Interrogation

“A Lot of People, They Can Just Go to Sleep and Not Really Have to Think About It”

Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes on the violence in Kenosha, his conversation with the Bucks, and being a Black man in elected office right now.

A photo of Mandela Barnes.
Mandela Barnes Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images for VIBE.

The streets of Kenosha, Wisc., had been roiling for days after police officers shot Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, in the back on Sunday. Then, late Tuesday night, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse allegedly waded into the chaos with a military-style rifle and shot and killed two people.

Hours later, Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes was at home in Madison when he got a phone call from Alex Lasry, senior vice president for the Milwaukee Bucks and son of one of the franchise owners. Lasry wanted to put Barnes, who is the first Black lieutenant governor in the state, in touch with Bucks players, who minutes earlier had decided to walk off the court before their playoff game on Wednesday. From their locker room, the players spoke with Barnes and the state’s attorney general Josh Kaul about their decision not to play and asked for advice on what to do next. Then on Thursday, Barnes and Gov. Tony Evers visited Kenosha for the first time since the unrest started.

I talked to Barnes on Friday about his long week, the parallels between Kenosha and Charlottesville, his chat with the Bucks, and his appearance at the DNC earlier this month. The conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Joel Anderson: How are you doing? It can’t be good, right?

Mandela Barnes: Not great, not great.

You were in Kenosha yesterday and referred to Charlottesville. What did you see out there that made you talk about Charlottesville?

I was just making the point clear that … people get mad about the way that protest happened and people got all up in arms about property damage. I’m not a fan of property damage but when you look, the people who actually lost their lives are the people who’ve been on the right side of justice.

You also mentioned that certain behavior shouldn’t be “enabled,” by which I assume you’re talking about how Rittenhouse was walking around out there with a long gun. What sort of responsibility do you think the police have in policing those sorts of scenes?

These people are showing up to intimidate protestors. And sometimes not even protestors because you can rewind back a couple months when we were talking about coronavirus and stay-at-home orders across the country where people felt they needed to show up with rifles to state capitols. One, it’s ridiculous and two, it’s dangerous. I keep repeating, “How do you expect no violence to happen when agitated dudes show up with guns?” They’re going to shoot somebody at some point.

Right.

They’re not just standing up here playing Marine cosplay. They’re coming to protect what they feel is theirs, what they feel is entitled to them.

What can be done to ensure that those folks don’t create the same sort of chaos that Rittenhouse did?

I think that law enforcement, as strongly as they make it known that they don’t want to tolerate property damage or they don’t want to tolerate disruptions to civil society, they should also make it clear that it is not acceptable for people to show up and try to intimidate anybody with firearms. It should be very clear. Because if any protesters had a weapon it wouldn’t have ended that way. We know what would have happened. That’s the problem. This dichotomy is why people are protesting in the first place. So for them to show up with rifles, it speaks to privilege. Black people would not have been able to get away with that, even if they were just abiding by the law in an open carry state.

Wisconsin is a swing state. Obviously Republicans are seizing on these images from Kenosha to make a pitch to voters that might be inclined to be afraid. Do you think any of this stuff could impact the presidential race there?

There’s all sorts of calculus involved. I do feel that it’s more important to focus on what people are out there marching for. I think it’s important for people to keep it in perspective, to remember what the root cause of any uprising or civil disobedience has been.

Are you worried then?

I’m always worried, man. You know, it’s going to be a long 60-something days. At the same time it’s going to be a short 60-something days. It’ll be here before we know it. But all the things that can transpire within the timeframe of two months, I’m very, I’m always, I’m definitely worried about it.

I know you got pulled into a conversation with the Bucks the other day. How did that call happen?

Alex Lasry called me. It wasn’t out of the blue for him to call, we call each other, not all the time, but it wasn’t like a random call to pick up.

Right.

It could have been about anything. He could have just been calling to ask how I was doing. So when he called me, I’ll tell you, I was actually not the first choice.

Oh really?

Yeah. He calls and he’s like, “Hey, I’m with some of the players right now and they want to know if the governor would be down to talk with them on Zoom.” And I was like, “Well as the governor’s secretary, I guess I’ll call him to find out.” So I called the governor and he was busy at the moment. At that moment there was just no way he could put it off. So I called him back and I told them. He was like “Alright.” Then he called me back and asked if I would do it.

