The Hate Crime Committed in Milwaukee Was Disgraceful and Devastating. The Political Response Was Disappointing.

After Mahud Villalaz suffered a vicious, racist attack on Milwaukee’s south side, leaders alongside him put out a call to action to Wisconsin’s political leadership. Did they listen?

The Recombobulation Area is a new weekly column by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.

A violent and hateful act took place last Friday on the streets of Milwaukee. A local citizen, Mahud Villalaz, became the victim of an attack where acid was thrown onto his face, eye and neck, severely burning him. This happened as the attacker used racist, xenophobic, anti-immigrant words to denigrate Villalaz, an American citizen who was born in Peru. 

What happened is truly disgraceful, and it’s devastating to see this take place in our city. My heart goes out to this fellow Milwaukeean and his family for all they’ve had to endure. People like Villalaz who’ve come to this country for a better life should be welcomed, embraced and celebrated as the true American dream stories they are. The Hispanic community in Milwaukee makes this city a better place, and it is my sincere hope that more and more people continue to emigrate to this city and make it their home. All should feel welcome here. 

An act like what happened last week needs to be denounced and all of us who believe in freedom and equality and justice need to denounce it. It is not OK that this happened. It is not OK for someone to be physically attacked with harmful chemicals on a city street for any reason, much less as a target because of their race or ethnicity. It is not OK that this attacker said things like “go back to your country” or “why did you invade my country?” or call him an “illegal.” This was despicable and wrong, and when things like this happen, it weakens us as a community, as a city, as a state, as a country, as a people.

“Hate is what needs to stop,” said Villalaz, and he couldn’t be more right. 

Since the incident, the attacker, an older white male, has rightfully been arrested and charged with a hate crime. In the press conference following the news of the Milwaukee District Attorney’s charges, Villalaz — with scars just beginning to heal — appeared to be relieved, and expressed gratitude for the people helping him through the difficult process.  

When asked, Villalaz also said that the attacker was there on Milwaukee’s south side that Friday evening with the intention of hurting someone.

Days prior, the acid attack was described as “premeditated” by Darryl Morin, the Milwaukee-based president and chairman of Forward Latino, a Hispanic advocacy and service nonprofit working with Villalaz and his family. “No one walks around with a bottle of acid and hangs out in a predominantly Latino neighborhood for no reason," he said in the initial p

Morin, a former Republican who renounced the party over its nomination of Donald Trump, made a powerful statement in that press conference. 

He referenced several other incidents in recent years where violence has been inflicted upon the Hispanic community, such as a triple homicide in the metro Milwaukee area, where an American citizen was “shot for speaking Spanish,” and the recent racially-motivated mass shooting in El Paso, Texas. 

Along with these incidents, he also mentioned the election of Donald Trump. The day after the election, Morin said, Forward Latino’s phones were “ringing off the hook” with calls from schools asking for assistance because “students with predominant Hispanic features and Hispanic sounding names were being threatened and bullied and in a lot of cases beaten.” 

Morin then said this (11:45 mark in the video above):

“As the American public, as Wisconsinites, we can no longer tolerate the divisive, the hateful, disingenuous remarks being made by our nation's leader and by those who support him. That rhetoric turns into actions, the actions into hate, and we have these tragedies continue over and over again, not just here in Wisconsin, but across our country. So we stand here today and we ask Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald to come out and publicly condemn this act of hate. We ask Speaker Vos to do the same, as well as Governor Evers, senators Ron Johnson and Tammy Baldwin, and everyone. And we’ll see who really is standing up for Wisconsinites, who is really standing up for our constitution and democracy. There can be no great nation when hate is allowed to exist and actions taken against its citizens.”

Morin is absolutely correct to connect the words of President Trump to those of the attacker. Continued hateful demonization of immigrants has been a cornerstone of who Donald Trump has been as a candidate and as president. The call to action to Wisconsin’s political leadership to use their positions of power to publicly condemn this act and the hate that provoked it is a necessary step forward.

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So, what has happened since? Have these leaders responded to Morin’s passionate call to action?

Some have. 

State Representative JoCasta Zamarripa (D-Milwaukee), whose district is where the incident took place, joined Villalaz at the press conference and spoke condemning the attack, and about her own experience hearing phrases like “go back to your country.” She also issued a press release, saying “All our leaders should call out the horrifying racist ideology that has become a part of our political discourse. No one should be afraid of being attacked simply for being who they are.” She also posted this on Twitter:

Another elected representative from the district, Milwaukee alderman Jose Perez, had a statement issued at the press conference (full text here) and issued a press release. State Representative Tim Carpenter (D-Milwaukee), who grew up in that neighborhood, also issued a release saying, “Hate has no home here.”

State Democratic Party Chair Ben Wikler tweeted about the incident, saying “We must unite against hate.” Milwaukee congresswoman Gwen Moore issued a release and tweeted about the attack, saying, “These acts of hate aim to divide us, but Milwaukee will not stand for it. The fabric of our communities is strengthened by our diversity.”

