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The 2024 Republican National Convention will be in Milwaukee July 15-18, 2024.

‘We are the opposition in action': Milwaukee activists to march on RNC's first day

Omar Flores of The Coalition to March on the RNC speaks during a Thursday news conference outside the Federal Courthouse in Milwaukee. Another coalition member holds a map of the coalition's preferred route for a planned march during the July convention.
Chuck Quirmbach
Omar Flores of The Coalition to March on the RNC speaks during a Thursday news conference outside the Federal Courthouse in Milwaukee. Another coalition member holds a map of the coalition's preferred route for a planned march during the July convention.

Editor's note: This post was updated July 12 with the Coalition to March on the RNC's new route.

In the run-up to the Republican National Convention, Milwaukee organizers have been sparring with the city over their plans to march on the convention's first day. For the past year, the Coalition to March on the RNC has been asking Milwaukee officials to approve a permit that would allow them to protest "within sight and sound” of the Fiserv Forum, the primary venue for the convention; regulating the protests and refusing to do so, they say, is a violation of their right to free speech. With the support of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, the group filed a federal lawsuit in June.

On Monday night, a judge ruled that the coalition cannot march into the inner, "hard" security perimeter, as the group had planned.

"The Coalition members have the right to march in protest of the RNC," wrote U.S. District Judge Brett Ludwig in his ruling. "But the First Amendment does not allow them to protest or parade in any way they choose."

In response to the ruling, ACLU of Wisconsin staff attorney Tim Muth maintained the city's handling of the permit application and security zones "chill freedom of expression and restrict the exercise of First Amendment rights."

The coalition released an updated march route July 12 that complies with the ruling. While its previous route crossed into the hard security perimeter at Pere Marquette Park, the new route skirts the park's northern edge, forming two loops just beyond the northern and southern ends of the hard zone. The march's closest approach to the Fiserv Forum will be on North MLK Jr. Drive.

"It is important to be clear that as organizers we were never going to let this decision decide if we march or not," the coalition said in a release.

The coalition represents dozens of local and national organizations, including the Milwaukee Anti-War Committee, the Milwaukee Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression and Reproductive Action Justice-Milwaukee. While each organization has its own goals, the coalition broadly aims to defend women’s, LGBTQ+ and reproductive rights; protect and expand immigrant rights; stand with Palestine; and counter the Republican Party's “racist and reactionary agenda."

The coalition's efforts are focused on a march for the first day of the RNC, scheduled for noon so it coincides with the convention's opening remarks. The city's designated speaker platform is located at Zeidler Union Square, while the official parade route would take groups just south of Baird Center, which will house vendors and media throughout the week.

But with Republican delegates based primarily at the Fiserv, Baird is "unimportant" to the coalition, says Omar Flores, a longtime Milwaukee organizer and co-chair for the Coalition to March on the RNC. The coalition released its own parade route, which begins and ends at Red Arrow Park. Crowds are expected to gather at 10 a.m, and a rally will kick things off around 11 am. The march, which is billed as family-friendly, begins at noon.

"The city is trying to get us to agree to something that's less than our full First Amendment rights," says Flores, who spoke with WUWM before Monday's ruling. "We're not going to do that. We're going to exercise it to the fullest extent."

On July 12, the Coalition to March on the RNC released an updated route for its July 15 event.
Coalition to March on the RNC
On July 12, the Coalition to March on the RNC released an updated route for its July 15 event.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What have your days, weeks been looking like in the run-up to the RNC? 

Honestly, at this point, it's all been a blur. It's been good. I want to be clear about that. It's a really good blur. But before, it was hard to convince people almost that this is real, this is happening in our city, we need to get ready. I feel like it was about a month ago, where everyone's like, “Oh my God, these folks are going to be in our city. We need to do something.” We've had a huge upsurge in support, which has been really good for us.

You've been locked in this battle with the city over the permit to march and over the security zones. Can you talk about why the city's designated protest zones and parade route aren't suitable for your group? 

As soon as we knew the RNC was going to be at the Fiserv Forum, a little over a year ago, we filed for a permit to march within sight and sound of the front doors of the RNC. From the very beginning, we were clear about that request. The city has refused to play ball. Up until we filed the lawsuit, we genuinely had not heard anything from the city. So the city has not been playing in good faith. That's why we filed the lawsuit.

In terms of the route that partially goes into the hard zone, it's not our intention to go into the hard zone. That zone was actually supposed to be open for a very long time. Pere Marquette [Park] is actually where [the city] was telling us to be. Due to Republicans complaining, letters and pressure, the Secret Service and the city have decided to put Pere Marquette behind the hard zone, which limits the new route that we've come up with. We're hoping that we'll be able to have that no longer be a hard zone through our court battle.

At this point, the city has not approved your permit to march. What kind of pushback do you anticipate?

In my 10 years as an organizer, we have never once pulled out a permit to march. In Milwaukee, very few organizations do it. I would say 95% of the time, the police leave us alone. We're allowed to do what we want to do. We keep people safe. We know how to direct traffic, we have medics, we've never had an incident at any of our marches. We expect the same treatment. Milwaukee shouldn't change how they do things just because the Republicans are here.

