Open Letter About My Experience at the August 24th Black Lives Matter March

Eric Schultz // Sep 1, 2020

As requested by multiple Appleton City Council members, I sent the following statement to the Council and Appleton Mayor Jake Woodford. I believe it's important for this information to be made public so I am publishing it here.

I was requested by a few council members to share my deep concern and frustration at how the Appleton Police Department handled the protest last Monday, August 24 as well as their misleading statement on Facebook describing the protests.

I was at the protest in Houdini Plaza at 5:30 on Monday, August 24. APD was accurate that the protest was entirely non-violent from the protester’s side as the march started. What the APD failed to mention in their statement is that there were disruptive actions by those outside of the protest march which may rise to the level of criminality. First, the statement neglects to mention that during the rally at Houdini Plaza, a large, clearly intoxicated white man walked up to the the organizer of the rally while she was speaking, stepped onto the ledge she was standing on and requested to be able to speak. Myself, along with a number of other protestors rushed to get onto the ledge between this man and the organizer to non-violently request he stop harassing the organizer and that it would be best for him to leave. Additionally, after the march began, a man in a pickup truck drove into the march on College Avenue near the Performing Arts Center. Fortunately, this incident was at a low speed. During this incident, we could see that it looked like an APD squad car was blocking off traffic for safety. The fact that man in a truck was able to attempt to commit assault with a deadly weapon when the APD was watching and appearing to block traffic is very worrisome. I would like to think this was simple incompetence on the part of the officer but I can’t be sure. At this point, I got the sense that other marchers felt even more strongly that the police were not going to assist if protestors were attacked.

As the march continued, we reached the Kwik Trip on Richmond St. At this point, I was near the back of the march and noticed a disturbance towards the front. Unsure whether there was a danger to marchers, I moved towards the front of the march and saw a scuffle involving a white gentleman with a beard. Realizing this could quickly escalate, I immediately ran in front of this gentleman and stood my arms up in the air to separate him from the marchers. (I was not alone, a number of people did so). This gentleman was clearly quite intoxicated and was incredibly difficult to communicate with. I along with others worked to deescalate the situation and encouraged the rest of the marchers to continue on . Most did while I and others stayed behind to try to calm the gentleman.

As the marchers left, there were some heated but completely verbal arguments with this gentleman and he continued to spit blood in my face as he yelled. I discussed repeatedly with him that I would personally replace the things that were lost which he said included a liquor bottle and a hat. In fact, at one point I told him I would buy him two bottles of liquor in an attempt to calm him down. I wanted to help him realize that the scuffle seemed to be a misunderstanding. After all, protesters were attacked twice without APD or city assistance and it was clear everyone seemed pretty on edge (I certainly know I was). I tried to reason with him and get him to understand my goal here was to protest police brutality and racism, not to harm him. As far as I could tell, that was what everyone at the march wanted.

During this entire disturbance which lasted over five minutes, an Appleton Police Officer sat in his squad car about a block away and did literally nothing. He clearly saw the incident but sat there. There were protestors literally waving towards him to come and address the situation. While I can’t speak for what others felt, it seemed like the APD simply didn’t care whether people illegally interfered with a lawful protest and endangered public safety.

After over five minutes, most of the protestors had moved on and there might have been 10 or 20 marchers left at the corner. I was continuing my conversation with the gentleman and I think most of the people left were there for my safety. At this point, I noticed behind this gentleman that an unmarked van pulled up and, I think, four men in fatigues, combat gear and what looked like tear gas guns jumped out. Given the conflict earlier in the march, I took a step towards the men with my arms up as I had literally no clue who they were.  My immediate concern was that these were counter protestors wanting to start a violent confrontation and I wanted to provide a non-violent but unmistakable sign that a disruption would not be acceptable. These men did not have identifiable badges from the front or an insignia I could see in the few seconds I noticed them. While the APD statement indicates that there was insignia on their arm and on their back, they were not immediately obvious to anyone on the scene. Additionally, an insignia on the back of an officer is totally useless for identification when the officers are walking towards you. From my point of view, I saw heavily armed men jump out of an unmarked van about 20 feet away from me and start walking towards me.

