Kenosha residents filled a county board meeting Tuesday night, expressing anger over three controversial appointments to volunteer boards in the county. Days before, Kenosha County Executive Samantha Kerkman named Kevin Mathewson, a former alder who called on armed citizens to defend Kenosha from civil unrest in 2020, to the Local Emergency Planning Committee. Kerkman also named former police officer Albert Gonzales and attorney Xavier Solis to the county’s Racial and Ethnic Equity Commission (REEC). Gonzales was involved in a high-profile police shooting. Solis raised funds for Kyle Rittenhouse, who shot three protesters in 2020, killing two of them, and was later acquitted.
The community reacted to the appointments with outrage as soon as they were announced. Two members of the equity commission resigned in protest. On Tuesday night, prior to a county board meeting, Kenosha residents gathered to denounce the appointments. Tanya McLean, executive director of Leaders of Kenosha (LOK), said a far-right element in Kenosha County is trying to undermine the equity commission. “I feel like she’s trying to sink it, kill it,” she said of Kerkman. “And as people resign, then she can continue to appoint people who have extreme views,” McLean told Wisconsin Examiner. “And in that way, nothing gets done on the commissions. So I feel like that is the ultimate goal.”
Tanya McLean, executive director of Leaders Of Kenosha, stands with other community members. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Kenosha’s equity commission was created in 2021, under former County Executive Jim Kreuser. The commission came months after protests and unrest over the shooting of Jacob Blake Jr. captured the world’s attention. In the spring of 2022, Kerkman won an election to replace Kreuser, who had served since 2008. Kerkman was one of several conservatives who won elections following the unrest, flipping the county government from Democratic to Republican control. Nine members sit on the racial equity commission, all bound to three-year terms. Two members have to be county board members, while the other seven are appointed by the county executive. After the recent resignations, four of the commission’s seats are vacant.
Many residents who showed up Tuesday night said Kerkman’s choices for appointments were not coincidental. Gonzales killed Michael Bell Jr. in 2004, a white Kenosha resident who was under arrest. Bell’s father has called attention to inconsistencies in the investigation, and championed a state law named after his son that bars police departments from investigating their own shootings.
During the press conference Tuesday night, McLean said that Gonzales has denied that racial equity is a problem in Kenosha. McLean also pointed to Solis, who helped raise a multi-million dollar legal defense fund for Rittenhouse after the teen killed two protesters and wounded a third during the unrest. McLean said that Solis’ “association with the most divisive episode in recent history in Kenosha will clearly damage the efforts of a commission meant to help resolve racial inequalities and unite the community, not divide it.” McLean added that his appointment, “is a slap in the face to everyone who was hurt, and is still hurting, as a result of the Kyle Rittenhouse shootings and trial. He is also a well-known election denier. Do I need to say anything more about him? Someone like that should not be placed in a position of public responsibility.”
Kenosha residents raise their hands when asked if they’ve been affected by the Kenosha Eye blog run by Kevin Mathewson. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Andy Berg, a Kenosha county board member, said he was caught off guard by the appointments. “Believe it or not, I was actually surprised that she went to this length to make a decision like this,” Berg told Wisconsin Examiner. “It’s appalling, but you got to give her her props. She’s coming in hard and strong, and she doesn’t really care who she pisses off on the way there. It’s terrible for the community that I represent, because I was an immense supporter of the racial equity commission that we started up.”
It’s not the only time Berg has seen the county push back against racial equity policies. He recalled that in 2021, an equity, inclusion and diversity position was stripped from the budget. After Berg pushed to put it back in the budget, “we had … two days of citizen comments saying put it back in, and it got put back in.” Berg said of the recent appointments, “This is a perfect way to squash the racial and ethnic equity commission.”
He was unhappy to hear about the commissioners who resigned. “That’s what they want,” he said he told a commission member, “that’s their way of killing this.”
Berg felt that the Mathewson appointment specifically was a reward by far-right officials in the county. “For what he did for them, this is payback,” Berg said. “They’re giving him a position at the governmental table.” Mathewson is famous for starting the Kenosha Guard Facebook page during the protests and unrest of 2020. It was after a post on the page called on armed citizens to come defend property from protesters that Rittenhouse arrived.
In an email sent to the police chief, Mathewson declared himself commander of the Kenosha Guard and requested that “you do NOT have your officers tell us to go home under threat of arrest as you have done in the past.” Internal communications show local law enforcement considered the armed groups to be “friendly,” and federal agencies patrolling the streets declined to arrest members of the groups.
