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Community activist freed from federal custody, as supporters question legitimacy of charges

Four white United States Marshals guide Vaun Mayes, dressed in drab blue prison clothing and dull orange slippers, down a second floor hallway of the Federal Courthouse downtown. His head is bare, hands and feet shackled. A crowd of community members watch, and eventually follow single-file, as Mayes is led into one of the building’s many courtrooms.

It’s the second time in three days a large contingent of community folks have turned out to support Mayes, a well-known activist recently accused of plotting to firebomb the District 7 police station in late 2016. Mayes was formally indicted by a grand jury in a closed hearing Tuesday.

A judge ruled two days earlier that Mayes should not remain incarcerated during his trial, as the government did not present “clear and convincing” evidence he is a flight risk or “danger to the community.” Mayes was scheduled to be released within 24 hours of the judge’s ruling, but the government appealed the decision, citing the “violent and dangerous” nature of the allegations and additional allegations of witness intimidation.

During the appeal hearing, U.S. Attorney Christopher Ladwig argued that Mayes is dangerous, casting him as an individual who uses his influence to persuade young people to commit violent acts and utilizes intimidation tactics to silence opponents. Ultimately, when pressed, Ladwig admitted his evidence was “circumstantial,” and Judge Pamela Pepper upheld the previous ruling, to a cheer from supporters.

Pepper encouraged people to let the case play out in the courtroom. “It is not a help to Mr. Mayes if people take the process into their own hands.”

In an exclusive interview with Milwaukee Stories after being released Mayes said he was touched by the showing of family, friends and community members. As he sat in the courtroom reading a letter of support before the appeal hearing, Mayes said, “I literally was crying.”

Mayes, who began patrolling Sherman Park in June 2016 to help de-escalate fights between area youth, is a prominent and controversial figure. Since then, he and Program the Parks co-founder Gabriel Taylor have provided regular meals, activities and direction for area youth, many of whom are in challenging situations. (Full disclosure: Milwaukee Stories Founder and Editor-in-Chief Jabril Faraj has covered Mayes, Taylor and Program the Parks since around the time of the unrest, and has made personal donations to the organization; Program the Parks is a supporter of Milwaukee Stories)

According to law enforcement, the firebombing was set to take place August 15, 2016, two days after Sylville K. Smith was shot and killed by a Milwaukee police officer. A criminal complaint written by Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) agent Rick Hankins claims — based on the word of two unnamed informants that Mayes was present at an apartment where materials to make Molotov cocktails were found, and that he manufactured some of the illegal explosives himself. Hankins writes that ATF found Molotov cocktails in a dumpster behind the apartment building, just off Sherman Boulevard; additional materials were found inside one of the apartments.

According to the complaint, a search of Mayes’ home found bottles of Everfresh juice and wine coolers, apparently identical to those found in the dumpsters. No Molotov cocktails, or any other materials, were found at Mayes’ apartment.

Mayes is charged with attempted arson, possession of a firearm and “possession of a destructive device in relation to a crime of violence.” The charges would carry a minimum of 30 years’ imprisonment.

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Mayes is led, shackled, into the second floor courtroom. (Photo by Jabril Faraj)

The plot of which Mayes is accused was never carried out. And, the timing of his arrest has caused many to question the legitimacy of the charges.

“I don’t believe any of this — I don’t,” said Aisha Carr, a teacher who has spent time helping Mayes and others with programming in Sherman Park. “This man ruffled feathers … he disrupted the system.”

Carr said Mayes’ community policing and youth work has shown people how to help themselves, and not rely on the government. “He’s done the work a lot of others should’ve done a long time ago.”

Suzelle Lynch, a Minister at Unitarian Universal Church West, said Mayes has effectively subverted the established system because he builds relationships with people, regardless of skin color or social class; she believes he’s been targeted because of it.

Mayes’ relationship with law enforcement has often been adversarial and, at times, confrontational; he and Taylor have said this stems from officers’ tendencies to criminalize the young people they work with. Mayes was arrested multiple times by Milwaukee police during and after Smith’s shooting and the unrest that followed, despite reports that he was working to diffuse tensions. The Milwaukee Police Department’s distaste for Mayes is not a secret; officers have even, at times, been known to speak disparagingly of him in public.

Historically, Black social justice leaders have often found themselves at odds with law enforcement. MPD surveilled and harassed NAACP Youth Council Commandos during the Open Housing Marches in Milwaukee; Chicago Police murdered 21-year-old Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in 1969; and the FBI systematically infiltrated and destroyed “subversive” political organizations — including civil rights and Black Power groups — with its Counter Intelligence Program, dubbed COINTELPRO. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, determined to prevent a cohesive Black movement from forming, used psychological warfare, smear campaigns, wrongful imprisonment and assassination to intimidate individuals and destabilize organizations.

The Jeff Sessions-led Department of Justice has renewed interest in “Black Identity Extremists,” who it claims are a violent threat to law enforcement. A report, prepared by the FBI’s Domestic Terrorism Analysis Unit, says activists’ “perceptions of unjust treatment,” grievances regarding police violence and a discriminatory criminal justice system have caused retaliation against law enforcement that will eventually lead to premeditated attacks. The crackdown has been compared to COINTELPRO.

“I’m really just speechless,” said state assembly candidate Danielle McClendon-Williams as she emerged from the courtroom. “I just don’t get it.”

Reverend Ellen Rasmussen, of Brown Deer United Methodist, who spoke on Mayes’ behalf during the appeal, said she’s “very grateful he’s being released.” She described him as skilled organizer who transforms lives “in a positive manner.”

“Vaun has been instrumental in the healing of our neighbors,” said Rasmussen. “He senses, listens and responds with compassion and hope.”

Though supporters know this is only the beginning, the mood was noticeably light in the aftermath of the decision. The plan for that night: celebration, complete with a large batch of banana pudding. “It’s Vaun’s favorite,” said Lavita Booker, who has also worked closely with Mayes. “We’ll take this a day at a time.”

Mayes, looking relieved, reunited with Booker and Taylor outside. He tied his red, green and black durag back into place under the gaze of two photographs straddling the courthouse entrance — one of President Donald Trump; the other, Vice President Pence.

“Now,” Mayes said, “I can fight.”

The United States Attorney’s Office and Milwaukee Police Department did not respond to requests for comment.

Isiah Holmes co-authored this report

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