In the Wisconsin Senate race, an ad from Republican Sen. Ron Johnson selectively pulls comments made by his opponent, Democrat Mandela Barnes, from an interview days after a deadly attack on police in Dallas. The ad claims Barnes “rationalized violence” against police, but it ignores that Barnes said the killings were “not justified in any way” and that he “denounced” the attack.
The ad starts with TV news coverage of the July 7, 2016, sniper attack on Dallas police officers in which five officers were killed. A lone gunman, who was later killed in an explosion after a standoff with police, had opened fire during what had been a peaceful protest and march. The protest was in response to deadly police shootings that week of two Black men, in Louisiana and Minnesota.
A narrator in the ad then says of the Dallas attack: “Just days after this horrific crime, Mandela Barnes appeared on Vladimir Putin’s propaganda news outlet and rationalized violence against American police officers.”
That’s followed by a clip of Barnes saying: “Police officers are over-exercising their badges,” and, “This probably was a retaliatory attack.”
Barnes, now the lieutenant governor of Wisconsin, was interviewed on RT, the Russian state-owned TV network, on July 9, 2016, when he was a state representative. And he said those words, but not in succession, and the first comment didn’t pertain to the attack in Dallas. It’s the words the ad leaves out that show Barnes condemned the violence against Dallas police and violence in general.
The RT interview began with the news anchor asking Barnes about recent “fatalities as a result of police violence.” Barnes responded, talking about these “two very tragic incidents,” referring to the fatal police shootings in Louisiana, in which Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old Black man was killed during an encounter with Baton Rouge police officers on July 5, 2016, and in Minnesota, in which Philando Castile, a 32-year-old Black man was killed by a St. Anthony police officer during a traffic stop on July 6, 2016.
“And again, what the problem is these police, these police districts, these police officers across the country, they haven’t reformed their patterns and practices,” Barnes continued. “And that’s the, that’s the scary part about it. Because when they see that nothing is going to happen, when anybody can get away with something, you’re going to do it. And that’s what’s happening all the time. These police officers are over-exercising their badges. … And it’s a very unfortunate set of circumstances.”
Barnes then immediately added: “Unfortunately, Dallas is a completely separate situation than this, than these two.”
So when Barnes said “police officers are over-exercising their badges” — the quote featured in the ad — he wasn’t talking about the attack in Dallas.
The next question from the RT anchor was: “Some people are seeing this shooting in Dallas as, as a kickback to police brutality. What’s your take on that?”
Barnes began by denouncing the attack. “So what I’ll say, you know, like I’ve said before, is people are very upset, and there’s no way that the Dallas police officers, that killing is not justified in any way. I have repeatedly denounced that. I don’t condone violence in any way. I get so mad about police killings because … I don’t want anybody to die. But we want everybody to be able to live peacefully, live in a safe environment. So that’s, that’s the first thing.
“And this probably was a retaliatory attack where somebody just said, ‘You know what, I’m tired of this happening in our country. I’m tired of this happening, and I’m tired of waking up and this being the news. I’m tired of this being the new norm.’ And you had a frustrated individual, somebody who took matters into his own hands. And I don’t justify it, it should not have happened. That’s not the way that you solve the crisis, because it only makes these police officers even more tense, which creates more scary situations for people.”
That’s the context for Barnes’ remark, also featured in the ad, that “this probably was a retaliatory attack.” But left out of the TV spot is the fact that Barnes said the Dallas attack was “not justified in any way” and that “it should not have happened.”
The day after the ambush on Dallas police, the city’s police chief, David Brown, said the shooter had said his motive was retaliatory. “He said he was upset about the recent police shootings,” Brown said. “The suspect said he was upset at white people. The suspect stated he wanted to kill white people, especially white officers.”
In the RT interview, Barnes reiterated his thoughts on the attack: “So while it may have been a retaliatory act by one person, again, that is a lone wolf situation. Does not [in] any way represent the feelings of the majority of Americans. Like we don’t want more people killed. We want less people killed. That’s the reason we get upset. That’s the reason we protest. That’s reason we, you know, we we have all this outrage, is for less violence.”
He addressed the deadly attack a few more times in the interview, saying, “We can’t take our, you know, attention off of the two incidents that happened before Dallas. Not to say that we should forget about Dallas, because we absolutely shouldn’t. That’s not a situation that should have ever happened.”
At the end of the interview, Barnes spoke again about the killings of Sterling and Castile. “I look at myself, I look at my friends, this could have been any one of us in that situation, and it should never have been that way and to see how slow justice, you know, happens in those instances when it involves police officers. People get very upset, and that’s why you see what happened in Dallas and again, not to justify it because it shouldn’t have happened. But people have been pushed to a breaking point.”
When we asked the Barnes campaign about the ad, spokesperson Maddy McDaniel said that Barnes “has repeatedly condemned violence, including the shooting that claimed the lives of the officers in Dallas.”
The Johnson campaign defended the ad. “He provided multiple reasons why he can understand why this sort of thing would happen — by definition rationalizing means to create a reason, explanation, or excuse for something. He’s doing exactly that,” spokesperson Alec Zimmerman told us.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel unearthed Barnes’ 2016 RT interview and five others he gave to the Kremlin-backed network that year and the year prior. The newspaper reported in the Oct. 13 story that RT had been part of a Russian influence effort to, in the words of the New York Times in 2020, “push divisive racial narratives, including stories emphasizing allegations of police abuse in the United States.”
The Barnes campaign confirmed to us that he was not paid to appear on RT.
Readers can form their own opinions about Barnes’ interview. But in order to do so, they should have the context of Barnes’ quotes, including his condemnations of the killings of Dallas police officers. The Johnson campaign ad omits that information.
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