Trump’s MAGA influence on police threatens multiracial democracy in Southeastern Wisconsin
We do not know how many, if any, sworn police officers from Southeastern Wisconsin were among the MAGA mob who stormed the Capitol to try to overturn a free and fair election.
Unlike many police departments across the country, the Milwaukee Police Department will not investigate whether its members traveled to DC for Trump’s “Save America” rally, participated in the violent attack on Congress, or made inciting or supportive statements on social media. Neither will the Kenosha Police Department, nor others in the area. But with on-going investigations into more than 32 members of law enforcement for their role in the rampage, we know that some police officers have been so radicalized by Trump and the MAGA movement that they are hostile to multiracial democracy. They put their bodies on the line to reject the outcome of a democratic process, rejecting Black votes as fraudulent and stolen.
In light of the presence of police among the antidemocratic MAGA mob at the Capitol, we must revisit with greater seriousness the troubling signs of MAGA influence on the police in Southeastern Wisconsin this past year. These include recent revelation that Wauwatosa police detectives terrifyingly identified the town’s Democratic Mayor Dennis McBride as a “high value target.” They also include the disturbing sanction Kenosha police gave to armed and coordinated right-wing actors this summer at the protests that followed the police shooting of Jacob Blake, including police failure to arrest Kyle Rittenhouse, now a MAGA cause célèbre, at the scene where he killed two protestors and badly wounded a third.
We cannot minimize the violent and illegal actions of the MAGA white right that stormed the Capitol, nor appease the Republican party members who continue to choose loyalty to Trump over democracy. Similarly, Mayors, elected officials, and white constituencies in our blue cities and towns – Milwaukee, Kenosha, and Wauwatosa – must cease minimizing and denying instances of abusive policing influenced by MAGA anti-black and anti-democratic ideologies. And we must not appease police leaders, unions, and apologists who defend or normalize such abuses.
Rather than continuing to pretend there is some sort of middle ground between Black Lives Matter and Back the Badge, blue city mayors and elected officials have to see Trumpism as an attack on the empowerment of their Black and brown constituents. They must see MAGA-influenced policing as a real phenomenon that Trump fueled by bringing his brand of authoritarian-leaning “law and order” to the political center. Because MAGA policing criminalizes and physically endangers people who participate in Black-led movements to transform blue cities into more life-giving places with more resources and civic participation for low income black and brown communities, it threatens multiracial democracy at the municipal level.
What are the egregious acts of MAGA influenced policing in Wauwatosa, Kenosha, and Milwaukee, all blue cities with sizable Black and brown majorities or minorities? What accountability measures can be taken, when we take them seriously?
In a troubling recent revelation, a detective assigned to Wauwatosa Police Department’s Special Operations Group sent a PowerPoint presentation to a supervisor identifying Mayor Dennis McBride as a “high value target.” In an act of rhetorical dishonesty common in the Trump era, a WPD spokesperson spun this as merely naming the Mayor “a person of significance.” But it is clearly a threat meant to carry a thrilling emotional charge, not only because it targets McBride for criminal investigation – which is the Mayor’s minimizing spin, but because it plays with the fantasy of McBride as an enemy who can be killed. And what makes McBride an enemy? Following the MAGA script, he did not show proper regard for Joseph Mensah, as a superior citizen-soldier not accountable to the people he polices. In another sign of the influence of anti-democratic, MAGA beliefs, a WPD detective was caught on camera calling McBride “a chicken-shit” for meeting with concerned community members and protestors. McBride astonishingly minimized these attacks as merely “a few disgruntled union members who expressed their personal opinions in an inappropriate fashion while on duty.”
