BLM counter protesters and anti-vote Trump supporters clash at the Wisconsin State Capitol. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)
On Wednesday evening, the city of Milwaukee will be the site of the first Republican presidential primary debate, one year before the city plays host to the Republican National Convention (RNC). Hotel rooms downtown are filling, charging higher rates to accommodate the politicians, pundits and security teams that have been arriving ahead of the debate. It’s an unnerving time for much of Milwaukee’s left-leaning activist community, with some groups concerned about who else the debate may draw to the city. Nevertheless, a coalition is planning to protest outside both the debate and, next summer, the RNC.
A noon press conference Wednesday outside Milwaukee’s Turner Hall has been organized by groups calling themselves the Coalition to March on the RNC 2024. The coalition plans to rally against what it describes as a “racist and reactionary agenda” pushed by Republican politicians. Wednesday’s demonstrations “will serve as a warm-up” for the RNC, the coalition states.
“We must be prepared to meet the racist and reactionary GOP whenever they decide to claim space in our cities,” Tom Burke, a national spokesperson for the coalition, said in a press statement. “That’s why we’ll be taking the streets with hundreds of people on Aug. 23, and once again with thousands on July 15 next year. We’re uniting the masses of people to fight back against the Republicans and to win.”
The debate — which will be held at the city’s $524 million Fiserv Forum — will feature eight Republican presidential candidates: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former Vice President Mike Pence, tech and finance CEO Vivek Ramaswamy, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, entrepreneur Doug Burgum, and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Former President Donald Trump, who is leading by a large margin in recent polls, announced on social media that he won’t attend the debates. “The public knows who I am & what a successful Presidency I had,” Trump wrote on his platform Truth Social. “I WILL THEREFORE NOT BE DOING THE DEBATES!”
Still, Trump’s “America first” policies have become the policies of the Republican party, with most of the other candidates endorsing Trump’s calls for cracking down on undocumented immigration and building a wall at the southern border, increasing police powers, and embracing divisive rhetoric on issues of race, gender and sexual identity.
Trump remains the favorite among Republican voters, despite the fact that since leaving the White House, he’s accumulated over 90 criminal charges, spanning four federal indictments across Georgia, Florida, New York, and the District of Columbia. The day after the debate, Trump is expected to turn himself into the Fulton County jail in Georgia.
Kyle Johnson, a Kenosha-area member of Black Leaders Organizing Communities (BLOC), says safety and the temperature of rhetoric have always been concerns when planning demonstrations. But those worries have grown more pressing since 2020. “That’s just the dynamics and the environment that we exist in today,” Johnson told Wisconsin Examiner.
Earlier election cycles didn’t feature groups like Patriot Front, the Boogaloo Boys, the Three Percenters and the Proud Boys, which have gained reputations for violence against perceived enemies. For residents in Kenosha, nearly an hour from Milwaukee, memories of armed right-wing militias answering a call to confront Black Lives Matter protesters, and the fatal shootings which followed, are still fresh. Since 2020, white supremacist activity linked to Patriot Front, the Base, and other groups have been documented in Republican strongholds like Waukesha County.
“It’s really ratcheted up,” says Johnson. BLOC doesn’t have any specific plans to demonstrate during the debates, and announced that leaders will be leaving town during the RNC because of safety concerns. Those concerns are fueled by Republican politicians’ rhetoric targeting the LGBTQ community — particularly transgender and gender non-binary people — immigrants, Black people and other marginalized groups. Johnson said that BLOC plans to release a statement denouncing the GOP presidential debate being held in Milwaukee, saying that the candidates have spread “dangerous rhetoric, racist rhetoric, transphobic and homophobic rhetoric.” He added, “We know anywhere where there’s folks like that gathered in a multitude of numbers, it probably is not the place for us to be. We’re making sure that we’re keeping our folks safe and we’ll do some stuff from afar. We’ll probably tweet out if they’re saying anything wild or misinforming, but no physical actions planned.”
Johnson says there’s a feeling in some activist circles that Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson made a mistake by welcoming Republicans to Milwaukee, a city that has been the target of attacks by Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature, and that is the home to most of the state’s residents of color and overwhelmingly Democratic.
There’s a feeling of, “what are we opening ourselves up to…What has the mayor opened us up to?” he says.
In an interview with Politico, Milwaukee’s mayor said the city will be “gracious hosts” to the RNC “because that’s what you should be.” He added, “we’re asking everyone to be on their best behavior.” Speaking out against the RNC being held in Milwaukee is “the easy way out,” Mayor Johnson said.
Juan Garcia, organizing director for Voces de la Frontera Action, a group that advocates for the rights of immigrant workers, says that while it’s good to be open to discussion, Voces and its allies find “the Republican silence” on Trump’s bigoted rhetoric and on the Jan. 6 insurrection deeply troubling. For immigrants’ rights advocates, policies pushed by Trump and DeSantis targeting migrants are a particular concern.
“The silence has been very loud lately when it comes to what happened Jan. 6,” says Garcia. He adds that he hopes Mayor Johnson and other city officials stop to consider the dangerous rhetoric spread by the guests they’ve invited to Milwaukee, as well as who some of their followers are. “Just be a little bit careful in the future as to the agitation and escalation that has happened since 2020,” he says. Voces de la Frontera Action plans to join the protests against the Republican debate on Wednesday. Voces members will gather in front of the group’s offices at 3 p.m. and board a bus to join other Coalition groups preparing to march on the Fiserv Forum.
Marchers will include members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Fight for $15, anti-war activists, the Poor People’s Campaign, the Progressive League of Senior Voters, Congresswoman Gwen Moore and former Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes. More demonstrations with coalition groups are planned at Red Arrow Park, which has been the site of many protests since the 2014 killing of Dontre Hamilton by a Milwaukee police officer.
The protests are expected to be family friendly, peaceful, and have volunteers serving as peace and street marshals. “We do have concerns when it comes to safety and when it comes to agitators trying to get in our face, or trying to just provoke something,” says Garcia. “But we know as a group what our goal is, and we don’t want the headlines to be anything else but the stories of our immigrant members. So we’re going there prepared to calm down any situation that emerges, but we hope that it doesn’t happen.”
“We stand united in a vision for Wisconsin that includes the freedom to make our own reproductive choices, where our Black, Brown and multi-racial neighbors and friends can safely thrive in our communities, and where no LGBTQ+ person has to live in fear and hostility due to escalating attacks on their community,” says a joint statement from SEIU Wisconsin, For our Future Wisconsin, All in Wisconsin, Fair Wisconsin, Americans for Contraception, Climate Power, Voces de la Frontera Action, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin, Human Rights Campaign, and A Better Wisconsin Together.
“The Republican politicians taking part in this week’s Presidential debate do not represent our values or vision for Wisconsin, but instead have endorsed harmful policy positions that hurt our shared freedoms, safety, and prosperity.”
This article has edited to clarify that Voces de la Frontera Action is the specific branch of the immigrant rights organization which will be involved in protests during the Republican debates.
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