Activists see increased consciousness of race and class following 2020 election

“We’re just getting started”

Protesters, activists, and residents gather to march on the DNC in Milwaukee Wisconsin, August 20th. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Protesters, activists, and residents gather to march on the DNC in Milwaukee Wisconsin, August 20th. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

Following the 2020 presidential election, activists and organizers are planning how best to confront some of the tactics used by the Trump campaign to cast doubt on the election’s results. “The core insight that we really are working from here,” says Doran Schrantz, executive director of Faith in Minnesota, “is a recognition that the right-wing narrative, which has been around for a long time, focuses on stoking, exacerbating, doubling down on racial fears.” While some of those fears can be rather complex, Schrantz noted, “they can be very simple codes of ‘Detroit’ or ‘Milwaukee’ as, of course, code for Black people.”

Although the Trump campaign’s attempts at recounts, election lawsuits, and misinformation about widespread voter fraud were unsuccessful, the message of those efforts was received loud and clear. In Wisconsin, the only municipalities ordered to recount their ballots were Milwaukee and Dane counties. Following the recount, not only did president-elect Joe Biden retain his Wisconsin victory, but his campaign walked away with a few more votes than they had before.

That’s not surprising, since the recount only targeted Democratic-leaning areas with more minority voters than in the rest of the state (where the election was closer). Despite the absence of any concrete evidence, the idea that “fraud” is perpetrated by voters of color in cities has become a set piece for Republicans, and a justification for making it harder for people of color, young people, and residents of cities to vote.

Rebecca Lynch, of All in Wisconsin (screenshot from zoom meeting by Isiah Holmes)
Rebecca Lynch, of All in Wisconsin (screenshot from Zoom meeting by Isiah Holmes)

Whether or not President Donald Trump goes quietly, grassroots organizers have plans to chip away at those sorts of political tactics. On Dec. 14 several groups from Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin joined together on a Zoom call to discuss how “race-forward messaging” overcame “blunted right-wing race baiting” during the election.

“Earlier this year we began building a coalition around race-class narrative work here in Wisconsin,” said Rebecca Lynch, a Madison-based organizer with All in Wisconsin, during the call. “And it brought together community organizations, issue advocates, from across our progressive coalition. And, really, across race and across county. Through that work we did three things. We built infrastructure, we built alignment, and we built capacity.” Lynch called this work “transformative when it came to weathering all the twists and turns that 2020 had for us.”

Rural and urban activists in the network explored what Lynch calls “race-class narrative.”

“So we had people who were leaders and organizers in Milwaukee’s North Side collaborating and strategizing with folks who exclusively organized in, like, up-north Wisconsin.”

The group was able to coalesce around what they saw as the Wisconsin values they shared. “We met for hours talking about Wisconsin,” Lynch says, “talking about what Wisconsin values are — whether it’s our shared resilience, or helping our neighbors, and what our shared vision is for the future.” As a result, “we emerged with the strongest alignment in values that or coalitions had had in years,” says Lynch.

Building that unity was a year-long process. After the death of George Floyd, different groups put their newly found infrastructures to work. “And then, months later, Kenosha police brutalized Jacob Blake,” says Lynch, “shooting him several times in the back. Which was then, very quickly, followed by a white armed extremist murdering two people who were marching alongside our friends and neighbors for a future where Black folks in Wisconsin can thrive and their humanity is affirmed.”

The Trump administration put its own spin on these events — from the selective deployment of federal troops in Democrat-led cities like Portland and Milwaukee to selective calls for recounts and lawsuits. Meanwhile, some on the ground felt disregarded by those in government.

“We saw how many of our leaders struggled to respond to this moment,” says Lynch. “We had top officials in the state plead with protesters to remain peaceful, which of course invisibilized the real violence that was happening from police and from armed extremists. And it did a lot to erase what we were talking about and how we were going about coming together in our communities.”

Protesters gather at Wauwatosa City Hall to dance, mingle, and prepare for a short march. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Protesters gather at Wauwatosa City Hall to dance, mingle, and prepare for a short march. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

As President Donald Trump parachuted into Kenosha following the unrest, the Blake family organized voting registration and election-oriented marches. Meanwhile, the seeds of grassroots organizing were also sowed in rural Wisconsin.

“It wasn’t just people in Kenosha, or Milwaukee, or folks in Madison talking about this,” says Lynch. Throughout the state, organizers were canvasing in rural areas, elected officials were making statements, and activists were engaging in member-to-member communications, having “real conversations about the state of race in our country,” and how it relates to healthcare and other issues.

In many ways, 2020 has exposed America’s racial and political divides. As pointed out by the Poor People’s Campaign leading up to the election, different swaths of American communities are united by the economic struggles they find themselves in. That led to the sort of coalition-building Lynch describes, intensified by the fervor of the Trump administration’s rhetoric.

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Going forward, these newly found relationships and infrastructures will only get stronger, organizers say. “We’re just getting started,” Lynch tells Wisconsin Examiner. “There was a lot of joy and creative collaboration in the work we did this year, under enormous pressure. But what folks are really excited about doing is envisioning the future and looking forward to how we change things in Wisconsin to make this a more vibrant, thriving place for everyone.”

Many organizers on the ground refer to president-elect Joe Biden  as “a doorway, not a destination.” They plan to keep the pressure on the Biden administration and on state leaders.

“A couple ways in which I think this is going to show up is, obviously, COVID-19 is with us and our Republican-led Legislature has not convened over COVID-19 in over six months,” says Lynch. “So I think really starting to put the pressure on to say, ‘We really need to see certain things for people to be able to survive. But also for our state to thrive.’” At the local level, in Milwaukee and other cities, there is citizens pressure on elected leaders to “re-imagine community safety and policing, and how we can change our budgets around that,” she adds.

Lynch sees fair maps as another key issue going into next year. In the near term, her group is focused on the state budget. She calls the upcoming budget discussions “an incredible opportunity to talk about what we want to see. And people are really excited to work together for the first time in a few years to talk about a shared platform, and shared issues.”