That’s funny. Were you all, like, on a conference call? 

It was on Zoom. I came off the bench, Joel. Tony was out for that game.

ESPN reported that you told the players to press for action at every level of government. What did you mean by that? What do you think they should do?

Their question was basically, “What do we do? How do we get active? What should our role be?” Because they didn’t want to just walk off the court just to walk off the court. If you’re going to forfeit a game, a playoff game, that shouldn’t be the last thing that you do. You should make it go as far as possible, especially while you’ve got the attention of everybody. They were just like, “What can we do? What needs to be done?” The other question they had is, “What has been done?” Nothing, really. A couple school boards or school districts voted to kick police officers out of school buildings, which is a win, but it’s a way to go.

You’d think that no officer would even think to respond in that way, shooting somebody in the back seven times. How would you even think that’s OK at a time like this? They were like, “So nothing has changed.” I was like, “Well, from my perspective, even at the state level, no. That’s mainly due to the legislature having not met in four months.”

I said, “The governor introduced a package of legislation, or a legislative package, and they haven’t responded to it. They have chosen to ignore it.” I said, “If there’s anything that we need right now, it’s to bring attention to that because the governor has called for a special session. Last time he called for a special session, they gaveled in and gaveled out. But it wasn’t necessarily something that had the mind or the attention of people like this right now. While the whole world is watching, I think it would be incredibly helpful if y’all talked about the need for the legislature to convene.”

What do you think of their decision to go back to playing?

I think they made a bold statement. Obviously it’s work, they can choose to be playing or they can not. I think that you look at how owners were put in a position where they were forced to respond. One thing, too, as far as owners go, it’s a little bit easier for them to accept that in the bubble. Now if we were in the real season, I would love to see owners reacting in the real season. But they’re not losing out on as much in the bubble. You can cheer the owners supporting however much we want, but the reality is they’re not losing out on a whole lot.

Going back to the players: I do honestly think that they made their voices clear. I think they made the point that needed to be made at the moment. That choice is up to them whether they’re going to play or not. It’s not like activists were even calling for the Bucks to do that, to not play the game. That was their own choice.

Were you going to watch the game? Have you even had a chance to watch them play?

I haven’t had that much time to watch. I feel like the bubble has not been kind to the Bucks so I haven’t even necessarily been watching too many of the bubble games. They were what, like, 3-5 before the playoffs?

OK. I know I’ve only got you for a couple more seconds. I have two more questions for you. Joe Bidens, huh?

Joe Bidens. All of them.

When you said it, what went through your mind and what did your text messages look like after that?

I was like, goddammit. It’s funny man because we were at my place before and we were like all right, you going to go over the speech? Because I added a few things to the script, my script was like 34 seconds and it ended up being a minute. So I was going through reading and I was kind of putting my ad-libs in there. I got to the last line and I was like I don’t need to read this last line. I know this, this is the easy part. Right away, I screwed it up.

Who did you hear from after?

I heard from a couple people, man. They were like you cleaned it up, you were graceful with it. I acknowledged it and I moved on.

You’re a Black man, you grew up in Wisconsin, you grew up in Milwaukee. Obviously the Jacob Blake shooting has resonated with people for all sorts of reasons. How have you dealt with it personally? That’s got to take some sort of a psychological toll, to have to be in the role and the responsibility you have within the state. I imagine it keeps you from spending a lot of time dwelling on it. But have you thought about it? How has it affected you? How has it impacted you?

Oh, I definitely think about it, man. Other elected officials don’t necessarily have to carry all that at once. A lot of people, they can just go to sleep and not really have to think about it. They’ll address it, they’ll send out an email, a statement. But when it’s all over, everything is still all good with them. There’s internally, myself, but then there’s also expectation. There’s a heightened expectation from other people… Nobody is going to be calling on our secretary of state to answer the same questions that I have to answer. He’s also not going to have to deal with the personal trauma.

We know people. I look at police shootings as a part of the bigger criminal justice picture. We all know people who have been a part of the criminal justice system in one aspect or another. So there is, there is absolutely a personal toll. It’s not something I can just issue a statement and walk away from. It’s not something where I can send some sort of email or tweet something once and feel like I’ve done my job.