The envelope looked like any other — slightly wrinkled, a handwritten address scrawled across the front.
But Jared Cain said he felt violated after looking inside. He saw a ticket for breaking the curfew Milwaukee adopted to regulate protests after Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, by kneeling on his neck.
Cain didn’t interact with Milwaukee police during local protests early morning on June 1, but police cited a video he streamed publicly as proof that he was out past 9 p.m. The listed penalty: $691.
Driving home after saying goodbye to a cousin leaving for the U.S. Army, Cain recalls noticing blocked-off streets, a car on fire and people everywhere. The media entrepreneur pressed record on his phone camera.
Officers inside Milwaukee’s Fusion Center, part of a nationwide network where law enforcement agencies look for criminal and terrorist activity, later spotted Cain’s video on Facebook and issued the citation. Within a week, Cain said FBI agents arrived at his door to ask about any involvement with antifa, a loosely organized movement that militantly opposes right-wing ideology.
“I didn’t even know what antifa was,” Cain said. “I was totally baffled, because I thought that they came about the ticket — because the ticket was unlawful.”
The Milwaukee Police Department cited at least 170 people for curfew-related violations between May 30 and June 2, 2020, a Wisconsin Watch analysis showed. Police later voided citations against 86 people, citing “procedural errors” in the citations — in many cases after taking them into custody. At least six received tickets by mail based on online footage.
Black residents make up about 39% of Milwaukee’s population, but they accounted for 64% of the 162 cited where race was recorded, followed by white (26%), Hispanic (9%) and Asian American (1%) recipients.
FBI agents visited multiple people cited for curfew violations, according to attorneys representing some who challenged the infractions.
Later in the summer and fall, two other Wisconsin cities — Kenosha and Wauwatosa — enforced curfews during protests of separate police shootings of Black men.
City officials call curfews a tool for maintaining order when vandalism and violence mix with otherwise peaceful protests. But critics say the curfews did more to chill speech.
Officials in Kenosha and Wauwatosa are now defending their curfew enforcement in federal court, and the issue returned to the national spotlight this month as law enforcement in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Center aggressively responded to protests following the fatal police shooting of Daunte Wright on April 11 — days before a jury convicted Chauvin of murdering Floyd.
Nicole Muller, an attorney who represented dozens who received citations, said Milwaukee residents remain “traumatized” by last year’s curfew enforcement.
Asked whether Milwaukee police would recalibrate curfew enforcement, Jeff Fleming, a spokesperson for Mayor Tom Barrett, said, “Previously, and in future situations, establishing a curfew is not taken lightly.”
In an email, a Milwaukee Police Department spokesperson said the department is “constantly reviewing our past practices, as well as other jurisdictions’ best practices, to improve our services.”
The email confirmed one change following last year’s protests: Police will stop issuing curfew citations by mail.
Curfews trigger lawsuits
Police are more likely to keep protest crowds peaceful by targeting people who endanger the public, while protecting the speech rights of others, decades of research shows. But criminologists are less certain about curfews.
Edward Maguire, an Arizona State University professor, suspects they help quell riots. But he remains unfamiliar with research on the issue, he said, echoing colleagues who say such questions remain largely unexplored.
Curfew use should be limited to riot control, focusing on people committing violence or property damage, Maguire recommended.
“If they are used to quell non-riotous protests, then they run the risk of making people angrier,” he said. “They also run the risk of violating people’s civil rights, which could lead to costly lawsuits.”
A lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Milwaukee claims that Kenosha law enforcement exclusively arrested about 150 racial justice protesters for violating the county’s curfew — over nine nights last August and September — while ignoring armed vigilantes and counterprotesters who also walked the streets after a police officer shot Jacob Blake.
Law enforcement made 252 total arrests during that period, and Kenosha saw more than $50 million in property damage. One vigilante, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, faces homicide charges for shooting two people to death after claiming he arrived to protect the city from protesters.
Meanwhile, 50 people are suing Wauwatosa, alleging they were “ticketed, arrested, and/or harassed,” during October protests after the Milwaukee County district attorney announced that Wauwatosa Police Officer Joseph Mensah would avoid charges for fatally shooting 17-year-old Alvin Cole. That lawsuit accuses Mayor Dennis McBride of illegally issuing a curfew without consent from the city’s Common Council.
McBride — who pushed to reduce curfew penalties from $1,321 to $313 after more than 60 people were cited — broadly denies the allegations.
“We do not know what might have happened if we had not prepared” for the announcement about Mensah, McBride told Wisconsin Watch. “We do know that unlike Kenosha, during the emergency period in Wauwatosa no one was killed, no one was seriously hurt, no serious property damage occurred.”