Making perhaps the most waves of any elected official in response was Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who denounced the attack, and also said that President Trump’s anti-immigrant views fueled anger carried out by people like the attacker. 

Said Barrett

“This type of racial verbal attack and now physical attack is condoned in the highest level of governments in our country. This anger towards people of other countries is being fed by our president. And by his followers. And what we saw over the weekend is a manifestation of that anger...I don’t know what was in the mind of the man who threw acid in the man’s face. Who knows what is in the mind of a man who throws acid? But I can tell you this: we as a nation, and we as a city, have to do better than this. That means leaders in all levels of government, starting at the White House, have to just tone it down. We have differences, but let’s not create a feeding frenzy with this type of activity."

After charges were filed, Gov. Evers tweeted this:

But of the elected officials mentioned by name by Morin, Evers is the only to have made any public comment about the attack. To the best of my knowledge, no Wisconsin Republican has publicly condemned the act of hate. 

And as Morin noted in the Nov. 6 press conference, “We have a statement from the White House and one from the local party offices. Sadly, they only serve to defend this president.”

Here are those statements:

First, from White House Deputy Press Secretary Judd Deere:

"This Administration has repeatedly condemned racism, bigotry, and violence of all forms, and President Trump’s policies have reduced violent crime and made communities safer. The only person responsible for this heinous act is the person who committed it, and it’s disgusting the Mayor of Milwaukee would rather point the finger at the President of the United States for political reasons instead of responsibly confronting the violence in his own community."

And from Terry Dittrich, the chairman of the Republican Party of Waukesha County:

"The Republican Party of Waukesha County and all of its members are saddened by the horrible act of this crazed individual. In no shape or form would anyone from our County Party condone such a despicable action.

"Mayor Barrett's comment that this unfortunate incident in some way is connected to the President or our party is simply ridiculous."

It’s unfortunate that the highest office in the country couldn’t condemn this incident when called upon, and could respond except for through the prism of attacking the Democratic mayor. And it’s discouraging that the only response from any Republican in Wisconsin (to my knowledge) came from Dittrich, who followed the White House’s  lead, leaving much to be desired. No response at all almost would have been better.  


 Although some of our elected leaders spoke out about this incident in important ways, the overall response still leaves much to be desired. 

The leaders Morin named should all have already responded to his call and condemned the act, full stop. Fitzgerald, Vos, Johnson and Baldwin still could — and should — all speak out. 

All Democrats and Republicans should all be speaking out about this, in one united voice, to let the thousands of Hispanic people who live in this state know that they should not have to live in fear of attacks like this.

Republicans who support Trump bear added responsibility to say something. Because by supporting this president and refusing to call out his hateful words, members of his party are offering tacit approval of his anti-immigrant rhetoric. 

One member of Trump’s party who has repeatedly vocally agreed with the president on immigration is Rep. Glenn Grothman (R - Glenbeulah). On at least two separate occasions on the floor of the House of Representatives (Jan. 29 and June 11), Grothman has referred to immigration occuring at the southern border as an “invasion.” These are the words of the person who committed the heinous, hateful attack in Milwaukee, and it’s shameful that these are also the words of a Congressman from Wisconsin. We can’t pretend like the language used by people like the attacker just comes from hidden hateful places when the president and members of his party from this state are saying the same things.

So often, when Milwaukee or Wisconsin makes its way into the spotlight, elected officials trip over themselves to share a positive story about the community, about how people are noticing the city, or how something is “putting us on the map.” But as is so frequently the case, we’re put “on the map” in a negative light, too. This story went ultra-viral; it was unavoidable on social media. And when people around the country hear news from Milwaukee this week, they’re hearing about a racist attack against an immigrant. 

We have to do better. But part of doing better is having leaders who are willing to speak out, and who are going to work to put us on a path toward a better future, where horrifying, hate-fueled incidents like this don’t just come and go without condemnation. Elected officials like Mayor Barrett, state Rep. Zamarripa and others who have spoken out deserve praise for doing so. But who have sat idly by and said nothing are part of this story, too. 

Instead of the more limited response we saw, there should have been a resounding chorus of voices letting our Hispanic neighbors know that this should never happen, and that this attacker is going to be brought to justice, and that we are working to create an environment where disgraceful acts like this no longer not happen in our city and state.

This incident and the reaction to it is the latest to have illustrated the fact that many still are not yet understanding the political moment we’re in. The president and his words are dangerous, and they are threatening to people — people like Mahud Villalaz. 

Villalaz and people like him should feel welcome and safe in Milwaukee and in the United States of America. And those in power who fuel the hate of racist attackers should be condemned. We need to do a better job of providing that safe environment and condemning those who threaten it.

Said Morin: “What weakens our country here at home and abroad is when we passively support acts of hate and allow it to take root and grow.”

 The Villalaz family has set up a GoFundMe page to support Mahud’s ongoing medical expenses. It has raised more than $50,000 in less than a week. Go there to read the full account of the incident, and to donate, if you so choose.

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