*I just wanted to give a quick disclaimer before you read this post. Because the purpose of our latest trip to Madison, Wisconsin was to record video for a client, we were not able to physically take part in the protests that took place downtown. We were, however, witness to many of the demonstrations, both peaceful and less so, that took place near the Capitol Building and on State Street. This blog post is a first-hand account of the events we saw, and in some cases documented via photograph. Keeping the safety of all demonstrators in mind, we will do our best to shield the identities of those involved.
We were well aware of the atrocity that happened in Minnesota as we embarked on our trip to Madison.
The murder of George Floyd by Officer Derek Chauvin was already weighing hard on our hearts, and we had been following the news closely during the aftermath. The protests taking place in Minneapolis, the police retaliating with force, and the subsequent looting. What we hadn’t realized was how far and wide this movement was spreading.
On Friday, May 29th, we arrived in Madison. We did a bit of photo-exploring and saw that there had been some light, peaceful protests that had taken place earlier in the evening. Handmade signs in honor of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement were placed all over the steps of the Wisconsin Capitol building. In particular, there was one very powerful sign placed at the feet of the “Miss Forward” statue that resides just outside the capitol building. The sign said the now haunting final words of George Floyd. “I can’t breathe.” This was even more moving to me after the fact when I learned the meaning behind the statue, according to its sculptor Jean Pond Miner. It was described as an “allegory of the devotion and progress she believed her state embodied.” And here we are. On the precipice of yet another social revolution, in which hundreds of thousands of black lives and those who support them hope that the world can one day actually be representative of Pond Miner’s words. We took in the moment and made our way back to our hotel. What would happen the next day, to my surprise, would astronomically surpass the power of the moment I felt on that Friday night.
“A small group, and I’ll reiterate, a small group of the protestors broke off from the back and looted a store called Goodman’s Jewelers”
After we wrapped up our shooting the next day, Saturday, May 30th, we headed over to a local coffee shop, Michelangelo’s, for a much-needed pick-me-up. Little did we know that the exact street we were on would become the epicenter of the demonstrations taking place in Madison that day. About an hour into our time at the coffee shop, the owners came and relayed to us that the local police department had instructed them to close up shop, as a demonstration was planning to come through the area. They asked us to leave, and we packed up. As we began to make our way back to the hotel, we encountered the demonstrators we were forewarned about.
Only it wasn’t what I was expecting at all, given the warning we were given. The demonstrators were completely peaceful. Marching down the street, chanting phrases such as “No justice, no peace”, “Black Lives Matter”, and “I can’t breathe.” The demonstrators stopped in the middle of the intersection where we were standing and began a sit-in. They lowered themselves to the ground, either kneeling or sitting in the street, and kept spreading their message. After this sit-in, the demonstrators pushed on down the street when a surprising incident occurred. A small group, and I’ll reiterate, a small group of the protestors broke off from the back and looted a store called Goodman’s Jewelers. Two or Three people broke in through the front door, rushed in, and rushed out.
Eventually, word got around that the police would be showing up, and like clockwork they did. As the demonstrators pushed on further down State Street, a group of police officers lined up in a strange, but intimidating formation. The two groups eventually clashed head-on, as the officers stopped only a few feet away from the group. It was then that the infamous tear gas was sprayed. Zach and I were standing a good 100 feet away from everything that was taking place, and even still we could feel the mild effects of the chemical agent. After getting sprayed, the group pushed further on down State Street. It was at this moment that I knew I had to document what was going on. A largely peaceful demonstration was marred by a small few who had caused some minimal collateral damage, yet the entire group was heavily sprayed and told to move. It was terrifying.
We returned to our hotel briefly to gather some camera equipment, and then we made our way back to the downtown area. At this point, the number of demonstrators seemed to have grown immensely. Additionally, so did the number of onlookers, and police officers. Again, the protest was peaceful. Just tired, and angry people standing in the streets and trying to raise awareness. To bring about change. At this point, police officers began trying to disperse the crowds again. Tear gas. Smoke bombs. Large groups of officers assailing demonstrators with their hands up. It was chaos.
“I too felt like crying at times”
As the tear gas sprayed, and smoke bombs exploded with loud pops, I witnessed a girl who was probably out shopping with her family. She began crying, fearful at what she was witnessing. I don’t blame her though. I too felt like crying at times. Crying for the state of our country. Crying because rights were being infringed upon. Crying because the police were being used in a militarized force against people who just wanted to speak up and have their voices heard. Instead, I just kept documenting. Trying to capture the haunting moments of what I was witnessing.
I captured many intense moments. Large puffs of smoke billowing in the middle of a shopping district. Demonstrators running in fear away from the potent tear gas. Friends pouring gallons of milk into each other’s eyes to help the agony of the tear gas subside. Demonstrators with their hands up, on their knees, as the police pushed towards them. It’s important to note that it was not my intent to try and capitalize on what I was seeing in order to “build my portfolio” or “get good content”. No. Not my intent at all. I’m of the mindset that when history happens, it needs to be documented. When atrocities occur in front of your eyes, they need to be captured. Because if enough people just like me see what happens, things might actually change. The tide might actually shift, and we can bring about a calm.
After I was around the demonstration a bit longer, things came to an impasse. People began dispersing in small amounts, and the police kept pushing in further. The streets were being cleared, and we decided it was time to go back to our hotel. When we returned, I began editing the photos I had captured from the day. A few hours passed and we began watching the news in the hotel lobby. Things had unfortunately escalated quite a bit. When we turned on the news, there was a man literally driving a flaming cop car down the street. Bullets were exploding in the back of the car from the heat. It was shocking, awe-inspiring, and confusing. On one hand, it was a literal burning cop car… but on the other hand, it was an important symbol.
For many years, the black community has been burning, and our society has been neglecting to help put out that fire. That fire came in the form of discrimination, innocent lives lost, disproportionate arrests, and pain in so many ways I will never be able to understand. Now, the police officers of Madison, Wisconsin experienced a bit of that fire, quite literally. But the main point I and so many others have made is that this damage caused (although inherently bad) is nowhere near worth the value of another human life such as George Floyd. The police force will be able to purchase a new police car, but we can not replace the many lives we have lost in the black community. In conclusion, I leave you with this. Black. Lives. Matter. Simple as that. The rest of the team and I fervently believe this and do what we can to help support this cause. If you would like to join and help out as well, please visit any of the links below.