Why would a Mayor minimize a threat against his person by members of his own police department? If we are honest about MAGA influence on policing, we can see that a threat on an elected official as utterly predictable by a police department that ceded itself the right to use stunning violence and military force against multiracial protestors well-known for their nonviolent marches. Too many have been willing to rationalize the policing we saw in Wauwatosa after the Joseph Mensah verdict as necessary for “law and order.” This is because white liberal constituencies too are influenced by racist narratives of Black criminality. But we need to condemn it as a violent suppression of a social movement seeking more racial democracy. It was not “a few disgruntled union members” who tear-gassed and intimidated Wauwatosa residents, journalists, and American Civil Liberties Union legal observers. And the picture of MAGA influence is even more disturbing when we recall that there were armed individuals in unmarked cars patrolling the streets without interference from the police during the Wauwatosa curfew. Instead of entrusting Police Chief Weber to investigate the threat against him, Mayor McBride should defend racial democracy in Wauwatosa by firing officers whose beliefs are so right-wing they can no longer be trusted to keep him safe (much less black and brown residents) and seeking community reparation in the context of urgent concern about MAGA-charged policing.
In the storming of the DC Capitol, we saw a toxic cauldron of off duty law enforcement and militant vigilante extremists operating together, alongside the MAGA faithful, to use force against Congress. This toxic mix was not a surprise to anyone who saw the infamous video of Kenosha police thanking armed vigilantes for their help during the demonstrations after the police shooting of Jacob Blake. Was Kenosha just a sign of the coming-together under Trump of law enforcement and domestic extremists, from the Proud Boys to “citizen watch” groups such as the Kenosha Guard? Or was it an opportunity for strengthening relations between them?
Certainly, the fact that neither Kenosha elected officials, nor police leadership sought accountability from police officers who welcomed and worked alongside white right “protectors” helped to normalize MAGA policing on a national level. While, sadly, there is little new about a white police officer not being charged after gravely injuring or killing a Black person, the glorification of Kyle Rittenhouse by the Republican party as a hero of “law and order” after killing two white supporters of the Jacob Blake family is an encapsulation of the escalations of the MAGA era.
Trump made Kenosha a stage for intensifying his politics of division. He glorified Kenosha police while demonizing Kenosha protestors in order to incite white nationalist sentiments for his political gain. While Mayor John Antaramian is not to blame for the spectacle Trump made of Kenosha, Antaramian buried the legitimacy and urgency of his Black and brown constituents seeking safety from police and democratic changes beneath an abiding concern for white fear of property destruction, which reinforced Trump’s scapegoating of the BLM movement throughout the summer. And Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth helped Trump incite white fear and raise “law and order” over democracy by “proudly endorsing” Trump for re-election for his role in “saving” Kenosha and being “a leader who will uphold the law, or we won’t have a country left.”
When the Wisconsin Examiner revealed that a disturbing number of former Kenosha County law enforcement officers made up the advisory board of an international law enforcement agency that sent around a document calling BLM movement people “terrorists” whom police should view through the lens of “urban guerrilla warfare,” Kenosha-area law enforcement denied that such MAGA-inspired views – echoed in Trump’s rally speeches – influenced their policing of protests. Yet in the face of aggressive police tactics and weaponry, the denial rings hollow. Similarly, the Kenosha’s District Attorney’s questionable decision not to charge Officer Sheskey, because he cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Sheskey does not have an argument for self-defense, seems designed to appease Kenosha police. By allowing MAGA influence on policing in Kenosha to go unacknowledged and unexamined, Kenosha elected officials endanger Black and brown constituencies seeking democratic changes and racial justice
To gauge MAGA impact on Milwaukee law enforcement, we cannot ignore the prominence of former Sheriff David Clarke (the county’s top law enforcement officer from 2002 to 2017) in the MAGA movement and his key role in inciting violence at the US Capitol. While still in office in Milwaukee, he used his MAGA celebrity as “America’s Sheriff” to push national law enforcement in a right-wing direction and to lend the veneer of black approval to Trump’s authoritarian version of law and order. He publicly urged Trump supporters to use force to keep Trump in the White House and told those who were part of the Capitol insurrection not to cooperate federal law enforcement. How many of the officers Clarke led for so many years followed him in this radicalization? The question has an answer.
