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The moral uselessness of Wisconsin Democrats

Josh Kaul, Tammy Baldwin, and other elected officials have failed to draw clear lines between rioters and murderers.

Josh Kaul, Tammy Baldwin, and other elected officials have failed to draw clear lines between rioters and murderers.

Photo: Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul. Photo by Susan Ruggles on Flickr.

When an armed Trump supporter murdered two people during an anti-police protest in Kenosha this week, every person of conscience in this country saw with horrifying clarity just what we are up against in the pursuit of a just world. That clarity was lost on many prominent elected Democrats in Wisconsin.

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Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul and U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin both issued statements that presented far-right vigilante killings as of a piece with the destruction of property. Kaul called out “the heavily armed vigilantes, arsonists, and other opportunists” and Baldwin wrote that “The vandalism, armed militia, gun violence and fatal shootings in Kenosha are not advancing the cause of racial justice in the wake of the police shooting of Jacob Blake.” 

The construction of both these sentences creates, if not an equivalence, at the very least a strong moral proximity between people exploding in fury against racist policing and people strutting about with assault rifles in the name of whiteness. Never mind that these are different forms and degrees of harm, coming from very different people for very different reasons. Let’s just package it all into one rhetorical tangle of “violence.”

Note that neither statement—one from the state’s top law-enforcement official, the other from the Wisconsin Senator who isn’t an utter nullity—addressed evidence that cops in Kenosha supported right-wing vigilantes or the fact that the shooting suspect was allowed to leave the scene and go home, before eventually being arrested the next day. Baldwin voiced her support for Governor Tony Evers’ decision to send National Guard troops to Kenosha, which hasn’t accomplished the stated goals of protecting public safety or protecting the right to peaceful protest. We over-policed our way into this situation and won’t over-police our way out of it, but in the meantime police and troops will be more than happy to abuse and escalate. That is their job.

If Kaul wants people to take his calls for police reform seriously, he should be striking an aggressive stance right now, sending clear signals that he will hold police accountable not just for the shooting of Jacob Blake but also for their brutal repression of protests around Wisconsin and their pointed failures to protect protestors from vehicle attacks and shootings. Kaul is right to call out the Republican-controlled Legislature for its inaction. He is right to point out that the Milwaukee Bucks have shown more leadership than the Legislature. 

The Milwaukee Bucks have also shown more leadership than Josh Kaul, Tony Evers, Tammy Baldwin, and Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway. Despite a false narrative that paints the mayor as virulently anti-cop, Rhodes-Conway has repeatedly condemned rioting and praised the Madison Police Department’s response without saying very much publicly about how she and MPD will protect citizens from armed white nationalists. Do these people realize that you can condemn police violence without immediately lapsing into the same old song and dance about destruction of property

In the name of pragmatism and strategic savvy, some Democrats are just openly whining about their chances this November, when they could be focused on showing solidarity with protestors and actually behaving like an opposition party. Former Madison mayor and onetime gubernatorial candidate Paul Soglin even provided part of the headline for a Politico story this week, saying of the riots: “There’s no doubt it’s playing into Trump’s hands.” Of course a Politico story will focus on cold political calculation and horserace bullshit, but how is this good leadership? Why send the message that you’re losing, and then place the blame on people who are angry and hurting? In case the Soglin quotes aren’t enough opinions you didn’t ask for, the article also quotes Madison radio host and noted sexist idiot John “Sly” Sylvester.

If these supposedly wise and seasoned Democrats had any sense of proportion, they’d have been speaking out, every single day, long before the riots began, to condemn the indiscriminate violence police inflict daily upon their communities, to attack the Republican Party for its now fully open embrace of fascism, to condemn the entire political and media apparatus of the American right for deliberately recruiting young white men into its ranks of genocidal vigilantes. They’d invest a thousand times as much energy into calling out corrupt authoritarianism as they do into scolding protestors for smashing windows and lighting fires. 

No one is asking them to relish rioting, or to ignore the fact that the people who have to deal with the aftermath have very diverse and complex opinions about it. But if Democrats are to be useful at all—a shaky proposition on the best of days—they need to put appropriate emphasis on state violence and the violent politics of the GOP. They need to remember that they have agency to influence the discussion, not just to ride whatever trends they’re seeing in public opinion. The activists leading the charge against racism and police violence have already given them a clear set of policy goals worth pursuing: Invest more in human needs, invest less in policing, fire and prosecute abusive cops, give communities actual control over police if there are to be police. Getting such policies passed might be hard, but committing to them isn’t.

Not every elected Democrat in Wisconsin is falling down on the job. David Bowen and Jonathan Brostoff, both Assembly Representatives from Milwaukee, called out police’s complicity in the protest murders. “There were protests in the street because police acted in direct opposition to public safety when they shot Jacob Blake,” Brostoff wrote. “And community mistrust in the police was only reinforced when activists witnessed law enforcement refuse to protect them from terrorists and murders.” This is the same page every elected Democrat in Wisconsin should be on, and it just isn’t that hard to get there. Sadly, Brostoff and Bowen’s statements are so refreshing because other members of their party have such a hard time openly stating what the real threats are.

Democrats and people who want to get rid of Trump more generally are understandably worried about how riots will impact the November 3 election, especially in a swing state that could decide it all. The proper response to this concern is a downright vicious one that identifies the GOP as the national and global threat it is. Instead of wringing their hands about riots, Democrats should send a clear message that the riots are a damning indictment of the Trump administration’s failure to meet the moment, because they are. Instead of lumping armed fascists in with angry Wisconsinites who’ve looted stores, they should unapologetically state that Trump and the GOP are responsible for encouraging their supporters to murder people.

The night before the Kenosha shooting, the GOP gave us a convention speech from the demon-clown rich couple in St. Louis who threatened protestors by waving around guns they clearly didn’t even know to use. There is no ambiguity about where all this was headed. The GOP has only one political project at this point: Pumping white Americans full of a delusional sense of victimhood. It is inexcusable that Democrats are not fully united behind a simple message: Trump and the GOP failed you, and they want people to kill you.

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