The Madison-Rafah Sister City Project

The police brought violence to UW-Madison’s Gaza encampment


A photo shows a close view of the face of Samer Alatout, who has blood on his forehead coming from a small cut and on his glasses. UW-Madison’s Library Mall and surrounding buildings are visible in the background.
UW-Madison professor Samer Alatout spoke with reporters on Library Mall after police hit him in the face with riot shields and arrested him. Video still prepared by Steven Spoerl.

Wednesday morning’s crackdown included brutal attacks on protestors, arrests without charges, and a dubious narrative.

Perhaps it was an example of progressive policing or Madison-centric policing or the “Madison Model.” In any case, a pro-Palestine encampment protest on UW-Madison’s Library Mall got through two overwhelmingly peaceful days and nights—full of speeches, chants, praying, reading, sharing food, card games, and studying—before police violently attempted to break it up on Wednesday morning. 

A bit before 7 a.m., officers began ordering protestors to remove their tents, then began moving to tear down tents themselves, and arresting some of the protestors who refused to leave. Over the next two hours, dozens of officers from the UW-Madison Police Department, Madison Police Department, Dane County Sheriff’s Office, and Wisconsin State Patrol—many equipped with riot shields and some with tear-gas launchers—pressed in on the holdouts. At times the cops had groups of protestors more or less fully surrounded, essentially trapping the very people they were ordering to disperse. 

What I witnessed on Wednesday morning was pretty unambiguous: Police manhandling community members (including UW-Madison faculty and students) who peacefully stood their ground, refusing to voluntarily break up an encampment that UW-Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin could have allowed but chose not to. Some of those arrested had locked arms to form a protective circle around the remaining tents, a group that included faculty members who wanted to protect students from arrest and police violence. 

The tactics police used on the crowd Wednesday morning included: slamming protestors with riot shields, in some cases knocking them to the ground; bodily crawling on top of a protestor who struggled while being handcuffed; similarly piling onto protestors who didn’t resist arrest; grabbing and shoving people by the neck to wrestle them to the ground; and the general escalatory overkill of sending in a large number of cops to break up a nonviolent gathering.

Police and UW-Madison administrators are already working to craft a narrative that makes all of this look like an unfortunate but reasonable necessity: the protest violated a rule that prohibits camping on university property, people had a chance to comply before being arrested, and then officers had no choice. The statements UWPD and Mnookin issued on Wednesday morning made no mention of the force police used or the injuries they caused to protestors. UWPD’s statement claims that four officers were injured, that some of the people arrested resisted arrest, and that “Protesters pushed toward officers at times becoming confrontational, resulting in several arrests.” The press and public should take all of this with a grain of salt: Police often use charges of resisting arrest or “battery of a law enforcement officer” to justify violent and legally unsound arrests.

UWPD’s justifications paint the situation with a disingenuous and broad brush. They certainly do not describe most of the arrests I witnessed. Police attacked and arrested people who were not attacking or “confronting” them. The only people I saw pushing toward officers were people facing an advancing riot line, surrounded by an outer circle of officers; at that point they physically didn’t have many options beyond pushing back to stay upright. I did see a couple of people try to get away from the cops, but I didn’t see anyone trying to hit officers or throw anything at them.

On Wednesday afternoon, UWPD said in an update that officers had arrested a total of 34 people and that “A majority of those arrested were released with no citation issued.” The update details criminal charges against four people but does not name them. These figures from UWPD itself cast doubt on how many of these arrests were necessary or lawful, by anyone’s standards.

Bizarrely, Mnookin’s statement tries to pay mealy-mouthed tribute to civil disobedience while still enjoying the impunity of the disobeyed: “Civil disobedience has been a time-honored tradition in our nation, including here. Yet it is a long-standing element of the civil disobedience tradition to respect the laws we share and to accept that there are consequences for violating them. It is this that distinguishes civil disobedience from mere lawlessness.”

