Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway delivered a private video message to Madison police officers late last week, expressing sympathy for their plight during many days of protests against systemic racism and thanking them for their service. She apologized in a statement Wednesday after the video became public.
“It must be absolutely infuriating to stand in a heavy gear outside while listening to people constantly insult your chosen profession,” she said in the video. “It must be frightening to stand and have rocks and other things thrown at you, and to be in harm’s way constantly. It must be agonizing to have worked so hard for so many years to build relationships around our city, to be as committed as I know you are to community policing, and to still be criticized for not doing enough.”
In the video, Rhodes-Conway acknowledged the difficulty of communication in a large organization during trying times.
“I’m here talking to you today because I have come to realize that I have not taken the opportunity to express my gratitude for your service, or to adequately acknowledge the personal and collective sacrifices that you each have made during these incredibly challenging times,” she said. “I was so focused on the task of addressing the concerns of our community that I didn’t remember that you need and deserve both recognition and appreciation.”
The video was originally posted to a password-protected section of the city’s website available only to city employees. It was leaked Tuesday evening and posted to a local pro-police Facebook group, whose members expressed frustration that she did not express support for the police more publicly.
Black Lives Matter activists and protesters, who have staged demonstrations daily for more than a week following the May 25 killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, expressed frustration and outrage over the video.
“Does this sound like a woman you can trust to create the job description for the police Auditor and supervise the Auditor?” asks a post by the local education and advocacy group Urban Triage, which has led many of the protests. “Does this sound like a woman that understands why Black people and white allies across the country keep showing up and out? Does this sound like a woman that has what it takes to DO right by the community? By Black people?”
The addition of a police auditor was one of the recommendations of an ad-hoc committee on public safety formed after the police shooting of Tony Robinson in 2015. Rhodes-Conway pledged to create the position when she addressed protesters when they shut down John Nolen Drive last week.
Many on social media felt the tone of the video contradicted Rhodes-Conway’s public stance in support of protesters.
“I’m not here to tell anyone how to express their anger, particularly not Black people, who have been harmed for centuries and are legitimately angry. I am here to support Black leadership in our community,” she said in a press conference on May 31, the morning after the first protests and first night of property damage. “If you are angry about property damage, be more angry about the unjustified deaths of Black people. Property can be repaired, but we can’t bring people back to life. If you are angry about looting, be more angry about the systemic disinvestment in Black communities over decades and centuries.”
Rhodes-Conway symbolically took a knee with police officers and other community leaders last Wednesday.
“It’s disheartening and disgusting to be quite honest with you,” defense attorney Johsua Hargrove said in an interview Wednesday. Hargrove is a former prosecutor who has participated in protests. “She de-legitimized an entire group of people’s pursuit of equity to cater to the sentiment of officers.”
Later in the three-and-half minute video, which seems to feature a pre-written statement, Rhodes-Conway said, “I spoke with an officer in the (City County Building) garage recently, who said that they hoped I know how hard it is, and that you are not what the protesters say you are. I know that. I know that you are working hard and doing an amazing job under unbelievably hard circumstances, and I thank you for your service.”
“I didn’t hear (protesters) say anything about (Madison police) specifically,” Hargrove said. “As one does in a movement, you critique the agency collectively.”
Hargrove said the video statement amplifies divisions.
“It created this us-them dichotomy, to quickly make the protesters the other, which is what has been happening to black and marginalized folks since Genesis,” he said. “So she’s just basically amplified the problem, but then she basically tells them every criticism you’re hearing is incorrect. And that’s why I say she de-legitimized everyone’s pursuit of equity just in her words.”
In a statement Wednesday, Rhodes-Conway apologized.
“Black lives matter. I believe deeply in this and yet I failed to center this in my message to the police department. I realize that this action has done deep harm to the Black community and for this, I apologize,” she said in a written statement emailed to Madison365. “I realize I may have done irreparable harm with my actions. I realize too that I may have permanently lost any trust I may have had. But whether or not I regain trust, know that I am deeply committed to advancing the work of equitable systems change. It’s why I ran for office, and it is the work that I will strive to do. I cannot promise that I will not make missteps along the way as a White woman learning how to facilitate such change, realizing that I cannot fully see the system that has been built up to benefit me and others like me. But I can promise that I will learn from those mistakes and I will strive to center equity in every decision.”
It’s not clear when the video was originally posted, though its existence was known on social media late last week. Madison365 requested to view the video, which is subject to open records law, on Friday, but did not receive a response until today, when the mayor’s office provided the mayor’s apology.