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‘I Can’t Breathe’: Madison erupts in riots after a peaceful protest supporting BLM

"I can't breathe" spray-painted on the ground near the Capitol.
12:29 p.m.

"I can't breathe" spray-painted on the ground near the Capitol.

12:29 p.m.

Image By: Nathan Denzin

 "I cant breathe", a motto of the BLM movement was one of the first things spray-painted yesterday

It was supposed to be a peaceful protest. 

And, for about six hours, it was — and then it was not.

One of the protests organizers led chants as East Washington was taken over.

1:57 p.m.

Thousands turned out at the capitol to peacefully protest issues that plague the Black community of America — from police brutality in the deaths of Minneapolis man George Floyd and Madison man Tony Robinson, to mass incarceration of people of color in Dane County prisons. For five and a half hours the protesters marched from the Wisconsin Capitol to Williamson Street and back, holding signs and chanting.

The protest marched all the way from the capital to Williamson Street, back to the capital for this dramatic moment.

4:13 p.m.

At about 6 p.m. violence erupted on State Street. From what I gathered from eyewitnesses, a group of about 150 people continued to march down State Street, where a few picked up rocks. When they made it to the bottom of State, they were met by a full SWAT police team.

According to multiple eyewitnesses, police then began to fire tear gas and mace into the crowd, igniting violence from both sides.

After the first round of tear gas, protesters with rocks began to smash the window of Goodman’s Jewelers located on the 200 block of State, and looted the business.

I arrived on scene after the jewelry store was looted, and walked into a dystopian-looking cityscape. Police dropped at least five tear gas canisters on protesters at the end of State Street, and mass panic took over. People were running for their lives, and I witnessed many people with immediate over-exposure to the gas.


After the initial tear gas was dropped, the Police SWAT team began to move up State Street.

6:26 p.m.

Nobody was safe from the gas — within five minutes of being there, I was exposed to an incredible amount of tear gas from police — which only intensified violence from protesters.

At this point, the SWAT team had fully formed at the bottom of State and began to move up — using mostly mace, tear gas and high-pressure hoses to contain protestors. 

SWAT Police with tear gas canisters firing behind them. 6:32 p.m.

As the group moved towards the capitol, the SWAT team tear gassed famous Madison street performer Paul Schlosser, which nearly led to a very violent conflict between four SWAT officers and a mob.


Iconic Madison street performer Art Paul Schlosser was hit nearly directly with tear gas, which nearly led to a mob attacking four SWAT officers. CREDIT TO DYLAN BROGAN 6:36 p.m.

It only got worse from there.

Police began to let the gas fly as protesters fought back with equal violence. They started to flip large ceramic potted plants into the street to block police vehicle access to a region where a majority of protesters were congregated. 

The SWAT team had moved all the way up State and formed a circle at the very top. While a portion of the team stayed near the capitol to form a police stronghold, another group began to push protesters back down State.


Four protesters, three of them white, kneel in front of SWAT officers to keep them from pushing forward any further. 7:14 p.m.

A Peaceful Protest Gone Wrong

The original protest was intended to be strictly non-violent. Organizers made it a huge point that nobody disrespected any property or people. 

They just wanted voices heard. 

Tony Robinson's sister, who was front and center at the rally, begged protesters to let police be.


Then she was sprayed, despite trying to protect police. I wasn't able to get a clear look at what she was sprayed with, but it was either mace or a high-powered hose.

Near the Capitol, protesters began to move nearby construction fences to completely enclose police officers in their positions.


Protesters fence in the SWAT team to create a physical barrier between the two sides. 8:05 p.m.

Police officers didn’t take kindly to this, and sprayed the crowd again with mace, which led to a lot more items — and even what looked like a three-foot solid metal pole — being thrown at police.

The violence only escalated further from there. The cyclical pattern of windows on bus stops and businesses being smashed led to more mace and tear gas.

A man stands alone in front of SWAT officers after a large dose of mace was used on a crowd. 7:51 p.m.

Around 9:30 p.m., the violence only continued to escalate. I decided it was in my best interest to leave the area before anything escalated further — and partially because my face had been burning for hours.

Things only got progressively worse as a cop car was driven down the road and set on fire by protesters. Massive looting of any and all businesses ensued on State, and other businesses located off of State like Riley’s Wines of the World liquor store on W. Gorham Street were hit.


By the end of the night a majority of businesses were hit or ransacked, or both. Once businesses were empty, protesters mostly left of their own accord, and the riot on State Street came to a close.

A Long Road to Recovery

Early Sunday morning, thousands signed up to help clean State Street — and many turned out. Madison police reported that 75 businesses were looted, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars in property damage and stolen merchandise. 

People helped clean up the broken glass and wash away the graffiti that painted many walls. 

However, it will be a long road for the businesses to recover.

People helping clean State Street early Sunday morning.

This situation is still ongoing, and more will come in the following days.




Writer’s Note: I am not insinuating that police started this riot. There is simply not enough information available at this time to say.

Second, it is still unclear why a police cruiser was left unprotected. There was a lot of tear gas thrown for less offenses, and a lot of officers were on the scene. However, the AR-15 stolen out of the vehicle was ripped out of its safety lock by multiple people, which is something officers could not have foreseen.

Last, it isn’t lost on me I am a white journalist covering a protest for African American and POC rights. There is no way I can pretend to understand everything they are put through each and every day.

That being said, in the words of a chant that was used often in the protest, “White silence is violence.” The most important thing people like me, and who look like me can do is to continue to speak out against injustices we see in our country. Support Black-owned businesses, and donate to funds that help fight for POCs.

Here’s a non-exhaustive list of funds you can donate to right now to help.

The Minnesota Freedom Fund

Free the 350 Bail Fund

Black Visions Collective

The Bail Project

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