Mnookin also wrote, in very general terms, that “There is a good deal of conversation on social media about this operation, some of it inaccurate.” At no point does this statement go on to say what, specifically, is inaccurate. Surely some of the chatter out there is inaccurate, given the nature of social media. But when people complain about inaccuracy without providing any real details, it’s usually just feeble damage control.

The cops will have a harder time making their narrative stick than they did during the 2020 protests against police violence in Madison. During those protests, police and National Guard troops brutalized protestors with tear gas and generally helped things escalate into mayhem, and in several instances journalists directly witnessed police attacking people who were not doing anything violent (or illegal, apart from violating an arbitrary curfew). But those protests were massive and at times more chaotic; police at the time claimed they had to use violent tactics because people were breaking shop windows, looting businesses, and throwing rocks and bottles at riot cops. This week at Library Mall, they don’t have those excuses. The encampment hasn’t caused any property damage, hasn’t strewn the area with garbage (protestors have kept things remarkably clean), and hasn’t gotten large enough to deprive other people of access to a public space.

Police brutally arrested professors

Police on Wednesday arrested at least two UW-Madison professors, both of whom are among the most prominent and outspoken faculty involved in the protest: Sociology Professor Samer Alatout and gender and women’s studies professor Sami Schalk. (Full disclosure: Schalk is a freelance contributor to Tone Madison, where she writes the monthly Pleasure Practicescolumn. While Schalk wasn’t at the protest in a press capacity, she’s still our colleague. My colleagues and I on the staff of Tone Madison are currently drafting a separate statement about her arrest.) 

Alatout, who is Palestinian himself, says police targeted him specifically, before hitting him in the face several times with riot shields. Police released him shortly after his arrest and told him they’d issue him a citation. Alatout returned to Library Mall to give interviews with blood on his forehead and glasses. Here’s a video of my full interview with Alatout (I started recording right in the middle of a sentence, sorry; at the start, he’s talking about faculty’s sense of responsibility to protect students).

“They seemed particularly interested [in me], and so the officer was pointing to me and saying, ‘Grab him, grab him, we want him,’ and so they were after me,” Alatout told me. “That’s isolating me…it really isolates the only Palestinian professor, Palestinian-American professor, who is in defense of the group of students. I’m an advisor for a student group here, Students for Justice in Palestine, and [the police] targeted me for violence, and they targeted me specifically for violence. They did not come to me and say, ‘Come with me.’ They pushed me to the ground.”

Alatout was remarkably composed and on-message, and said he felt OK physically after police attacked him. But he made a pointed choice to make sure people saw the blood. “I told [police] I don’t want them to clean it, because, really, they have to face the fucking responsibility of what they did.”

A few minutes after talking with Alatout, I personally witnessed Schalk’s arrest. (Things were getting really chaotic at this point, but Schalk was easy to spot in a purple cardigan.) Police slammed into Schalk with riot shields from the front, and officers pulled her to the ground from behind. Four or five officers then got down on the ground to restrain and zip-tie Schalk’s hands behind her back. At this point I had a clearer view. Schalk was not struggling with the officers, much less fighting with them or attacking them. Again, let’s be clear: The police were manhandling her for engaging in an act of passive resistance. 

“A cop grabbed my dress & ripped it half off my body, injuring my arm,” Schalk said in a tweetafter being released about an hour later. “Another put his hands around my throat from behind to get me on the ground.”

Schalk sent me a video, taken by someone else in the crowd, that shows Schalk on her side on the ground. For several seconds, the video shows a clear view of a Wisconsin State Patrol officer grabbing Schalk’s neck from behind, seeming to almost pull up on her chin as she grimaces in pain. 

Schalk tells me that police never gave her a reason for the arrest.

“They released me, which implies no charges but I was told verbally if I returned to the protest site I would be arrested and charged,” Schalk says. “With what, who knows?”

This incident lends further credence to Alatout’s assertion that the police seem to be “singling out” people of color.

