A group of supporters of Gov. Scott Walker is claiming harassment by at least one Milwaukee police officer and preferential treatment for backers of Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett after an incident Friday evening on an interstate highway footbridge.
During the incident, they said, a 16-year-old boy was singled out and handcuffed in front of his father, and held there until all the adults left the bridge.
A member of the group took a video showing that the police could not immediately come up with any reason for evicting them before eventually locating an ordinance against loitering.
But another video taken the next night by Barrett supporters on another Milwaukee bridge shows members of that group reading their legal grounds to Milwaukee officers and being allowed to stay.
The grassroots group of about 30 Walker supporters gathered at about 4 p.m. at the footbridge across Interstate 94 near North 72nd Street. Members planned to stand on the bridge with large pro-Walker signs until about 7 p.m.
Such events have been commonplace in recent elections. Mary Goodman, one woman who was present, said she had been at many such bridge rallies dating back to Walker's election as governor in November 2010.
What's more, she said, Barrett backers have been doing the same thing night after night leading up to Tuesday's recall election with no response from police.
Goodman and others present said that around 5 p.m., two Milwaukee County sheriff's deputies arrived and told them they had to take down some large signs that had been propped against the bridge fences. Signs could only be hand-held, they said, and could not lean against or be attached to the fence.
Members of the group took those signs down and removed them, they said, and the deputies told them it was OK to continue their rally.
Milwaukee police had problem with the signs
But at about 6 p.m., they said, a Milwaukee police sergeant arrived and told them they had to get off the bridge.
"His attitude was belligerent from the moment he arrived," said David Arnot, who was there with his son. "Without trying to speak with the organizer first he almost immediately called for back-up.
"Many in the group were trying to ask what reason they had for removing us, considering a Democratic group does the same thing every night, but he had no answers and only became louder and more belligerent," Arnot said.
Within two minutes, Arnot and members of the group said, more officers began to arrive, until 10 more were present.
Goodman said some of the adults on the bridge were complying with the order and leaving, some were picking up their things, and some were arguing with the sergeant about why they should leave.
She and Arnot said that all the adults on the bridge were spoken to in general terms, as a group, and while they were all warned, none of them was confronted individually with orders or threatened with arrest.
Why was teenager handcuffed?
Goodman said she turned around just in time to see the boy being handcuffed.
Arnot said his son was at his side assisting another Walker supporter with a large sign.
"After the arrival of the other officers," Arnot said, "the sergeant took a few steps towards my 16-year-old son, who had been helping hold a sign. He singled him out, the only minor on the bridge, pointed at him and barked, 'Are you leaving this bridge?'"
Arnot acknowledged that his son said "No" to the officer before immediately being handcuffed, but he said all his son was trying to say was that he wanted to stay with him while they collected their signs and belongings.
"He (the police sergeant) clearly said, 'You're under arrest,'" Arnot said, "but he wouldn't say for what, even though we kept asking him."
Melissa LeClaire was standing a few feet away, she said, and she corroborated Arnot's account. She believed the boy was singled out because he was a minor.
The sergeant "took him to the side of the bridge and told us he would be released when we all left the bridge," she said. "It was a hostage-taking."
Calls and emails to the Milwaukee Police Department were not returned before 5 p.m. Monday.
Arnot said he tried to videotape the detention of his son, but he failed to capture it.
Another Walker supporter at the rally did tape more than nine minutes of video taken at the end of the bridge once everyone had moved off it, and it appears to corroborate that even by then none of the officers present could cite any statute or ordinance barring the citizens' presence on the bridge.
Eventually, an officer called in to headquarters and asked for a citation supporting the eviction, and came back with an ordinance barring loitering on a bridge.
Walker backers question fairness
The Walker supporters said they were disturbed that they would be ordered to leave a bridge when a pro-Barrett group called "The Light Brigade" regularly holds bridge rallies in the twilight holding brightly lighted LED signs spelling out "Recall Walker," "Vote for Barrett" and other messages without harassment.
That group has even produced a professional-quality video touting its efforts.
The Walker people said that they were told repeatedly that their presence constituted a danger to traffic safety — a distraction to drivers — but they were given no reason why Barrett backers or, for that matter, Harley-Davidson lovers who do the same every five years, should be treated differently.
After most of the rally-goers had dispersed, Goodman said, she needed to go back across the bridge to her car and the sergeant told her she would be arrested. But other officers told her to go ahead, just not to come back that way.
Another Walker supporter wanted to cross on his bicycle because he lives on the other side of the freeway, LeClaire said, and when he started out with his Walker sign, the sergeant stopped him.
"He said, 'Not with that sign, you can't,'" LeClaire said. "It was at that point that I realized this really was about who we were and what we believe, that it was bias."
LeClaire said that after the video and various accounts were posted on web and social media sites, she had seen some responses from Barrett supporters also condemning the police action.
"I appreciate that," she said. "Even though we don't agree, we're all Americans first and foremost."