed two people in cold blood on our city streets, severely injured another … has not been rebuked once by our president. Yet the actions of this man have essentially been celebrated by the same president. You can’t sit here and talk about “lawlessness” and “mobs” coming in, and try to create division and scare people, when the actual guy that killed somebody is on your side.

Dovere: Joe Biden also came this week. Both of them said it’s not about politics, but of course they are both candidates for president who made special trips to Kenosha. Isn’t that about politics?

Barnes: It is beyond politics, but it takes political leadership to fix this sort of moment. And if you have a person who is in power right now who is only making things worse, whether it’s by his incendiary remarks, his statements about the protests in general … and showing this total disconnect from reality, then yes, it does matter. It matters who is in leadership. It matters who we elect. And Joe Biden’s trip is a little bit different.

I’ve gotten asked about it before, and I maintain my statement: Anybody who seeks to come to this state to create more division is not welcome. People who want to be a part of Kenosha’s healing? Great. Jesse Jackson was here. He is a political figure. It’s about your approach. What are you bringing into our state? We don’t need more hate. We don’t need more fear.

Dovere: Do you think there is anything to the idea that the Democratic Party has failed Black Americans, failed cities?

Barnes: No, I won’t say that. Because the same people who show up and say, “These Democrat mayors are running these cities into the ground,” what is their answer? They never have an answer. It’s always finger pointing. We’re talking about cities with large populations. You have a large population; you are going to have challenges. We have a more diverse population, and when opportunities are fewer for people, you are going to have these issues. All of these major cities in America, especially in the Midwest, were built on an industry that doesn’t exist anymore—the manufacturing backbone of these cities and towns across Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan … Once those factories left and closed their doors, it didn’t just take the jobs, it took the identity of these communities. And we are dealing with a generational impact of that loss where people were able to come to places like Milwaukee and thrive.

Dovere: You were involved with the Milwaukee Bucks’ decision to protest a game, which led to a wider shutdown of first the NBA, then other sports. How did you get involved?

Barnes: The Bucks decided that they weren’t going to go on the court, and they wanted to talk to somebody. They needed to talk to somebody to figure out exactly what was going on and what was going to change.

This has been a team that’s been committed to justice issues. And George Hill straight-up asked, “What has changed since the death of George Floyd?” And I said, “Honestly, not a whole lot.”

We introduced a package of bills in the wake of George Floyd’s death two months ago, and the Republican-controlled legislature has refused to even have a debate on these bills. I said, “Now a couple of school boards got police officers out of schools, but that’s about the most meaningful thing that’s happened since George Floyd.” And they were shocked. They were genuinely shocked. And they just wanted to know: What could they do?

And I said, “Whatever you say, the two main points I want you to hit on are that the legislators need to respond. They need to come into the special session that the governor has called for. They need to meet and have a debate on these bills. They need to take up this legislation. And also just remind people to vote.”