Kenosha residents decried the voluntary appointment by the regional executive

Kenosha residents packed into a local council meeting late Tuesday, expressing anger over three controversial appointments to volunteer councils for the county. Days earlier, Kenosha County Executive Samantha Kerkman appointed 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 appointed former police officer Albert Gonzales and attorney Xavier Solis to the county’s Racial and Ethnic Equality 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 released.

The public reacted to the promises with outrage as soon as they were announced. Two members of the equity commission resigned in protest. On Tuesday night, before a local council meeting, Kenosha residents gathered to denounce the appointment. Tanya McLean, executive director of Leaders of Kenosha (LOK), said far-right elements in Kenosha County are trying to weaken the equity commission. “I felt like he was trying to drown him, kill him,” he said of Kerkman. “And when people withdraw, then he can continue to appoint people who have extreme views,” McLean told the Wisconsin Examiner. “And in that way, nothing gets done on commission. So I feel like that is the end goal.”

asked McLean, executive director of Leaders Of Kenosha, standing with the rest of the community.  (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
asked McLean, executive director of Leaders Of Kenosha, standing with the rest of the community. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

The Kenosha equity commission was formed in 2021, under former County Executive Jim Kreuser. The commission comes months after the protests and riots over the shooting of Jacob Blake Jr. attract the world’s attention. In the spring of 2022, Kerkman won election to replace Kreuser, who had been in office since 2008. Kerkman was one of several conservatives to win election after the riots, flipping county government from Democratic to Republican control. Nine members sit on the racial equity commission, all bound for a three-year term. Two members must be members of the regional council, while the other seven are appointed by the regional executive. Following the recent resignations, the four commission seats are vacant.

Many of the residents who showed up Tuesday night said Kerkman’s choice to make an appointment was no accident. Gonzales killed Michael Bell Jr. in 2004, a white Kenosha resident was arrested. Bell’s father has called attention to inconsistencies in the investigation, and is fighting for a law in the state named after his son that prohibits police departments from investigating their own shootings.

During a news conference Tuesday night, McLean said that Gonzales denied that racial equality was an issue in Kenosha. McLean also pointed to Solis, who helped raise a multi-million dollar legal defense fund for Rittenhouse after the teenager killed two protesters and injured a third during the riots. McLean said that “Solis’ association with the most divisive episode in recent history in Kenosha would clearly undermine the commission’s efforts intended to help resolve racial inequality and unite communities, not divide them.” McLean added that his appointment, “is a slap in the face to all those who were hurt, and are still hurting, as a result of the shooting and the Kyle Rittenhouse trial. He is also known as an 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 in response to the Kenosha Eye blog managed by Kevin Matthewson.  (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Kenosha residents raised their hands when asked if they were influenced by the Kenosha Eye blog run by Kevin Mathewson. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Andy Berg, a member of the Kenosha county council, said he was caught off guard by the designation. “Believe it or not, I’m really surprised he’s come this far to make a decision like this,” Berg told the Wisconsin Examiner. “Terrible, but you have to give him props. He was coming hard and strong, and he didn’t really care who he scolded on the way there. Very bad for the community that I represent, because I am a big supporter of the racial equality commission that we founded.”

This is not the only time Berg has seen the county resist racial equality policies. He recalls that in 2021, equity, inclusion and diversity positions were 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 put it back in.” Berg said of the recent appointment, “It’s the perfect way to put pressure on the racial and ethnic equality commission.”

He was not happy to hear about the commissioner resigning. “That’s what they wanted,” he told a member of the commission, “that’s how they killed this.”

Berg felt that Mathewson’s appointment in particular was a tribute to right-wing officials in the area. “For what he did for them, this is his payback,” said Berg. “They gave him a position on the government table.” Mathewson is best known for starting the Kenosha Guards Facebook page during the 2020 protests and riots. After a post on the page asking armed citizens to come defend property from protesters, Rittenhouse arrived.

In an email sent to the police chief, Mathewson identified himself as commander of the Kenosha Guard and requested that “you DO NOT have your officers send us home under threat of arrest as you have done in the past.” Internal communications indicated local law enforcement considered the armed group to be “friendly”, and federal agents patrolling the streets refused to arrest members of the group.