After his demotion, former Milwaukee Police Chief Alfonso Morales became a local MAGA celebrity, advocating Trump’s re-election as a prominent ‘Latino for Trump’. But there were troubling signs of MAGA influence on Morales and the MPD under his leadership. Despite strong city support for police non-cooperation with ICE, Milwaukee police under Morales assisted in ICE detentions even as Morales told immigrant rights groups there was no need to strengthen standard operating procedures to limit MPD collaboration with ICE. During the protests after George Floyd’s killing, when a huge multiracial democratic swell of Milwaukee residents came out in the streets to sound the alarm against racism, normalized police violence against people of color, and unsustainable economic inequality, Morales’ MPD used tear gas, bear cats, and other military equipment to suppress change-seeking, nonviolent protestors. During this time, MPD practiced political policing, tracking and harassing civil rights march leaders and even arresting a prominent community activist, Vaun Mayes, on charges that appear politically-motivated.
When Milwaukee’s Fire & Police Commission exercised their oversight to issue eleven directives requiring Morales to account for the use of tear gas on protestors, the arrest of Vaun Mayes, failure to comply with open records requests in a timely manner and other issues, Morales’s response was undeniable Trumpian: to deny the legitimacy of their requests on multiple levels. He publicly rebutted the directives in a 26 page report that reframed the FPC’s request for democratic accountability to Milwaukee citizens as a fool’s errand; a waste of taxpayer money; illegal and based on “false, misleading” pretexts; and unnecessary because MPD somehow had already “fully complied with every directive.” It is true that the FPC has been enormously dysfunctional this year, and there are legal issues with Morales’ demotion. Yet when we think about the denial and appeasement of MAGA influence on police departments by blue city mayors, it is remarkable that Mayor Tom Barrett has expressed great concern for Morales being denied “due process” by the FPC, while not demanding investigations into the scores of potential violations of the due process rights of Milwaukee citizens arrested or ticketed by police during the marches, including Milwaukee County Supervisor Ryan Clancy.
Why have the Mayors of Milwaukee, Kenosha, and Wauwatosa Failed to Stand Up to MAGA’s Impact on their Police Departments?
There are simple and complex reasons why mayors of blue cities in Southeastern Wisconsin have appeased, denied, and minimized MAGA influence on police. One simple reason is that Trump used his professed love of law enforcement to mainstream MAGA’s extremist, white nationalist, and antidemocratic beliefs within the national Republican party. Until Trump’s incitement of violence at the U.S. Capitol proved the hollowness of his commitment to “law and order,” for some centrists, calling out MAGA impact on police was “too political” or “taking sides.” Another simple reason is that liberal, blue city Mayors are used to minimizing the open secret of structural racism in the policing of segregated cities. When this structural racism elevated under MAGA influence into a threat against young people mobilizing on the streets for multiracial democracy – and an end to the disempowerment that structural racism in policing produces, it was easy for Mayors to keep minimizing.
A more complex reason is their lack of political imagination. Many blue cities mayors and elected officials are unfamiliar, even uncomfortable, with the robust multiracial democracy mobilized constituents are seeking to bring into being. The truth is that blue city mayors are used to a politics that invests in downtowns and white neighborhoods, leaving lower income Black, brown, and indigenous neighborhoods asset-stripped and underdeveloped. The ‘defund movement’ exposed not only that black and brown communities are overpoliced and underprotected. It also exposed that blue city mayors have already de facto ceded governance in these areas to the police.
When municipal government fail again and again to deliver jobs, housing, healthcare, and basic civic power to impoverished black and brown communities, investing only in police to regulate everyday life, it has ceded the duties of government to police. Finally, there are complex reasons why elected officials fear challenging their police departments. They may fear police retaliation in the form of work slow-downs. They know that police can create fear in white residents by telling them cuts in police endanger them, which can undermine their political support. They may also fear for their physical safety, which is certainly justified in the case of Mayor McBride.
If unchallenged, MAGA policing will continue to threaten the growth of multiracial democracy in the region’s blue cities and towns, even without Trump in the White House. Blue city mayors and elected officials will face an untenable conflict between supporting police forces with right wing commitments or supporting democratic majorities seeking resources for housing, health, wellbeing, and organized civic participation. And it will not just be about dollars and cents. It will be a choice between courageously embracing more racial democracy than we have now – more proportionate investment in black and brown communities, more participatory budgeting, more people power – or cynically accepting the descent into more inequality, more racial scapegoating, and more police to govern the oppressed with guns, tasers, surveillance, and knees on necks.