Angela Lang woke up one Friday morning last spring to what she considered a threat from the president of Milwaukee’s Police Association, Dale Bormann, Jr.
“If they feel that we can go after them, I’m going after them,” Dormann told a local news reporter, referring specifically to supporters of the city’s decision to ban chokeholds by police officers. “I have to do whatever it takes to protect my officers and make sure their careers are not ended if they end up using a chokehold.”
As executive director of the advocacy group Black Leaders Organizing Communities, Lang was among the speakers who had vouched for the change before a meeting of the city’s fire and police commission, helping make Milwaukee’s one of the 32 police departments to ban chokeholds in the direct aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, according to an analysis by the Washington Post.
“The audacity that this man was able to say this so brazenly and be quoted in an article and face no backlash was scary for me,” Lang said. Dormann did not respond to interview requests for this story.
Though she had spoken out about police abuses for years, she considered the quote about “going after” proponents of the chokehold ban to be new territory, and a reflection of the evolving dangers activists face at a moment when right-wing militias show up armed to Black Lives Matter protests while the law enforcement authorities charged with keeping the peace openly oppose the policy changes protesters call for. During demonstrations in Kenosha, Wisconsin, after the police shooting of Jacob Blake, officers offered water to militia groups who had arrived from out of town and thanked them for showing up. One of the armed visitors, Kyle Rittenhouse, fatally shot two people, claimed self-defense, and was found not guilty on all charges last month.
American law enforcement agencies have long played a role in suppressing racial justice movements — a history that spans state-sanctioned “slave catchers,” sheriffs donning Klan robes, police dogs in Birmingham, Cointelpro initiatives targeting the Black Panthers and civil rights leaders, and the FBI’s focus on what it calls “black identity extremists.” In recent years, far-right militias and disinformation groups have thrown their support behind efforts to disrupt Black Lives Matter protests, creating a tension all the more dangerous in states with gun laws that allow people to carry automatic weapons with minimal or no background check and self-defense laws that give wide latitude to people who say they feared for their lives.
Without institutions they trust to protect them, Black activist groups in Wisconsin have turned to their own new tactics, including developing detailed security plans, identifying safe houses in advance, and traveling with their passports in case they suddenly have to flee, five activists told BuzzFeed News.
It’s a marked change from how Lang started her advocacy career back in 2007, when she was a first-year college student organizing on campus. “I had my book bag, I had my laptop, I had snacks and bumper stickers to get out the vote,” she remembers. “In all these years, it hasn’t been until the last year when I really had to start thinking about my safety.”
Now, Lang said she never takes the same route home two days in a row. She gives copies of her house keys to trusted friends. In the trunk of her car, she keeps a go-bag containing her birth certificate, Social Security card, and a week’s worth of clothing.
Another activist, Kyle Johnson, who pushes for more affordable housing for Black residents in the state, said that he operates with a “healthy sense of paranoia” that has led him to anti-doxing training, among other measures, “to protect us in the sense of being online and our information being circulated.”
Wisconsin organizers saw up close what it means to be targeted by groups who oppose their message — last year, the battleground state swarmed with political operators before the November presidential election and armed vigilantes responding to the racial justice protests in August after footage of Blake’s police shooting went viral.
Weeks before the election, two men used fake identities to pose as documentary filmmakers and organizers to set up video and in-person meetings with staffers at progressive groups, including Lang’s. In the meetings, the men asked suspiciously leading questions and tried to bait activists on camera into agreeing to illegally register voters. Alarmed, the activists eventually compared photos of the men and determined that they were actually associated with Project Veritas, the far-right group founded by conservative activist James O’Keefe, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.
The six groups wrote a 21-page letter last September to the state’s attorney general, Josh Kaul, that detailed what it claimed were Project Veritas’s attempts to misrepresent their work to federal election officials dating back to 2016. The letter called on the state’s Department of Justice to investigate the matter.
The Rittenhouse shooting and acquittal in November signaled that vigilante violence was not just a real threat, but permissible under the law.
After the scare with Project Veritas, Lang began working with Equality Labs, a civil rights organization that specializes in digital security. In recent years, the group has found itself more in demand from outfits like Lang’s — small community groups with even smaller budgets and very little infrastructure to manage such threats.
The atmosphere changed dramatically in 2020, when COVID-19 lockdowns began and more people were sequestered at home in front of computers. That year, the Equality Labs saw a 600 percent increase in the number of activists reaching out for help scrubbing their phone numbers, addresses, and other personal data from the internet, according to Thenmozhi Soundararajan, its executive director.
“In some places there’s an open door between far-right actors and police,” Soundarajan said.
In 2017, the Brennan Center for Justice called the government’s response to established links between law enforcement and racist radical groups “strikingly insufficient.”
“They’re not calling the police in a moment where they feel unsafe and unsure,” said Jennifer Epps-Addison, a Milwaukee native and co–executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy.
Before COVID safety requirements restricted how often people went into the office, it was not uncommon, Lang said, for a police cruiser to slowly drive by, or pull up behind an organizer’s car and run their license plates. The Movement for Black Lives, the umbrella organization that includes Black Lives Matter, said that it saw an “unprecedented federalization” of protest-related prosecutions” in 2020 under the direction of Donald Trump’s Justice Department that led to 326 criminal cases against protestors for alleged acts such as arson, civil disorder, or assaulting an officer. In 83% of cases, charges were brought in cities with Democratic leadership, the activists found, including places like Portland, Oregon, which made up 20% of federal charges brought against activists during that protest period.
Melina Abdullah, a leader with Black Lives Matter, had Los Angeles Police Department officers surround her home twice in recent years. The LAPD announced days before the Rittenhouse verdict that it had traced both incidents back to three teenagers, ages 13 to 16, who were driven by “racial hatred” to make phony emergency calls to law enforcement. The police said the teens were responsible for 30 fake emergency calls. “Even if what they’re saying is true, the police — LAPD — used this as an opportunity to terrorize me and my family,” Abdullah later told the Los Angeles Times.
In the meantime, Lang and other activists whose political educations happened alongside and sometimes on social media, have walked a tightrope between being highly visible and digitally less traceable. Soundararajan’s group advises people to cover any tattoos or identifying marks when they attend protests to avoid being targeted by police or white supremacists. Other activists encourage white allies to attend protests so that police respond less aggressively to the crowd.
“I imagine that my children’s children will read about this moment in history books in the same way that we read about our forebears during the civil rights movement,” Epps-Addison said. “And wonder why they were allowed to turn fire hoses on people.” ●