They immediately walked up to me and one firmly pushed me out of the way, guided the drunk gentleman who I was trying to deescalate back to their van and left. At no point did they identify who they were. They literally said one word to me: “Move”. I was in shock. It was like a secret police grabbed a man and disappeared him. While politically I disagreed with this gentleman, I was horrified that I had no idea if he was being kidnapped or arrested and had no idea who took him. Should I call the police and report a kidnapping? I had no idea.

Over the last day, the APD confirmed that these were APD SWAT team members, which was not obvious if you were there. Other witnesses were baffled by this and had no clue what happened. I want to express in the firmest terms possible: this stunt on the part of the APD was embarrassingly incompetent. Please consider: this was a march where angry counter protestors had already interfered with and attempted to harm marchers. During this situation, all of a sudden, unidentifiable heavily armed men drive up to the march. For all anyone could have known, these men could have been heavily armed white supremacists, not law enforcement. Indeed, given the terrorist attack on protestors in Kenosha, it should be patently obvious why this action could be perceived as such. Not only did this stunt endanger protestors, it undoubtedly endangered the officers in question.

I would like to remind the recipients that Wisconsin is a concealed carry state. Individuals have a clear right to defend themselves from attackers. If you can’t tell the heavily armed, unmarked men are police, do you realize there is a significant risk of a misunderstanding and individuals engaging in self-defense? Perhaps most maddening about the action on the part of the police is that it was totally unnecessary. Any risk of violence had long since passed as most of the marchers had moved on. Additionally, from a pure community relations standpoint, how could anyone at the APD think that paramilitaries jumping out of an unmarked van is ever acceptable? Does the APD have any concern for public safety? That stunt could have gotten a lot of people injured or even killed if it had gone badly and it was very possible that it could have. It was unnecessary, unwise and bordering on negligent on the part of the APD decision-makers.

All of this leads me to my concerns about the APD’s entirely untrustworthy statement released last Tuesday, August 25. In it, they are clearly referring to the incident I was involved in and explained that they extracted a man who “was being assaulted” by protestors. I’d like to note the specific tense there. “Was being assaulted” implies an attack was occurring at the time he was extracted. This is a total and complete falsehood. He was in absolutely no danger or risk, the protest had moved on. I was de-escalating the situation and while there were still a few arguments, there were no acts of violence occurring. I would know, I was literally two viral videos shared on Facebook talking with the man (I’m the short chubby white guy, with a Bucks face mask, glasses and long curly hair in a ponytail) and deescalating. If you watch the first video, you will see for at least the last three minutes of the video, there were heated arguments and shouting but not a single assault. There is a second video that shows the SWAT team is pulling up to the corner. In this you can see that an assault is not occurring and I am continuing my work at deescalating and the gentleman is led away. While there is a break between the two videos, the only thing that occurred there were arguments and deescalation. There are multiple witnesses who were at the scene who can verify that and I’d assume the gentlemen himself could as well.

Under no reasonable interpretation can one describe those videos as showing that a gentleman “was being assaulted” at the time of his extraction. Not only is it inaccurate, the phrasing is extremely prejudicial on the part of the APD. Given the description released by the APD and the fact that a SWAT team was used, I believe an average member of the public would assume something along the lines of a lynch mob occurred which is wildly inaccurate. Given that the protest is dealing with patterns of police brutality and the result of that protest might affect how the APD, it appears that APD is looking to engage in political gamesmanship with their statement, not to accurately inform the public about the facts of the situation. It was slanderous to the protestors and, given the tension around these marches, it will give comfort to the hateful, violent instigators who already endangered marchers on Monday. One can read the APD’s Facebook comment feed to see that those who want to harm protestors were encouraged by this statement. I can only hope that it won’t incite instigators looking to commit terrorist acts against protestors like what happened in Kenosha.

Not only was the APD’s false statement that a gentleman “was being assaulted” slanderous to protestors as a whole, it’s slanderous to me individually. On the videos above, I am clearly identifiable as the closest person to the gentleman for at least five minutes before his extraction. In fact, I’ve had multiple people ask me if I was involved in the protests because they saw me on video. Given that there is a gap in the videos and that people quite possibly watched only a portion of the video, one could easily identify me and then read the APD statement and assume *I* assaulted this man. There is almost no other conclusion a person could make. If I’m clearly identifiable as the closest person to a man about to be extracted, and he was extracted because he “WAS BEING assaulted”, then I would have HAD to have been assaulting him. I have a reputation as having a strong philosophy of nonviolence. To have the APD imply I committed an assault, when I’m the only one in a public video who was consistently near the alleged victim, is an affront to my character and my reputation. I didn’t deserve that and the other protestors didn’t deserve these kind of malicious innuendos and blatant falsehoods shared about them.