Berg pointed across the street to Civic Park, the sight of clashes between protesters, police and armed militia members. “When he stood over there,” Berg, who is a 20-year U.S. Army veteran, told Wisconsin Examiner, “in his red shirt that was too small for him, and his rifle that’s across his chest that’s too small for him, when the sun started going down he cowarded home. He’s not a solider. He’s not a commander.”
Kenosha County Board member Andy Berg. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Mathewson also runs an online blog called the Kenosha Eye, and works as a private investigator. Kerkman seeks to appoint him in a media-related role to the emergency planning committee. The committee’s role is to deal with cleaning up chemical spills. “What our county executive is doing is legitimizing this propaganda, this person that has three times called for armed militias to come to Kenosha,” said Kenosha Ald. Anthony Kennedy during the Tuesday evening press conference. Kennedy called Mathewson’s appointment “wrong,” “small-minded,” and urged the county board to vote it down. Both during the press conference and during the board meeting, Kennedy asked for a show of hands of anyone who’s been targeted or otherwise affected by Mathewson’s writings on his blog. Many community members raised their hands.
Emotions spill over into county board room
The county board meeting began at 7:30 p.m., with time for comments limited to three minutes due to the number of people who showed up to speak. Residents filled both sides of the room. One resident, Veronica King, said that while diversity and equity is improving in parts of the U.S., “we don’t see it in Kenosha County.”
“Kenosha County still has your good ol’ boys club, and refuses to incorporate more diversity into appointments in committees,” she added. “We continue to promote racism in this community. When is it going to stop? What is it going to take?”
Another resident, Marine Corp veteran Sam Roochnik, decried Kerkman’s appointments of people who “don’t believe in systemic racism.” Later, Roochnik described having received online harassment from Mathewson. Roochnik’s comments were cut short when he attempted to quote some of the vulgar insults he says Mathewson sent in messages about Roochnik and his family.
“If you want this commission to fail, vote these men in. If you want to alienate and further disenfranchise many of our fellow citizens, vote these men in.”
– Marieta Huff, Kenosha County resident
Marieta Huff, another resident, said she felt Kerkman’s move was supported by other board members. “I’d imagine, because many of you didn’t want to see the commission formed in the first place,” said Huff, “and you didn’t want a position on it created to support it.” For more moderate board members, Huff said that this moment is a test. “If you want this commission to fail, vote these men in. If you want to alienate and further disenfranchise many of our fellow citizens, vote these men in.” Huff denounced Mathewson’s appointment as “ridiculous,” adding it “doesn’t deserve consideration.”
Those sentiments were echoed throughout the evening by, among others, local livestreamers whose audiences asked them to attend the meeting, teenagers, parents, grandparents, and local activists. Several denounced elected officials’ assertions that racism doesn’t exist or isn’t a problem. Anthony Davis, president of Kenosha’s chapter of the NAACP, spoke about an incident in which a dead bird and images of U.S. Senate candidate Mandela Barnes were left on his front porch. Davis said his neighbors who had Black Lives Matter material outside their house experienced something similar.
Kenosha County residents gather to speak at the county board meeting. The majority spoke against the appointments made by County Executive Samantha Kerkman. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Two residents disagreed. One woman, who’s name did not appear on the sign-in sheet, said all she heard Tuesday evening was complaining. “There’s a lot of people here who are angry,” the woman, who said her name was Jane Woods, told the board. “And I wonder, if there was somebody else sitting at that chair, maybe a Democrat, would everybody be sitting here complaining? Please, if you’re going to complain, come up with a solution as well. These are people like you, they just want to go home at the end of the day.” Another man, who also did not put his name on the sign-in sheet, said everyone was complaining. The man, recalling his time in the Marine Corps working with people around the world, told Kenosha residents that racism “is just in your head.”
At the end of the meeting, the appointments were referred to committee by the board. McLean hopes that Kerkman and other board members heard the voices of Kenosha residents loud and clear.
“I want her to understand that racism is definitely a thing in Kenosha County,” McLean told Wisconsin Examiner. “And we need to figure out a way to address it together as a community and take it head on and move forward. That’s what someone who is in charge of a county should want for her county, progression. Going backwards to a time where Black and brown people could not move around freely, is that what’s happening? I want her to understand that we need to move forward, and this is not moving us forward.”
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originally published at https%3A%2F%2Fwisconsinexaminer.com%2F2023%2F03%2F09%2Fkenosha-residents-denounce-volunteer-appointments-by-county-exec%2F by Isiah Holmes