By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
People in positions of power are often meant to protect people. Politicians are elected to act in the best interest of their constituents, law enforcement exist to protect people, judges ensure that the law is upheld and so on. But what happens when that honor turns into abuse of power?
There’s a long history of law enforcement officials abusing their power, an abuse that continues to this day. Attorney Kimberly Motley, Attorney Ramon Vadez and activist Sedan Smith shared their experiences with law enforcement during a panel discussion on Thursday, April 1.
The conversation took place virtually and was co-hosted by the National Lawyers Guild Milwaukee chapter along with The Milwaukee Turners, the People’s Revolution, Indivisible Wauwatosa and several others. The focus of the conversation looked at the recent actions taken by the Wauwatosa Police Department.
“All over the country Americans are wrestling with the suffering and the trauma caused by racists in all too frequent fatal interactions between institutions like law enforcement and civilians,” Emilio de Torre of The Milwaukee Turners. “Some people who seem beholden to our status quo of white supremacy and the infallibility of law enforcement condemn the patriotism morality and legality of even questioning the actions of the governmental police during the aftermath of these events.”
The discussion began with a presentation, “Motley’s Law: Fighting for Justice in Wauwatosa,” by Motley, who is interested in supporting an investigation of the Wauwatosa Police Department by the U.S. Department of Justice. Motley has been examining the various incidents, particularly in regard to the protests this summer.
“Trying to stifle freedom of speech because you don’t like what people are saying is something that I’ve experienced in authoritarian regimes that I’ve worked in,” she said. “I find it disappointing but in a weird way familiar some of these issues I’ve been working with in Wauwatosa.”
Motley expressed her belief that the police overstepped their bounds and violated constitutional rights where the protestors were concerned.
Smith of the Peoples Revolution was among the protestors this past summer.
“People have the right to freedom of speech, which actually gives us the right to freedom of protest. But in Wauwatosa it’s deemed an illegal action,” Smith said.
Law enforcement abuses their power, Smith said. Smith has personally been ticketed for failing to disperse, disorderly conduct – he was having his hair braided – and more. A lot of times, the police fail to issue a proper warning and go straight to using tear gas and mace, he said.
When the police show up in riot gear, protesters have taken to chanting “Why are you in riot gear? We don’t see a riot here.”
In some cases, he’s received tickets he didn’t know were issued.
According to Valdez, a member of the National Guild Lawyers Milwaukee chapter and criminal defense attorney, bogus arrests aren’t that uncommon.
“You come to a point in your legal career where you see these injustices occurring on a day-to-day basis and after a short period of time you start to get fairly jaded,” Valdez said. “You start to see cops, prosecutors misrepresenting facts, lying and it’s approved by the judges.”
A person will be ‘ticketed’ but they won’t receive a notice. The failure to notice will turn into a fine and the next time they’re pulled over, that information will show up and they’ll be arrested.
As Motley pointed out in her presentation, there are people who believe they are above the law.
“I have no problem fighting against people in Wauwatosa who I believe think they’re above the rule of law and are using their positions as a means a weapon to abuse the powerless,” she said.
Motley explained that she fights for justice from the inside out, that is using the law in the way that she believes it was intended to be used. She joined the fight for justice in Wauwatosa after the deaths of Alvin Cole, Jay Anderson and Antonio Gonzales by Wauwatosa Officer Joseph Mensah.
Mensah has never been criminally prosecuted for his actions, and Motley believes he should be.
During her presentation, Motley explained the history of Wauwatosa’s police department and how the issues seen today have been present for a while. Department’s actions include “ghost arrests”, fake tickets, racist “Martin Luther King” parties and more.
“What happened in the past has seeped into present day,” Motley said, explaining that the low ranked officers back then are now the leaders.
There is a clear targeting of Black and brown people by the Wauwatosa Police Department, she said. For example, in 2018, 83% of the arrests were Black or African American, 16% were white and 1% identified as other. The Black population in Wauwatosa is about 5%.
Motley also examined the unlawful fines protestors and others have received, the failure to comply to open records regulations, the lack of the annual report and more.
“We all have the power to make change and I hope we can do that together,” Motley said.
The full presentation can be found on the Milwaukee Turners Facebook Page under the name “Justice in Wauwatosa.”