Taking into account the context of the the entire situation, it’s incredibly insulting to have the city of Appleton not have a way to address minor disturbances other than with a SWAT team, for members of the public needing to personally jump in and deescalate these disturbances since there is no authority qualified, willing or able to do so, to have blood spit on my face during a pandemic from a heavily intoxicated man you neglected to deescalate, to have unknown paramilitary-style men drive up to myself and a small crowd, for those SWAT team members to assault me by pushing me out of the way, for that SWAT team to drag a man into an unmarked van without identifying themselves and then, after 24 hours, slander myself and other protestors publicly by implying I committed an assault despite public video to the contrary. This slander is indicative of much bigger problems in the APD: consider that after 24 hours to cool their heads, think about their words, make sure to get the right tone and analyze what happened, despite all of that, the APD didn’t even get basic statements of fact correct. It illustrates how untrustworthy this department is and should taint their claims about every other accusation they made about Monday’s events.

To be clear, this is not about me. But please do consider that I’m a person with a great deal of privilege and consider how that informs your oversight of the APD. I’m a well-to-do white male software developer. I know multiple people on the city council personally and have every advantage possible in life and I was trying to stop violence from occurring. If they’ll slander me, if they’ll assault me despite checking plenty of society’s boxes for being a “good guy”, I ask you “who won’t they do this to?” The video provably shows the Appleton Police Department is misleading you and the rest of the public and engaging in overly aggressive policing which clearly violate your high expectations and the public’s expectations. In part because of this and other incidents, it is abundantly clear the APD has no credibility to deescalate conflict in Appleton without causing more conflict.

This is a fundamental issue when it comes to public safety in Appleton. I have strong suspicions as to why the police didn’t intervene when people disrupted the march. I believe that they felt that having a police officer run into an anti-police brutality march was likely to escalate the situation even further. That may very well be true. Because of that, the police did nothing and marchers were endangered by outside actors and it led to a more volatile situation around the march. The only action left in the APD’s book of tricks was to use MORE force by using a SWAT team. If you really look at the facts around the APD, you’ll realize this is not a one-time issue. The APD does not have credibility or trust with large portions of the public. Because of that, public safety is endangered.

I ask you: if a police department isn’t able to deescalate conflict, reduce harm and increase public safety in so many situations, what is the point of giving them such a large portion of the city’s funding? I wholeheartedly support the voices of Black, brown and indigenous people of color who are demanding that the Appleton Police Department be managed by a fully empowered, independent citizen oversight board. Any residual confidence I had in this police department to oversee itself is destroyed by the shameful, embarrassing and malicious behavior of the APD and their leadership. The only reasonable response to these continual problems is for this council to create a meaningful, fully empowered, independent, credible citizen oversight board for the Appleton Police Department. This oversight board must have the authority to set and review department policy, hire and fire police department leadership and to discipline or dismiss officers who violate policy set by this board.The board being appointed this Tuesday is simply too weak to meet the necessity of the moment. It’s a far cry from what is needed.

Credible peacemakers could have deescalated the conflicts caused by counter protestors during Monday’s rally and march. Instead, the APD SWAT team responded with an overwhelming show of force when it wasn’t close to being needed. Credible peacemakers could rebuild what appears to be a fundamentally broken relationship between the city and Appleton’s minority community. The Appleton Police Department no matter how much spin they want to provide, no matter how often they kneel with protestors one month while harming them the next, no matter its training will ever be able to rebuild that relationship given its current responsibilities and providing primary oversight for its own actions.

If, after this last incident, you on the city council and city government are unwilling to create an independent, empowered police oversight board, you are admitting you are wholly unprepared for the future of Appleton. You will have decided that eventually Appleton will become another name on the national news like Minneapolis or Kenosha. You will have proven that despite being able to see the failures of other cities to address their police department’s behavior, Appleton wasn’t able to learn and improve. You will have proven that the companies who relocated to Appleton, like the one I work for, who relocated because it was allegedly inclusive and dynamic, were sold a bill of goods.

Prove that Black Lives Matter in Appleton. Find a better way forward for the Appleton Police Department.


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