Following the “Reopen Wisconsin” rally in Brookfield on April 18, a Milwaukee event was scheduled for April 24 at the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center, ahead of a similar protest in Madison.
A total of 8 individuals took part in the Milwaukee rally, protesting the State’s “Safer at Home” order. The number of participants was under the 10 person limit prohibited to gather in public under the social distancing restrictions, which were implemented in reaction to the deadly COVID-19 crisis that has infected a million Americans and killed more than 150 in Milwaukee.
The low turn out, just days after hundreds protested in Brookfield, shows the lack of local support for lifting the “Safer at Home” measure before the state can roll out more testing. It also reaffirms details that have surfaced, dispelling the social media claims that the protest was part of a grass roots movement. Several right-wing political groups outside of Wisconsin, primarily from Minnesota and Michigan, have been credited with organizing the Brookfield rally. Those same interests were focused on the Madison event, leaving the largest city in the state to manage itself. Milwaukee’s embarrassingly low turn out reflected a lack of local support.
“It truly disheartens me to see people in our state who are unwilling to take the threat of COVID-19 seriously. Safer-at-Home is working – because of the collective actions of millions of responsible Wisconsinites, we have been able to keep the nightmare scenario of our hospitals and community health centers being overrun at bay,” said state Representative David Bowen in a statement. “But just because we’ve been successful so far doesn’t mean that we’re in the clear, and scientific projections show that if we open the state back up too quickly, before the worst threat of this epidemic has passed, we run the risk of ending up right back at square one and undoing all of the gains we’ve made so far.”
Madison, by contrast saw a few thousand individuals gather around the State Capitol. The crowd resembled a Trump political rally, with many wearing campaign shirts and waving Tea Party banners. It was the nation’s largest gathering to date in protest of social distancing orders. State Representative LaKeshia Myers released a statement decrying the Madison rally, and calling it an “exercise in white privilege.”
“Even though a permit was denied and the capitol building was closed to the public, protesters openly defied the governor’s directive by gathering en mass on the capitol grounds while waving confederate flags and carrying military grade assault rifles,” said Representative Myers. “While some of the individuals participating were Wisconsinites, there were also many who had traveled from out of state to participate in this deleterious display of demagoguery.”
According to a Marquette University Law School poll released earlier this month, 86 percent of Wisconsin voters supported the state’s closure of schools and businesses. Twenty-six percent believe the limits don’t go far enough. The polls indicate that the sentiment behind these protest groups is unpopular with the majority of Americans. Because there are so many unknowns about the pandemic, including the possible death toll if restrictions like stay-home orders are lifted too quickly, the Wisconsin public has been supportive of a slow and measured approach to reopen the state economy.
“In many municipalities across Wisconsin, people who break the ‘Safer at Home’ order can be fined, with the maximum penalty being jail time. Why then, has the Wisconsin Capitol Police failed to act?” added Representative Myers. “Why have there been no mass arrests or municipal citations issued for this non-essential gathering? In any other situation, willful non-compliance with the law is met with the full force of law enforcement, yet when the protestors are predominantly white and male, defiance is rewarded with inaction and complacency.”
Epidemiologists are worried that the slow spread of the virus into rural America means it is only now arriving in communities that have been on lockdown for weeks. In conservative enclaves, many may see the slow spread of the virus in their areas as evidence that Trump was right, and that the virus poses little risk to them or their community.
Some are concerned that Trump’s early attempts to downplay the virus, amplified by Fox News hosts for months, coupled with the coronavirus’s late arrival, have made conservative rural voters skeptical that it poses a real threat. Trump’s own remarks may have lulled his base voters into a false and dangerous sense of security.
Other Wisconsinites expressed their support for the stay-at-home order with candlelight vigils on the steps of Madison’s capitol building, and virtual counter-protests on Facebook. One that took place online during the Madison rally had nearly 10,000 participants.
“We empathize with the financial and emotional struggles so many are experiencing due to the Safer at Home measures, and that includes members of our group,” said Marybeth Glenn, one of the organizers. “However, even if the restrictions are lifted, citizens do not feel safe and we are listening to the epidemiologists and healthcare professionals.”
Lee Matz and Jenny Peek