Berg points across the street to Civic Park, a scene of clashes between protesters, police and armed militia members. “As he stood there,” Berg, who is a 20-year US Army veteran, told the Wisconsin Examiner, “with his red shirt too small for him, and his rifle across his chest too small for him, as the sun was setting he home coward. He’s not a soldier. He is not a commander.”

Kenosha County Council Member Andy Berg.  (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Kenosha County Council Member Andy Berg. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Mathewson also runs an online blog called Kenosha Eye, and works as a private detective. Kerkman attempted to elevate him in a media-related role to the emergency planning committee. The committee’s role is to handle cleaning up of chemical spills. “What our regional executive did was legitimize this propaganda, people who have called three times for armed militia to come to Kenosha,” said Kenosha Ald. Anthony Kennedy during a press conference Tuesday night. Kennedy called Mathewson’s appointment “wrong”, “small-minded”, and urged the county council to reject him. During both press conferences and during board meetings, Kennedy asked for a raise of the hand to anyone who was targeted or influenced by Mathewson’s writing on his blog. Many members of the public raised their hands.

Emotions welled up in the county council room

Regional council meetings begin at 7:30 p.m., with time for comment limited to three minutes due to the large number of people present to speak. Residents filled both sides of the room. One resident, Veronica King, said that while diversity and equality are increasing in parts of the US, “we’re just not seeing it in Kenosha County.”

“Kenosha County still has your good boys’ clubs, and refuses to incorporate more diversity into appointments on the committee,” he added. “We continue to promote racism in this community. When will it stop? What will be taken?”

Another resident, Marine Corps veteran Sam Roochnik, criticized Kerkman’s appointment of people who “don’t believe in systemic racism”. Later, Roochnik explained that he had received online harassment from Mathewson. Roochnik’s comments were cut short when he tried to quote some vulgar insults he said Mathewson sent in messages about Roochnik and his family.

“If you want this commission to fail, vote for these people. If you want to exile and further disenfranchise many of our citizens, vote for these people.”

– Marieta Huff, resident of Kenosha County

Marieta Huff, another resident, said she felt Kerkman’s move was supported by other council members. “I imagine, because many of you don’t want to see a commission created in the first place,” said Huff, “and you don’t want a position on it created to support it.” For more moderate members of the council, Huff called this moment a test. “If you want this commission to fail, vote for these people. If you want to exile and further disenfranchise many of our citizens, vote for these people.” Huff denounced Mathewson’s appointment as “ridiculous”, adding it was “not worthy of any consideration.”

That sentiment was echoed throughout the night, among others by local livestreamers whose audiences asked them to attend meetings, youth, parents, grandparents, and local activists. Some decried elected officials’ assertions that racism does not exist or is not a problem. Anthony Davis, president of the Kenosha branch of the NAACP, spoke about an incident in which a dead bird and a picture of US Senate candidate Mandela Barnes were left on his front porch. Davis says neighbors who have Black Lives Matter material outside their homes have had similar experiences.

Residents of Kenosha County gather to speak at a county council meeting.  Most spoke out against the appointment made by Regional Executive Samantha Kerkman.  (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Residents of Kenosha County gather to speak at a county council meeting. Majorities spoke out against the appointment made by Regional Executive Samantha Kerkman. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Two residents disagree. One woman, whose name was not on the check-in sheet, said all she heard Tuesday night were complaints. “There’s a lot of people out here who are angry,” the woman, who gave her name as Jane Woods, told the council. “And I wonder, if someone else had been sitting in that chair, maybe a Democrat, would everyone sitting here be complaining? Please, if you are going to complain, provide a solution too. 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 check-in sheet, said everyone was complaining. The man, recalling his time in the Marine Corps working with people around the world, told residents of Kenosha that racism was “only in your head.”

At the end of the meeting, the appointment is referred to the committee by the board. McLean hopes Kerkman and the rest of the council hear the voices of Kenosha residents loud and clear.

“I want him to understand that racism is definitely a thing that happens in Kenosha County,” McLean told the Wisconsin Examiner. “And we need to find ways to address it together as a community and take it head-on and move forward. That is what someone who is in charge of an area wants for the progress of his area. Stepping back to a time where black and brown people couldn’t move about freely, is that what happened? I want him to understand that we need to move forward, and this is not moving us forward.”


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