The Price County office of Embrace, a nonprofit providing help and shelter to domestic violence and sexual assault victims. (Embrace)
By Hannah Knowles
Oct. 18, 2020 at 2:51 a.m. GMT+9 The Washingto Post
Signs set the tone at the Embrace help centers and shelter for victims of domestic and sexual violence in rural Wisconsin. They declare a “safe space,” prohibit firearms and welcome people who are LGBTQ.
As of this summer, they also include “Black Lives Matter.”
In an overwhelmingly White and conservative stretch of the state, those signs of support for victims of color and their struggles with racism have triggered a firestorm — stoking tensions in towns a couple of hours from Minneapolis, where George Floyd died in police custody, and north of Kenosha, where Jacob Blake was shot by officers.
Embrace executive director Katie Bement says she expected “tough conversations” but nothing like this: a parade of board resignations, the loss of $25,000 in funding, the end of valued partnerships with many police departments in the four counties where the nonprofit serves a population of about 90,000. Voters there in 2016 went decisively for President Trump, who has called the Black Lives Matter slogan a “symbol of hate.”
In one county, all five law enforcement agencies stopped referring victims to Embrace for help.
“It’s an abuse of power,” Bement said.
A rift here over support for Black Lives Matter has divided people who normally work together on critical public services at a time when the pandemic has made life newly dangerous for victims of domestic abuse. Experts say the fallout over Embrace — first reported by Wisconsin Public Radio and other local news outlets — is part of a spate of strained relationships between law enforcement and their community partners, many of whom see speaking out about police violence and racism as a natural extension of their work.
Embrace says it cannot serve victims without fighting all forms of oppression, especially when those it helps are disproportionately people of color. Members of law enforcement say shelter staff should “stay in their lane” to avoid alienating both victims and collaborators. Police say no victims will go unserved because of the dispute, but Bement says she is worried.
“Together is how we’re most effective in serving survivors, not separated and isolated,” she wrote in a series of long emails last month to Barron County Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald, according to messages Bement shared with The Washington Post.
Fitzgerald, who would soon resign from Embrace’s board, predicted trouble was coming over the Black Lives Matter signs. The county is pro-police, he told Bement, “and BLM has been very outspoken against Law Enforcement.”
“We will lose support, money and members by picking this fight,” he warned.
Bement says she has tried to emphasize from the beginning that Embrace’s Black Lives Matter signs and its anti-racism statement were not meant as a jab at local law enforcement.
“The movement is not anti-police,” she wrote in one email to Fitzgerald. “You can be upset with police brutality, believe that black lives have value just like white lives, and support good police officers all at the same time.”
“That struggle and discomfort you are feeling with this anti-oppression work is okay and normal,” she said in another.
But the spat has surfaced deeply rooted disagreements about the extent to which the issues driving protesters nationwide were relevant to their rural part of the state.
In emails to The Post, Fitzgerald said his department “stands with everyone on all racial equality issues and [will] work with anyone to fix them.” He added, however, that Embrace was asked to focus on the core issues they serve victims for, “not problems that only exist [in] other areas.”
Speaking earlier this week on a local journalist’s live stream, he likened the social issues Embrace was raising to sea-creature preservation: “While saving the dolphins might be important, we don’t live by the ocean,” he said.
Law enforcement and victim services organizations often work closely, advocates said. But Embrace’s public support of Black Lives Matter came at a time of huge upheaval, as many domestic violence coalitions take a hard look at their relationships to the criminal justice system, said Casey Gwinn, the president of Alliance for HOPE International.
The Alliance helps domestic violence and sexual assault victims at centers bringing together police, prosecutors, advocates, doctors and others. On a call Thursday, Gwinn said, organization leaders from around the country spoke of “incredible stress and strain” from activists in these centers who are saying “we don’t want to deal with the cops anymore.”
Dozens of state coalitions against sexual assault and domestic violence signed onto a June letter that endorses Black Lives Matter and describes a “moment of reckoning” after Floyd’s death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. The letter declares the groups’ “failure to listen” to warnings about turning to policing, prosecution and imprisonment as a “primary solution.”
Kelly Miller, executive director of the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, said the letter was not meant to sever ties with law enforcement. It was not a call to “defund” the police, she said, but a call to look beyond police.
Yet three Idaho groups — the Chiefs of Police Association, Sheriffs Association and the Prosecuting Attorneys Association — responded with letters saying they were ending their relationships with Miller’s group, she said.
None of the associations responded to requests for comment, and Miller declined to provide the letters without the other groups’ consent.
Practically, Miller said, the fallout means these organizations will no longer join her coalition in a years-long Idaho initiative to address bias in the criminal justice system.
“My hope is that over time folks will be able to come back together in the same room,” Miller said.
In Wisconsin, Bement said, she decided it might help to write an “anti-racism” statement explaining her organization’s commitment to Black Lives Matter.
People of color are overrepresented among those seeking Embrace’s help: Just 5 to 6 percent of its four-county service area is non-White, but people of color make up 15 percent of those the organization serves in person.
“So we really feel that we can’t remain silent and neutral when we have survivors that we serve, saying that they’re experiencing racism in our community,” Bement said.
She says she brought a draft of the anti-racism statement to a Sept. 24 meeting of Embrace’s board, encountering reservations about language but not outright opposition: “Police brutality” was changed to “police violence,” she said, while the “attempted murder” of Jacob Blake became just “shooting.”
“Racism, police violence, sexual violence, and domestic violence all have the same root causes, and they interact and compound on each other both in society and within the survivors we serve,” the final draft read in part.
One week after it went online, she got an email from the Barron County’s health and human services director: The director was resigning from Embrace’s board as well, and the Barron County Executive Committee had just voted to pull $25,000 in funding. The next day, an email from law enforcement in Washburn County arrived saying they would have ” no ongoing affiliation” with Embrace.
Burnell Hanson, second vice chair of the county board, confirmed the funding cut was driven by Embrace’s signs and statement.
“If they’re gonna be blowing the horn for Black Lives Matter, we’re not gonna give them that 25,000,” he said, denying the opposition had “anything to do with race.”
“The violence and looting and all that stuff that they’ve been pushing has nothing to do with protesting,” Hanson said of Black Lives Matter. “It’s just violence and looting. Between that and antifa, we’ve got a bunch of crooks running around the country doing bad stuff.”
Barron County officials say they are ending partnerships but still referring victims to Embrace, at least until they find an alternative. Price County Sheriff Brian Schmidt said Embrace has “taken a stance I can’t agree with” but added that the “victims will always come first” and that he will still refer for now, too.
In Washburn County, law enforcement have reached out to another agency based in a county nearby, according to the sheriff department.
“The Washburn County Sheriff’s Office takes its responsibility to serve and protect all our community members very serious and will continue to do so,” it said in a statement.
Gwinn, the president of Alliance for HOPE International, said he understands police’s frustration with the intense scrutiny they’re under but believes “this is not a time to declare war on domestic violence agencies.”
“This is the time for law enforcement to lean into the conversation on how we can do better,” he said.
“Saying you lose your money if you support this,” he added, “or you don’t get our engagement anymore if you say this — that just breaks my heart.”