Activists use protest as a tool to bring out the Badger vote

By: - November 2, 2020 3:42 pm

Rally to promote voting with Voces, Souls to the Polls by MTEA via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

After building a movement in the streets all summer, marching under the banner of Black Lives Matter, many activists, advocates and marchers are taking that momentum and their vote to the ballot box.

Even though many Wisconsinites have already voted early, turnout is expected to be high on Tuesday. Numerous first-time voters have told activists they plan to come out alongside veteran organizers who have kept the still ongoing protests alive for the last six months.

Voters wait in line to vote at Washington High School on April 7. Faith leaders in Milwaukee are preparing to help support voters who may encounter attempts to intimdate them at the polls on Election Day, Nov. 3. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

“We saw all summer how people were out in the streets marching for justice for George Floyd, Jacob Blake, Breonna Taylor and all the other Black and brown people that have been killed or harmed by racist policing,” Jon Jarmon, a Kenosha-based senior organizer with Working Families Party (WFP), tells Wisconsin Examiner. “What we’ve been doing now in Kenosha is working with local activists to take that energy that we’ve seen in the streets all summer, to translate that into political power. Because we need power in the streets and political power.”

A loosely knit tapestry of ideology and emotion first drew thousands of people out of quarantine and into the streets in May. As time passed the George Floyd protests scaled down in size, and became more focused on specific issues. In Milwaukee, continued pressure from the protests contributed to the demotion of Milwaukee police Chief Alfonso Morales, as well as policy changes to other local departments, and the suspension of a Wauwatosa officer involved in three fatal shootings over the last five years.

As the election drew closer, groups of marchers began encouraging fellow protesters, as well as people they encountered during their demonstrations, to vote. Some joined voter registration drives and organized carpools to the polls.

Protesters marching and gathering in Milwaukee during the first day of demonstrations. Riot police were a few meters away. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Protesters marching and gathering in Milwaukee during the first day of demonstrations. Riot police were a few meters away. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

“We haven’t only been protesting,” says Tanya McLean, a community organizer and friend of the family of Jacob Blake, who was shot in the back by Kenosha police, triggering massive public protests. McLean has also worked with WFP to help get the vote out in Kenosha. “Up until early vote we were holding voting registrations all over the City of Kenosha in areas that had a high percentage of people who were infrequent voters, or first-time voters, or Black and brown. And then once early vote, where you could register online, ended we were still out there every weekend just passing out information. Just making sure that the correct information was out there, and people were going to the correct locations to vote.”

In Milwaukee, the immigrant-rights group Voces de la Frontera has not only been holding its own demonstrations, mostly centered around worker protections during COVID, but also organizing to tap into the well of new and infrequent voters.


“We are leaving no stone unturned,” says Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of Voces de la Frontera Action. “With a combination of dedicated, tireless volunteers and the national attention we have received as a battleground state, we believe we are poised to have the largest showing of Latinx and multiracial young voters in the state’s history. Young people, especially, the children of undocumented parents, have been volunteering and using their new voting power to protect their families and community. Our voceros have built a network of thousands of voters to build the political power needed to defeat the far-right Trump Administration and his enablers at all levels of government.”

McLean helped organize a march in Kenosha where all the participants voted collectively. “We’re also hosting carpooling,” she says, “so we’re engaged in similar activities. We have been for the last six weeks.” On Monday evening at 6:30, McLean is joining the Blake family, veterans, and allies in an “occupy Kenosha event,” framed as a final push to the polls. Veterans will denounce the militarization of law enforcement, which has been on full display all summer, and hold a candle-light vigil to demand justice for those killed or harmed by police violence.

“This is a ‘vote like our lives depend on it’ moment, because they do,” says McLean. “Voting won’t fix everything, but without it we can’t fix anything. We need to deliver a crushing blow to Trump and everything he stands for, and then we need to hold Joe Biden and Wisconsin Democrats accountable for ending police violence and taking bold steps toward justice for Jacob Blake, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade and all victims of racist, brutal policing.”

Just a couple weekends ago the Blake family, with assistance from WFP and other activists, held a march in Milwaukee to get out the vote. It’s a chain of momentum that organizers are determined to feed directly into the ballot box.

“Trump is the mouthpiece for all the racists, and racist policing and policies that we’ve been seeing for centuries, for decades,” says Jarmon. “I think the people are really energized, and ready to get Trump out of there on Nov. 3.”

A doorway, not a destination

Although many fear what four more years of Trump could do to Black and brown communities, many activists also have mixed feelings about Biden. “People understand that the Biden administration is a doorway, it’s not a destination,” explains Jarmon. “And that means that we’ll have the opportunity to pressure the Biden administration to pass bold, structural changes for Black and brown people. So that means like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and a criminal legal system that serves justice and not racism.”

Regardless of the outcome of the election, activists on the ground know that the work will continue well beyond Inauguration Day. “This election is important,” notes Jarmon, “but in order to get progressive, bold structural changes done, we’re going to have to pressure the administration and hold them accountable to do things for Black and brown people. So I think organizing is going to be the key to that.”

Joe Biden In Final Debate Before Presidential Election
NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE –  Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden debates U.S. President Donald Trump at Belmont University on October 22, 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Jim Bourg-Pool/Getty Images)

McLean stresses that, “these issues are many, they’re not just about voting. They’re about the social injustices that are happening in our country.”

“[In] 2022, local elections will be coming around again in Wisconsin,” McLean adds. “So this will be a daily effort for us to continue to get the importance out of voting, and voting in your local election. Making sure that people know who they’re voting for, and what they stand for on their issues. So that the voters are informed when they do go to the ballot box.”

For McLean, one of the keys going forward will be to “empower people with the knowledge of what’s happening around them.” Through the presidential campaign, Biden has taken hits due to his past record of supporting tough-on-crime initiatives. The Democratic presidential candidate, while he talks about police reform, does not see defunding law enforcement as a path forward. Biden has not embraced Medicare for All, and has rejected other progressive policies promoted by his Democratic rivals in the presidential primary. Voters and activists are well aware of this, and are prepared to keep fighting.

“This won’t stop on Tuesday,” says McLean. “It will stop when there’s true equality in this country for regular working people. We’re going to continue to be out in the streets in the community making sure people know what’s happening to them. So that they can be informed, and make an informed decision when they do go to the ballot boxes.”

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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Holmes' video work dates back to his high school days at Wauwatosa East High, when he made a documentary about the local police department. Since then, his writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets. He was also featured in the 2018 documentary The Chase Key, and was the recipient of the Sierra Club Great Waters Group 2021 Environmental Hero of the Year award. The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council also awarded Holmes its 2021-2022 Media Openness Award for using the open records laws for investigative journalism. Holmes was also a finalist in the 2021 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards alongside the rest of the Wisconsin Examiner's staff. The Silver, or second place, award for Best Online Coverage of News was awarded to Holmes and his colleague Henry Redman for an investigative series into how police responded to the civil unrest and protests in Kenosha during 2020. Holmes was also awarded the Press Club's Silver (second-place) award for Public Service Journalism for articles focusing on police surveillance in Wisconsin.