Madison police investigating arson, threat at office of prominent anti-abortion group

·3 min read
Damaged books are strewn across the office of Wisconsin Family Action director Julaine Appling Sunday morning in Madison.
Damaged books are strewn across the office of Wisconsin Family Action director Julaine Appling Sunday morning in Madison.

MADISON - Madison police are investigating arson after a fire broke out early Sunday in the offices of a prominent anti-abortion group and a threat was spray painted on the group's building.

The incident took place a week after a leaked draft of U.S. Supreme Court decision showing a majority of justices plan to vote to overturn the court's landmark 1973 ruling that legalized abortion. If that happens an 1849 law banning most abortions would go into effect in Wisconsin.

Update: No suspects yet in the arson of the Madison headquarters of anti-abortion group Wisconsin Family Action

"If abortions aren't safe then you aren't either" was scrawled in black paint across the outside wall of Wisconsin Family Action's offices in Madison — a threat that was found by police while responding to a call early Sunday reporting flames inside the building on the capital city's north side.

"To be honest with you, I knew immediately what had happened," Wisconsin Family Action President Julaine Appling said in an interview, referring to her initial conversation with police officers.

Appling said police notified her about 7:45 a.m. while she was at church in Watertown, about 42 miles away. The first call to police reporting flames in Appling's office arrived at around 6 a.m.

"A molotov cocktail, which did not ignite, was thrown inside the building. It also appears a separate fire was started in response," investigators wrote Sunday in a report on the incident.

Madison Police Chief Shon Barnes in a statement said the department is investigating the fire as arson.

A threat is spray painted on the building wall near Wisconsin Family Action's offices in Madison.
A threat is spray painted on the building wall near Wisconsin Family Action's offices in Madison.

"You know, you can disagree with me. And I don't mind being disagreed with. But to threaten the safety of my team because we have a different opinion on an issue — an important issue, I'll grant you that. That doesn't give you credence to threaten my life, and then turn around and damage property," Appling said.

"If somebody had been in that office, I don't think anybody would have been killed, but you would have been hurt just from the flying glass."

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers in a statement condemned the violence against the group.

"We reject violence against any person for disagreeing with another’s view. Violence is not the way forward. Hurting others is never the answer," Evers said in a statement. "We will work against overturning Roe and attacks on reproductive rights by leading with empathy and compassion."

A window to Wisconsin Family Action director Julaine Appling's office is boarded up Sunday morning.
A window to Wisconsin Family Action director Julaine Appling's office is boarded up Sunday morning.

Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson tweeted, "This attack is abhorrent and should be condemned by all."

In a statement, Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said the city "believes strongly in the right to free speech, but it must be exercised nonviolently by all sides in this increasingly contentious debate."

Barnes said local police investigators have notified federal authorities about the incident.

"Our department has and continues to support people being able to speak freely and openly about their beliefs. But we feel that any acts of violence, including the destruction of property, do not aid in any cause."

Appling said she hasn't yet assessed the level of damage to the offices or whether the organization will move to a space with fewer windows.

Wisconsin Family Action has for years pushed Wisconsin and federal lawmakers to outlaw abortions. The leaked Supreme Court opinion has heightened the emotions of supporters and opponents of abortion access over the already intensely controversial issue that has spurred violence in the past.

In 2016, a Planned Parenthood clinic in Appleton closed after it had been firebombed four years earlier and following a deadly attack of a clinic in Colorado.

"I don't live in fear. And I'm not constantly looking over my shoulder. I've had death threats at my house and over other issues. This one, this one surprised me," Appling said.

More: Following Supreme Court opinion leak, activists protest, call for abortion rights

More: Ron Johnson predicts Wisconsin's near-total ban on abortions wouldn't last long if Roe v. Wade is overturned

Contact Molly Beck at molly.beck@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MollyBeck.

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Madison police investigating arson, threat at Wisconsin Family Action