The Riot Kitchen bus was never supposed to be in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The caravan of members of the Seattle-based food nonprofit were driving cross-country to the March on Washington, D.C. when Kenosha Police shot Jacob Blake on August 23. The group detoured to Wisconsin to support growing protests against police brutality there.
But they never got the chance to help.
The same police department — whose officers shot the unarmed Black man seven times in the back — arrested eight activists with US Marshal's assistance and impounded three vehicles soon after Riot Kitchen arrived in the city.
Part of the arrests were caught on video, which shows officers who appear to be in the Kenosha Police, as well as at least one federal Marshal detaining members of Riot Kitchen near their converted school bus, then smashing in the windows of the group's minivan and dragging them into unmarked vehicles.
The group was at a Speedway gas station filling up fuel jugs to run the generators that power its kitchen and living areas on the bus when they were arrested by officers with weapons drawn. A leader with the nonprofit said the group's purpose is to de-escalate protests by providing free food for demonstrators.
The presence of federal agents immediately invited comparisons to Portland, where activists were snatched off the street by federal police driving unmarked cars. In a statement, the U.S. Marshals Service confirmed to Insider that its agents were working with local law enforcement in addressing criminal activities involving rioting, looting and other federal crimes. Booking information shows that the arrests of Riot Kitchen's activists originated with the Kenosha Police.
—riotkitchen206 (@riotkitchen206) August 27, 2020
In a statement released Thursday, the Kenosha PD claimed that a "citizen tip" alerted them to "several suspicious vehicles" with out of state license plates. After surveilling the group, the KPD, assisted by U.S. Marshals, arrested the activists at the gas station. The KPD's statement says that filling the fuel cans led officers to suspect that the activists were "preparing for criminal activity."
Jennifer Schurle, a member of Riot Kitchen's board of directors, said the group was preparing to help protesters and was not breaking the law.
"We reject all claims that our crew was there to incite violence or build explosives," Schurle said in a statement on Friday. "Our nonprofit organization has always been and will always be about feeding people."
The group contends that officers — who can be seen in the video with drawn weapons — did not identify themselves. The KPD's statement claims that officers did identify themselves on approach. Schurle's statement says that after their arrest, members of the collective were "thrown into holding cells and kept for hours without water or blankets and denied phone calls to their loved ones."
Two of the eight volunteers arrested were released on bond Thursday, while the rest were held until Friday, close to 48 hours after their arrest. They were held in Kenosha's County Jail in pre-trial detention, all on misdemeanor disorderly conduct charges, according to booking information available through the Kenosha County Sheriffs' Department. After their release, activists struggled for several more hours to reclaim their personal belongings like phones and wallets from the police department.
Art Heitzer, a member of the Wisconsin National Lawyers' Guild's steering committee, told Insider that long hold times are a tactic police use to keep activists off the streets, citing similar patterns of arrests during the 2008 Republian National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota. Heitzer said the Riot Kitchen crew were not alone in their experience.
"We know of activists from the Southeast Wisconsin area who were picked up and held more than 24 hours, which is unusual," Heitzer said. "The numbers of people admitted to the Kenosha County Jail do not appear to justify any such delays." According to inmate records, 52 people were booked into the jail in between August 26 and August 27.
Heitzer noted that the KPD's statement claims the arrests were "spurred by reports of suspicious looking people or vehicles, without any definition of what suspicious meant."
In a statement released Friday, the NLG alleged this was part of a double standard, in which law enforcement specifically targeted mobile kitchen workers and other supporting activists like street medics.
"The Milwaukee NLG expresses its extreme concern over the actions of the Kenosha police and law-enforcement authorities in Kenosha, including the apparent double standard in seizing and arresting street medics and those attempting to supply food in a mobile kitchen, although failing to enforce the curfew against -- and even encouraging -- heavily armed militia, including the 17-year-old admitted killer of protesters.
We are also concerned and investigating video documentation and eyewitness reports of civilians being seized off the street or from inside their cars, and forced into unmarked vehicles, often with no license plates, by unknown authorities, and then being held without processing for many, many hours."
Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old militia member charged with killing two protesters on Tuesday, was allowed free reign of the city while carrying a firearm, and accepted a gift of bottled water from police officers before the shooting.
The KPD alleges that gas masks, body armor, and "illegal fireworks" were discovered in vehicles associated with Riot Kitchen. The KPD did not return Insider's request for clarification on the nature of items discovered in the vehicles. As of Monday, Riot Kitchen's vehicles are still in the city impound lot.