Critics say the curfews only reinforced racial grievances that seeded unrest.
“They’re not listening to the decades of science behind the escalation,” said Ryan Clancy, a white Milwaukee County supervisor who was arrested for violating curfew on May 31. “They’re listening to a small, loud group of people who are responding to this misplaced fear, rather than taking a step back and looking at why people are taking to the streets.”
Marching in Milwaukee
Floyd’s death came as Milwaukee also grieved Joel Acevedo, who died in April 2020 after Michael Mattioli, an off-duty Milwaukee police officer, allegedly put him in a 10-minute chokehold during a fight.
Thousands peacefully marched in downtown Milwaukee on May 29, demanding justice for Floyd. Others caravanned past the home of Mattioli, who resigned in September and faces charges of reckless homicide. After 10 p.m., a smaller group vandalized businesses citywide, according to media reports. Two police officers suffered minor injuries hours later — one from a shooting.
On May 30, Mayor Tom Barrett set a 9 p.m. curfew to “stem the coordinated looting and property damage,” according to his proclamation. Gov. Tony Evers activated 125 National Guard members to help.
Clancy felt the effects the next night.
He posted a video on Facebook of the events leading up to his arrest near the border of Milwaukee and Shorewood, where a small group of protesters milled about. The video shows police officers in riot gear blocking movement into Shorewood, a predominantly white village that had no curfew. Officers zip tied Clancy’s hands behind his back and loaded him into a vehicle with several others — ignoring that the curfew exempted government officials.
That arrest during the COVID-19 pandemic forced Clancy to later quarantine away from his family. The citation was later voided.
Milwaukee’s curfew stretched three nights before Barrett cited “notable reduction in illegal activity associated with public protests,” in lifting it on June 2.
Kenosha lawsuit: ‘two sets of laws’
In Kenosha, protesters of Blake’s shooting last summer allege that law enforcement practices “two sets of laws — one that applies to those who protest police brutality and racism, and another for those who support the police,” according to an amended complaint filed in October.
It cites viral footage of Kenosha law enforcement appearing to use friendlier tactics on counter-protesters. That includes an Aug. 25 video showing an officer thanking vigilantes and tossing a bottle of water to Rittenhouse — hours before the teenager killed Anthony Huber, 26, and Joseph Rosenbaum, 36.
Kenosha law enforcement allowed Rittenhouse to return home to Illinois, where he was arrested. He awaits trial on seven charges, including two charges of first-degree reckless homicide. Prosecutors didn’t add the last charge — breaking curfew — until four months later. He has pleaded not guilty to the killings, citing self-defense.
In asking the court to dismiss the civil lawsuit, the city’s legal team said the curfew was tailored to curb “rioting, mayhem, and attacks on person and property” that drew national attention and left parts of Uptown in flames and a 71-year-old man assaulted.
Secret declaration in Wauwatosa
Wauwatosa officials say they had already spent months preparing for potential unrest linked to the announcement of whether Mensah would face charges for shooting Cole in February 2020 outside of a mall. Then they watched Kenosha erupt.
McBride said he sought to avoid similar violence by enacting a 7 p.m. curfew beginning on Oct. 7. That’s when Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm announced that Mensah would avoid charges, ruled the shooting “objectively reasonable,” citing evidence that Cole fired a handgun while fleeing.
McBride called the curfew successful, yielding only minor injuries and property damage.
Others saw it differently, including protesters suing the city. They described suffering various injuries and emotional distress.
The lawsuit alleges Wauwatosa’s curfew was illegal for several reasons, including that McBride on Sept. 30 secretly signed an emergency declaration — before any unrest and without the Common Council’s consent.
Wisconsin law allows local governing bodies to declare emergencies. Chief executive officers have such power only when those bodies can’t meet promptly. McBride didn’t mention his declaration when the Common Council met on Oct. 6, one day before the curfew took effect.
He later told council members that local police and Gov. Tony Evers’ office asked him to declare the emergency — necessary for activating the National Guard. McBride said preparing for potential unrest required confidentiality.
That defense drew mixed reviews from council members, with a majority expressing disappointment.
“We had one man enact a law for a period of a few days, and that law became the basis for most of the police action,” Ald. Craig Wilson said at an Oct. 13 meeting.
Other council members said they backed McBride.
Said Ald. Mike Morgan: “This was a very, extremely difficult situation to watch from any perspective.”
Clancy sees a simpler solution.
“There is one way to stop people from taking to the streets,” he said. “And that’s to change the conditions that they’re there for.”
Clara Neupert interned with Wisconsin Watch as part of the Ann Devroy Memorial Fellowship at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Wisconsin Watch (wisconsinwatch.org) collaborates with WPR, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.