The first push

The encampment began on Monday morning, joining dozens of similar protests on campuses across the country in which students, faculty, staff, and community members have called on universities to divest from Israel and demand a permanent cease-fire in Gaza, among other demands. As Madison’s encampment entered its first night, protestors anxiously waited to see whether police would carry out the same brutal crackdowns and arrests that administrators have sanctioned at universities in other states over the past few weeks. Throughout Monday afternoon and evening, protestors speculated aloud that police would attack the encampment once all the TV news crews had packed up for the night. The encampment was not just peaceful but remarkably chill. The atmosphere tensed up only when organizers warned the crowd that police might be getting ready to move in.

UW-Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin, Dean of Students Christina Olstad, and UWPD Interim Chief Brent Plisch made their legal pretext for any police action clear, before the encampment even started. In a campus-wide email on Friday morning, Olstad and Plisch cited a section of the Wisconsin Administrative Code that prohibits camping on university property. They did not mention that this same section of the code gives the “chief administrative officer”—in this case, Mnookin—authority to authorize camping. The Daily Cardinal pointed this out in a story on Friday evening, but a UW-Madison spokesperson told the Cardinal that Mnookin had no plans to authorize the encampment. (Speaking of which, the student journalists at the Cardinal and The Badger Herald are doing absolutely phenomenal work covering this story.)

Mnookin and other top UW-Madison officials doubled down in a statement on Monday evening, writing that “Several tents were erected throughout the day in clear violation of Chapter 18 of the UW System Administrative Code.” They stated that they would consider protestors’ demands “[o]nce compliance with campus policy and state law has been achieved and tents have been removed from campus property,” again without mentioning the discretion Mnookin has to authorize camping.

For three local elected officials, the police got ugly well before moving to break up the encampment. A bit before 11 p.m. on Monday, reporters from The Daily Cardinal and The Badger Herald posted video and photos of a group of police officers from multiple agencies physically shoving District 2 Alder Juliana Bennett, District 8 Alder MGR Govindarajan, and District 2 County Supervisor Heidi Wegleitner out of the lobby of the Fluno Center.

As it turned out, the cops didn’t try to push out the campers Monday night or early Tuesday morning. During that time, UWPD didn’t step up its visible presence on Library Mall beyond a handful of officers standing at the periphery in regular patrol uniforms. But Bennett and Govindarajan say a lack of clear answers from police and UW-Madison administrators frustrated their efforts to deescalate the situation and ease tensions. 

“I made it clear [to campus administrators] that their email on Friday, I saw as something that was escalatory,” Govindarajan says. “It escalated the situation to a level that it did not need to. I understand that they’re in a tough predicament, because they have to enforce the laws. The state law says that there are no encampments allowed. The Chancellor has some discretion, which—it is her discretion. And she has chosen not to use it in that way.” 

Govindarajan headed to Library Mall on Monday morning as the encampment was getting started, and Bennett came to the protest around 6 p.m. Govindarajan’s District 8 includes most of the central campus. Bennett represented District 8 from 2021 to 2023, then ended up running successfully in neighboring District 2 after the latest round of Common Council redistricting. Both focused their efforts Monday on getting information about what organizers were planning to do and how campus administrators would respond. On Monday afternoon and evening, anyone at the protest might have crossed paths with either Alder as they circulated. They talked with on-site UWPD officers and representatives from the Dean of Students Office, and brought information back to organizers so protestors would know what to expect. 

This must have been exasperating work. Cops don’t like to answer questions on the best of days. UW-Madison administrators have kept their messaging around the protest vague and bland, hinting about enforcement but not sharing any specifics about what actions they’d be willing to take or what consequences they might seek for protestors (pro-Palestine demonstrators at other campuses have faced criminal charges, expulsion, eviction from student housing, even being barred from campus). Still, the two youngest elected officials in town kept at it. 

