Protesters gather in Milwaukee to march on the Republican debates. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Protesters took to the streets Wednesday evening in Milwaukee, speaking out against the first Republican presidential debate as it was being held at the downtown Fiserv Forum. Groups organized throughout the day, culminating in a gathering at Red Arrow Park, a block from Milwaukee city hall. The coalition of groups, including anti-war and pro-union organizers, faith-based, immigrant rights and reproductive rights organizations, broadcast the message that Milwaukee rejects the GOP candidates’ rhetoric.
Dozens gathered at Red Arrow Park – a popular gathering site for protests since the shooting of Dontre Hamilton by a Milwaukee police officer in 2014 – despite temperatures approaching 100 degrees Wednesday evening. Protest organizers readied themselves for the extreme weather conditions as well as potential conflict with debate attendees. With troves of bottled water on standby, volunteer medics and street marshals explained what to do — and not to do — once the protest began. A series of speakers followed, firing up the crowd.
Among them was Chrisley Carpio, who was arrested while protesting against policies pushed in Florida by Gov. Ron DeSantis. Carpio and the people arrested with her, now facing felony charges, have become known as the Tampa 5.
“It’s not right that DeSantis thinks he can flout every single law, that the Republicans think that they can pass all these anti-union, racist bills, anti-trans bills, and have nothing to account for,” Carpio told the crowd. “It’s not right! We’re not guilty, we’re not sorry, we will get these charges dropped, and I’m so proud to see everyone here fighting in the middle of this heat wave and this oppression!”
DeSantis was one of the eight Republican candidates on the debate stage Wednesday night. Former President Donald Trump, who is facing over 90 charges stemming from federal and state indictments in four jurisdictions and was scheduled to turn himself in at the Fulton County jail in Georgia Thursday, stayed out of the debate.
DeSantis, who has run a distant second to Trump in recent polls, with support from 16% of Republican voters, was a recurring focal point at the rally. Some speakers highlighted his and other candidates’ hardline anti-immigration policies, while others focused on DeSantis’ past.
The Florida governor has signed laws restricting classroom discussions around gender identity, sexuality, race and U.S. history in recent months. DeSantis was also one of 14 Republican governors who supported sending troops to the southern border, and he reportedly deployed the largest contingent of personnel, including 500 Florida National Guard troops and law enforcement officers.
Groups who participated in the Wednesday night rally also discussed DeSantis’ links to the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. Members of the Wisconsin Coalition to Normalize Relations with Cuba called on DeSantis to withdraw from the race, citing accusations that he observed the torture of detainees at the military prison there two decades ago.
A flier circulated at the protest declared, “The vast majority of the detainees there have never been charged or convicted of any wrongdoing. Many were sent there because the U.S. offered large bounties to warlords in Afghanistan and elsewhere to turn in other people.” Protesters also decried the growing U.S. military presence in Africa and the recent coup in Niger by American-trained military personnel from Niger — the subject of a planned anti-war protest on Saturday, Aug. 26 at Red Arrow Park.
Immigrant rights activist Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of Voces de la Frontera Action, said that the demonstration was meant to send a clear message to Republican leadership that “you are not welcome here.” Neumann-Ortiz said to the crowd, “We defeated Trump and all Trump-like candidates — we defeated you in 2020 and we will defeat you in 2024.”
None of the other Republican hopefuls at the debate are a good alternative to Trump, she said. “They mimic what he says, or try to go further. We just heard about DeSantis. In Florida, one of the worst anti-immigrant laws has been passed. And part of his political platform is that it’s good policy is to shoot people crossing the border. None of them can be allowed to enter political office because we already know that they will actually keep their promises.”
Local right-wing groups including the Ozaukee chapter of Moms for Liberty turned out for the debate as well, with one telling a WTMJ-TV reporter that it was “exciting that the Republican Party has so many great candidates right now.” The group has focused on purging K-12 schools of books and other materials that refer to gender identity, LGBTQ issues, historic racial inequity in the United States and other topics. Their presence, however, went largely unnoticed on the streets outside the Fiserv Forum, and protesters marching through the Deer District went unchallenged.
Some organizers later said brief verbal exchanges with Republican attendees at the debate were quickly quashed. By the time protesters returned to Red Arrow Park, it was nearly 9 p.m.. The heavy heat lingered past sunset, but the closing speakers delivered their remarks with energy.
“Well the GOP brought the devil’s temperature with them didn’t they?” asked Vaun Mayes, a community activist and a member of the group ComForce. Mayes urged the crowd not to forget that Milwaukee played a crucial role in the 2020 presidential election, when Trump lost Wisconsin by about 20,000 votes.
“Milwaukeeans had been painted as … election cheaters,” Mayes said. “They said our votes didn’t and shouldn’t count. A state where voter suppression was rampant, where redistricting trampled the Voting Rights Act with no repercussions, and where voting intimidation was tried. They said you shouldn’t have control or choice over your bodies.”
With the phrase “forced birth and forced struggle,” Mayes tied together the fights for abortion rights and voting rights. The people pushing for restrictions on both “sure let us know how little our lives are valued once we are born,” he said. “They said ‘don’t tread on me.’ But every single piece of legislation they pass treads on Black, immigrant, LGBTQ, women and many others’ rights.”
He accused the candidates on the debate stage, the lawmakers aligned with them and their supporters of hypocrisy.
“The same people who tell us we complain and use the race card are now complaining and using the race card to claim that they are the targeted, oppressed, and attacked,” Mayes said. “They say that all history hurts their feelings, and their children’s feelings to learn about in schools. They say the government is weaponized and after their rights, while using the government to reduce our rights.”
The long-time community activist called on Milwaukeans to participate in local elections and support grassroots organizations.
Alan Chavoya of the Milwaukee Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, acknowledged that activism can be hard work.“The struggle is long, am I right?” Chavoya said. “It’s a challenging one. Especially when you’re up against people like the GOP, and the billions of dollars that they have in funding, and those vicious guard dogs they have that are called cops — and they have all that. But you know what they don’t have? They don’t have the power of the people. All power to the people, am I right?” The crowd answered with emphatic applause and shouts of agreement.
Chavoya highlighted the successes community activists have had since 2020, including bans on police chokeholds and no-knock warrants, a policy to release video of officer-involved shootings sooner, and the removal of police from Milwaukee schools. That last policy shift was reversed by the Legislature’s Republican leaders when they passed a bill allowing Milwaukee to increase funding by raising the sales tax. The deal also stripped the Fire and Police Commission of its power to set policy for the Milwaukee police.
For activists like Chavoya, the ebbs and flows of change are both encouraging and frustrating. “When we come together like we did in the 2020 uprising, we made those cowards tremble in fear,” he told the crowd. “They know that when we come together, they’re not going to stop us.”
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