APPLETON - Demonstrators who were among hundreds of people filling Houdini Plaza in the last week to protest the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade say police have been cracking down on them while ignoring violence against them.
They say the Appleton Police Department has cited some participants for noise violations and traffic obstructions, when the department previously had no issues with demonstrators. And they say the crackdown couldn't have come at a worse time.
In the wake of the court ruling, an abortion in Wisconsin is only allowed to save the life of the mother. To be cited for stepping onto the street or using a megaphone to amplify a message feels petty after the loss of what many demonstrators say is a basic right.
"The police have shown the most blatant disrespect and disregard for what we're out there trying to do," demonstrator Dylan Carrier said.
During a rally Monday night, Carrier said people were throwing objects at demonstrators and a car drove through a red light toward them on the crosswalk next to Houdini Plaza.
“There was an influx of calls to APD and nothing was done,” Carrier said.
The organizer of Monday’s rally, Faith Roska, wrote in a Facebook post that she called Appleton police multiple times about water bottles and rocks being thrown at demonstrators, but officers didn't maintain a presence at the rally.
"I understand that, as an organizer of an event, there are a lot of things that fall under my responsibility," Roska said in her Facebook post. "Physical violence should not be one of them."
Roska didn't respond to The Post-Crescent's request for an interview.
In a statement to The Post-Crescent, Police Chief Todd Thomas said the police initiate contact with leaders of rallies or protests to explain guidelines in advance.
"Our 'protestor guidelines' incorporate applicable laws and ordinances, which apply to all demonstrations regardless of content. These guidelines have been in place in the City of Appleton for many years. These guidelines and laws are in place to help us keep the community safe ... protestors, counter-protestors, and all in the vicinity of, and passing by, these gatherings.
"The police department has a practice of initiating contact with leaders of rallies and protests to share the protestor guidelines and facilitate dialogue prior to any First Amendment gathering. However, despite these efforts, cooperation has been limited and has led to illegal activities. We have issued citations and made arrests at past demonstrations and we will continue to monitor any event and hold those people accountable who cause damage, endanger others, or harm any individual."
Thomas' statement included a summary of Appleton Police Department responses to Monday's rally.
Officers responded to calls about a vehicle striking a demonstrator. Another demonstrator who confronted the driver displayed a weapon and was referred to the Outagamie County district attorney's office for disorderly conduct with a weapons enhancer.
Officers initiated a traffic stop on a vehicle after observing a water bottle being thrown from the window of the vehicle at protestors.
Officers also responded to three reports of juveniles spitting on, harassing and yelling profanities at demonstrators and throwing items off a parking ramp.
An officer initiated a crime prevention screen for Houdini Plaza, what the statement calls a "preventive presence."
Organizers of Monday’s march expect hundreds of people to walk through Appleton, but Carrier worries for activists’ safety.
“All these people throwing water bottles, running red lights, screaming obscenities at us have received no consequences and they are going to continue to do it unless the police actually get out,” Carrier said.
Demonstrators also are concerned about the police being stricter with issuing citations for noise violations and traffic obstructions.
In a recorded call with officer Adam Nagel, Roska explains her frustration with being cited with a noise violation for using a megaphone during a rally Sunday, while she had never been cited at other rallies for using a megaphone.
"We're going to be a lot more strict about things," Nagel told Roska during the phone call. "We are going to hold people accountable and not allow people to take over our streets or cause loud noise."
Appleton's ordinance doesn't allow the use of electronic sound amplification devices that project beyond 75 feet without a permit, or groups to obstruct streets and sidewalks.
Police Capt. Mike Frisch told The Post-Crescent one person had been cited with a noise violation and multiple people were cited for obstructing traffic.
But Frisch said there have been no discussions within the police department about being more strict with citations.
While the police said they have no new procedures on protests, rally organizer Jessica Alvarez told The Post-Crescent she received a call Tuesday from the city's interim communication specialist, Timber Smith, laying out the guidelines for protests.
"(Smith) said we have every right to protests and he's glad we're spreading our message but he wanted to give us some guidelines on how to keep everyone safe," Alvarez said.
In her Facebook post, Roska said she's frustrated and disappointed that Appleton police are giving out citations for protests.
"I'm angry and I'm tired and I understand that there are Appleton ordinances, but I would much rather pay a citation than lose my rights," Roska said in the video of her call with police.
Carrier said it came as a shock when officers gave out citations during this wave of abortion rights rallies because Appleton police had previously been helpful during protests.
“It's very unfortunate because we didn't see this during the BLM protests,” Carrier said.
During Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, Carrier remembers police blocking off streets for demonstrators and said she never heard of them giving protesters citations for noise violations.
“We’re not seeing the same action now,” Carrier said.
Grace Quinn, a climate strike organizer for Sunrise Movement Fox Valley, told The Post-Crescent citations will deter demonstrators from expressing their rights.
"Citations that are often given out at protests are done in a strategic way that is meant to intimidate protesters and to silence our voices," she said.
Fallon Buchholz, who organized an abortion rights rally in May, worries citations could deter people, especially low-income people, from protesting.
"Even if (citations are) only $250, low-income folks who need to fight for this right may not be able to afford that," they said.
Alvarez, the organizer of Monday’s abortion rights march, said she’s infuriated that the police are giving protesters citations.
“Police have no problem with fireworks going off all times at night, but they have an issue with us speaking our truths and fighting for our rights,” she said.
But even with police citing protesters, Alvarez said it won’t deter her from fighting for abortion rights.
“I came into this world kicking and screaming," she said. "I’m not afraid to go back out that way."
Sophia Voight can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 920-993-7102. Follow her on Twitter @sophia_voight.
This article originally appeared on Appleton Post-Crescent: Appleton abortion rights demonstrators frustrated by police response