Death of Black man spurs Beltline protest, police chief says the case is “absolutely not” about race

Published: Sep. 25, 2020 at 10:48 PM CDT
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MONONA, Wis. (WMTV) - The death of a Black man following a high-speed chase with Monona Police spurred protesters to shut down a portion of the Beltline on Thursday, but the police chief maintains that race had nothing to do with the driver’s death.

“It’s not like were targeting people or anything like that," Walter Ostrenga told NBC15. “It’s just aggressive driving, it’s high speed driving and poor decisions by the people that are operating these vehicles.”

The police chief referred to the Sept. 17 incident, which is currently under investigation by the Department of Justice (DOJ).

Friday, the Dane County Medical Examiner’s Office identified the driver as 24-year-old Elliot Johnson.

According to the DOJ, a Monona police officer had tried to stop the “reckless driver.” After Johnson crashed his car, the officer heard a single gunshot.

The DOJ’s update notes: “Life saving measures were unsuccessful and the driver died on scene. No law enforcement officer on scene fired their firearm during the incident.”

But a week after Johnson died, NBC15 reported that a group of about 30 people formed a blockade on the Beltline near South Towne Drive, shutting down all nearby eastbound lanes.

“They think that we’re just out here to be mischievous and to wreak havoc," a protest organizer from the group Black Umbrella said. “But the truth is, it’s people in pain. It’s people that are angry, people that are hurt. You do what you got to do to get the message across.”

When asked whether a cookout on the highway was the best means of displaying pain, the organizer, who goes by the name “Radical,” answered, “Oh yeah. Absolutely.”

He continued, “You know what’s funny? When we come out here [to the Capitol Square] and host events, we can stand on the sidewalk and people will walk right past. They could care less. But when you’re out in the middle of the street and people can’t drive through, then they finally wonder what’s going on.”

While Chief Ostrenga maintained that Johnson’s case had nothing to do with race or police brutality, the protest organizer disagreed.

“Of course its about race,” he said. “We’re not hearing about a White guy in a high-speed chase who dies. We’re hearing about him in a high-speed chase and then we get to see his mugshot in the newspaper.”

Ostrenga suggested that protesters call him for a face-to-face conversation about his officers.

“They’re not going down the street hunting for people just because of the color of their skin," Ostrenga said. “That absolutely 100 percent does not happen.”

But protesters said their demonstrations have been their ongoing signals of wanting to talk.

Copyright 2020 WMTV. All rights reserved.

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