By U.S. Rep. Bryan Steil (R-Janesville)
In a flurry of articles this past week, Gov. Tony Evers, his administration, and local partisans have launched a concerted effort to sugarcoat what the governor did and did not do before, during, and after the riots. But, if you want to get to the truth of what Tony Evers did that week, all you need to do is look at his own words.
On Aug. 23, just hours after the shooting of Jacob Blake, but before rioting occurred, Evers issued the following statement: “Tonight, Jacob Blake was shot in the back multiple times, in broad daylight, in Kenosha, Wisconsin.” He continued “(w)hile we do not have all of the details yet, what we know for certain is that he is not the first Black man or person to have been shot or injured or mercilessly killed at the hands of individuals in law enforcement in our state or our country.” Those were Governor Evers’ incendiary written words in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. Without the facts, he immediately put the shooting in the context of race and insinuated this was a merciless act.
Evers’ statement and his public comments in the days that followed were so offensive and so dangerous that the heads of the Wisconsin Sheriffs’ Associations and Police Chiefs’ Association sent a letter to the governor. The letter urges Evers to “refrain from making statements specific to Kenosha” because they put the lives of law enforcement officers and the public at risk. Stop and think about that. The organizations representing the Sheriffs and the Police Chiefs of this state banded together to tell our governor to stop talking about Kenosha because his words put lives in danger.
Evers also wants us to forget his failure to ask for federal help.Today, Evers defenders repeat the mantra that the Evers Administration filled “all requests for assistance we received via official channels.” That bit of bureaucratic word parsing may fool some, but we know what it means. They put in the bare minimum effort. What that meant was 125 Wisconsin National Guard troops on Aug. 24, and 125 more on Aug 25 — two days after the riots started. Those numbers were far short of what was needed. With Evers’ lack of urgency, National Guard troops from other states did not arrive for days.
We are talking about life and death events playing out on our streets, yet the response sounds like something you would get from the DMV for failing to check a box on a form. In a crisis we expect more from our leaders. Forget “requests received via official channels.” The governor needed to turn on a TV, check his iPhone, or, heaven forbid, get out of Madison and come to Kenosha to see what was really needed on the ground. It took Tony Evers four days to even come to the city.
We will never know how things may have played out if Evers acted differently on day one. If Evers had responsibly toned down the rhetoric and demanded calm. If Evers called for a detailed and thorough investigation of the shooting. If Evers made clear that the streets of Kenosha would immediately have all the aid necessary to maintain order. What we do know is that Evers chose the opposite path, throwing rhetorical gasoline on the fire.
And, we know what happened next.
Two days later, Aug. 25, Evers’ words were even worse. Earlier that day, city and county leaders, as well as local law enforcement officials, made an urgent call to me asking for assistance. As a federal official, it was obvious they were seeking federal help, but really, they were looking for any help they could get. Knowing what was happening in Kenosha, and hearing their urgency, I called the White House and asked to speak with President Trump. The president took my call. He explained that Governor Evers had not asked for help, but promised to offer federal assistance to Kenosha.
Shortly after that call, the president reached out to the governor. Shockingly, Evers refused the help. The direct quote from Evers’ office that day said they “would not need federal assistance in response to protests, but would welcome additional federal support and resources for our state’s response to COVID-19.”
Hours after that refusal of federal help, two people died on the streets of Kenosha. No doubt recognizing his failure, the next day the governor finally relented and accepted help. I remember hearing the news while meeting with local leaders in the city of Kenosha that afternoon. The same day, the governor made an Emergency Management Assistance Compact to bring in National Guard from other states. Predictably, the unrest then died down quickly, coming more than a little too late for many.
As I joined the Civic Veterans Parade, it was great seeing so many celebrating our community. Although a few buildings still have boards up, the Kenosha we know and love is coming back. The people of Kenosha are moving forward, and there are signs of progress in shops, storefronts, and homes. It is a testament to the spirit of community we have here.
For me, it is frustrating to see some of the very same local officials who reached out to me seeking help now playing partisan politics by spinning facts to cover for Evers. I give Evers credit for what he did do. Evers recognized his tragic mistake and reversed course, helping bring the unrest to an end and ensuring Kenosha did not become the next Portland. But if we are to do a legitimate assessment of what went wrong, we need to be honest, look at Evers’ words and actions, and work to ensure what happened in Kenosha can never happen in Wisconsin again.