“I just wanted to make sure that there was some dialogue going on, because as long as there’s communication happening, that itself leads to deescalation, so that was my goal,” Govindarajan says. “Until 6 p.m., there was a lot of communication between myself and UWPD, and I would share information to the protesters as long as it was the right information to share, and then vice versa as well. Around 6 p.m., all the communication from UWPD kind of just abruptly stopped. “

Without reliable updates about UWPD’s plans, protestors became more uncertain and wary.

Wegleitner says she headed out to the protest around 9 p.m., in response to community requests for help, and was only able to spend a couple hours trying to facilitate communication. By that point, reporters and organizers were keeping a close eye on the Fluno Center (a UW conference center at the corner of University Avenue and Frances Street, a couple blocks from Library Mall). Police from UW-Madison Police Department, Madison Police Department, the Wisconsin State Patrol, State Capitol Police and the Dane County Sheriff’s Office had assembled inside Fluno with long wooden batons and other gear. 

Wegleitner, Govindarajan, and Bennett headed over together to try and talk with police in hopes of keeping the night calm. They entered a vestibule through an unlocked outer door, then spent a few minutes waving and knocking on the building’s locked inner doors, hoping to get one of the officers inside to come speak with them. That didn’t work. When someone left through the doors, the three took the opportunity to walk into the lobby. 

Inside, the three introduced themselves and asked officers for more information about what they planned to do. They asked to speak with a captain in charge of the officers gathered at Fluno. All three say they got no answers and couldn’t even figure out who was in charge. “They couldn’t find one single officer to speak with us,” Bennett says. “We went into the building into the lobby and were immediately cut off. They were just absolutely not in a place of even being willing to listen.”

The officers soon began telling them to leave. Govindarajan says he told the officers that he’d be happy to leave, and simply asked that they provide him with a phone number or other point of contact. In the minute or two that the elected officials spent in the lobby, Govindarajan says police told them that a public information officer would meet up with them outside the building, and that they would later provide contact information for a captain. (Neither of these things happened.) “When I heard ‘We will get you a captain’s contact information,’ that is when I started leaving, like turning around and leaving,” Govindarajan says.

By this point, six UWPD and State Patrol officers had gathered closely in front of the group. A UWPD spokesperson told the Wisconsin State Journal that the three elected officials “were informed that they could not come inside this place, they were asked multiple times to leave and they did not comply.”

“We were literally complying, or about to comply,” Bennett says.

A video clip from Cardinal reporter Gabriella Hartlaub shows a clear angle on Govindarajan as officers begin walking up closer to the elected officials. Govindarajan turns fully around, with his back to the police and steps toward the doors. The UWPD officer behind Govindarajan holds a door open with one arm. Govindarajan has already stepped most of the way through the door when the officer shoves him in the back with the other hand. The angle on Bennett and Wegleitner isn’t quite as clear, but both have also started moving toward the doors before other officers push them. Unless one’s definition of compliance allows only for instantaneous compliance, with no follow-up questions or requests, it’s pretty clear that Bennett, Wegleitner, and Govindarajan were in the process of complying before the cops pushed them.

I asked both Govindarajan and Bennett (in separate interviews, both a few hours before the pushing incident on Monday) whether any elected officials had formally asked Mnookin to authorize camping. Govindarajan declined to comment on this. Bennett replied that she had asked UW-Madison’s administration to authorize it, but hadn’t yet had a chance to ask Mnookin directly. “Though it seems to me like a fruitless effort,” Bennett added, because technically allowing tents would not necessarily have stopped police from arresting protestors or breaking up the camp. By the time we talked, Bennett had lost patience with the idea that any of this was really about tents.

“That’s the thing that gets me—that’s so disingenuous, and like a blatant lie, the constant bringing it back to, ‘it’s just the tents that we don’t like,’” Bennett says. 

After Wednesday’s arrests and crackdown, Govindarajan posted a statement criticizing the police response as “unnecessary.”

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Editor-in-chief and publisher Scott Gordon has covered music and the arts in Madison since 2006 for publications including The A.V. Club, Dane101, and Isthmus, and has also covered policy, environmental issues, and public health for WisContext. He co-founded Tone Madison in 2014.


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