About 30 leaders in Madison’s black community came together at the Urban League of Greater Madison this morning with a heightened sense of urgency to talk about the disturbing video of the Madison Police Department violently arresting 18-year-old Genele Laird.

“I thought the video was brutal,” said Greg Jones, the president of the NAACP Dane County Branch. “I thought it was beyond excessive. That’s brutality.”

The video shows the 120-pound Laird, being overwhelmed by two Madison police officers including absorbing five mixed-martial arts-style knees to the ribs, a punch, and at least seven shots with a Taser.

Gloria Ladson-Billings, an education professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said that one of the essential challenges for her is: What is acceptable police practice for apprehending someone?

“I’ve seen drug dealers not get that type of treatment. Essentially, I thought that the protocol was that you try to de-escalate,” she said. “She’s standing still when they come up to her. I see a police officer charging towards her and then there’s a takedown. I don’t seem to understand what police procedures for apprehension are. This just seemed out of bounds.”

Genele Laird
Genele Laird

Boys and Girls Club of Dane County President and CEO Michael Johnson said that he was in constant contact with the family and they were very upset. “That video … when I watched it … it’s brutal,” he said.

Black leaders shared concerns that the police officers never told Laird she was under arrest. Many more were concerned that they had daughters that were that very same age and also that this was a situation where they victim could be further victimized. “The CCAP system is just omnipresent and the most heinous thing going,” said Dr. Floyd Rose, president of the 100 Black Men of Madison. “Because after all of this is done, that girl will never be able to get a student loan, a decent job, an apartment. Once you’re into that system, you cannot get out of it.”

“The most important thing right now for us as a community is to figure out how to address her charges. She has been charged with four felonies which means that her life is over based upon her getting beat up,” said Young Gifted and Black (YGB) leader Brandi Grayson. “This is huge. This is – again – one of those symbols of how Madison police treat our children and where our 11-to-1 [black-to-white] arrests come from. How they can dupe up charges to protect themselves and not only that, they can go on to Facebook and delete all of the videos and call it ‘illegal’?
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“This is serious. This is big. She could have died,” Grayson added. “This little girl was yelling from the beginning that he touched her and all I kept seeing in my head was my foster children who respond the same way when you try to restrain them because all of their trauma and PTSD and all of the hurt that’s been caused by all of the adults in their lives. Four grown adult men end up sitting on this 100-pound girl … something’s wrong.”

The official police incident report says that Laird had confronted a Taco Bell employee about an allegedly stolen phone, displayed a knife and threatened the employee. After security responded, police said Laird refused to leave, made threats to kill security staff and fought with a responding MPD officer, spitting in his face and kicking and scratching him.

The video has received thousands of views and showed a Madison police officer kneeing Laird in the stomach several times, taking her down to the ground, striking her in the torso with his fist and using a Taser on her abdomen and one of her legs. Laird repeatedly exclaimed “I can’t breathe” before a white “spit hood” was placed over her head.

Leaders expressed dismay that the media has grabbed onto a totally different narrative than what they feel transpired, expressing particular dismay that media is emphasizing that the two police officers went to the hospital. Many wondered if the officer hurt his knee striking the girl in the stomach.

“Maybe he hurt his fist punching her in the ribs?” asked Florenzo Cribbs, a leader in the Allied Drive area, sarcastically.

Folks at the table were dismayed that the police clearly knew they were on tape assaulting the young woman and seemed to not care.

“We need community control over the police,” said YGB’s Eric Upchurch. “We can’t play with this anymore. Somebody is going to die. Somebody has died,” he said, referring to Tony Robinson who was shot and killed by Madison Police officer Matt Kenney last year.

Annette Miller, emerging markets and community development director for Madison Gas & Electric (MGE), said she was about both action and looking at process. “I think what really angered me and disgusted me was that there had been all kinds of work being done with the police,” she said. “What was flagrantly apparent was that it just didn’t mean anything. I think for me, personally, we do need to be in solidarity as we move forward.”

One City Early Learning Center CEO Kaleem Caire said there was a troubling absence of leadership from the police department. “I haven’t heard anything from the mayor on this issue at all,” Caire said. “He should be the first one at the table. We need to hear from [Dane County District Attorney] Ismael [Ozanne]. We need to hear from the chairman of the City Council. Somebody needs to speak up about this. It can’t be just us all the time. They are the ones who are lacking leadership.”

Caire acknowledged that Ozanne “cannot speak up yet as DA” because the case is pending, but that Ozanne was open to meeting with community leaders.

The bottom line of the meeting was that action was needed. Urgently.

“The problem with everything from Trayvon Martin down is that after it loses its luster in the media, it goes away,” Cribbs said. “That fire needs to stay because most of the time we don’t worry about things until it’s on our doorstep … and that’s the problem. We need to get back to it, and stick with it.”

“Until we begin to use the laws that are here to protect us, nothing is every going to change … they will just bide their time til the next incident,” Caire added.