People holding signs that say "Grant the permits now."
Eddie Morales
At a press conference in June, members of the Coalition to March on the RNC held signs that said, "Grant the permits now."

How many people are you expecting to march alongside you?

That's been the big question. We have around 90 organizations signed on to our coalition. A lot of them from Wisconsin, a lot of them from all across the nation. People are pretty fired up around what's going on. Especially after the debate, I think people are seeing the importance of marching, regardless of the convention, that there needs to be some direct action. That's really going to be the only way that we're going to be able to advocate for our own agendas.

Understanding that it's hard to have an estimate for how many people these organizations are going to bring into the fold, but are you thinking hundreds, thousands?

A very conservative estimate would be around 1,500. We're expecting that at a bare minimum. We're thinking more realistically, around 5,000. We were projecting lower, but when we talked to some of our national partners, especially in Chicago, they were like, “You should bump the numbers up. We have a lot of folks wanting to come up.”

You're in this lawsuit with the city. Is it affecting your ability to just plan the coalition actions? Would you rather be just working on that? 

It's both good and bad, right? Our job, as organizers, I've always said, is to turn the bad things into good things. We knew that when we got into this permit struggle, the city was going to put up a fight. We knew that they were very likely not going to hand it right over to us, that it would probably end up in a lawsuit or something.

What I hope people realize is that this sets a terrible precedent. We wanted to show people that even if we do everything the right way …we still did not get anywhere with the city. That sends a terrible message, right? That if you try to play by the rules, you're not going to get anything done.

I wish I could focus on other things. While I don't buy into a lot of the fear-mongering that's been going on around the RNC, I do think that it slightly increases the risk of arrest, if we are marching without a permit. But we feel very confident with the mitigating measures that we've taken. Security was always a part of our plan. So honestly, it's not really that much more on our plate. We always prepare for a worst-case scenario, even though we expect the best.

Can you talk about some of the major partners in your coalition? 

The Milwaukee Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, which I helped re-found here in Milwaukee and have been a longtime member of — I think they played an extremely important role in organizing for the RNC. They have a lot of experience in dealing with police repression and hosting marches and keeping people safe. Reproductive Justice Action – Milwaukee has played a huge role. Students for a Democratic Society at UW-Milwaukee, they ran the encampment incredibly.

A lot of the names that I just mentioned helped make that encampment what it was, and it notably went without incident. We were able to de-escalate issues with agitators. I think it's instilled faith in Milwaukee — they know they're going to do everything they can to keep people safe.

Is there any kind of excitement from the Milwaukee organizers to have this big platform? Or is it counterweighted by their strong opposition to the RNC? 

The organizers are extremely excited. I think we maybe had an opposite reaction to some other folks that were very much like, “I'm leaving Milwaukee.” Like I said, our job is to turn a bad thing into a good thing. This is a really bad thing happening to our city. That means a really good thing is going to come out.

A lot of us organized a march on the DNC. I was also a spokesperson for that coalition back in 2020. We saw what it could do for us, right? We worked very closely with around a dozen families that had lost loved ones to police violence here in Milwaukee. We were able to get those names on the map, we were able to get them the help and attention that they needed in that moment.

I feel like oftentimes our organizing is swept under the rug. People, whether it be the media or the general populace, are not really looking at it all the time. So this is an opportunity for people to really see what we've been doing. And not just doing — it’s what we’ve been able to successfully accomplish because of organizing.

I think the biggest hurdle sometimes to get people to join an organization is this deep sense of nihilism. But the argument that we're offering as a coalition, whether it’s the march on the RNC or the DNC, is that the only way to actually get things changed is through direct action. I feel like that specific march [on the DNC] is a great example of how we win change through those actions.

Members of the Coalition to March on the RNC marched outside the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee Wednesday night. Inside the building, most of the GOP presidential hopefuls took part in a debate.
Chuck Quirmbach
Members of the Coalition to March on the RNC marched outside the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee in August 2023. Inside the building, most of the GOP presidential hopefuls took part in a debate.

If you had to boil it down, what would you say is the main message that y’all have for the RNC?

We don't want their racist and reactionary agenda here in Milwaukee. And when we fight, we win. Nobody has ever won change by just sitting at home and wishing that things were better. There are things that you can do with your time to be able to create a better world. That’s the message we're trying to project.

I would also encourage people to look at some of the endorsing organizations. As a coalition spokesperson, I can't say too deeply what specific things people are fighting for. There's a wide variety of viewpoints in our coalition. We tried to make it as broad-based as possible. The Democrats have mainly been in opposition to the Republicans in words. We are the opposition in action.

Are you worried about keeping people safe during this march? 

Actually, a lot of us in coalition leadership have been more worried about the logistics of making the most out of a bad event that's happening here in Milwaukee. We're worried about missing opportunities that we might not ever get again in the city. That's mostly what's keeping us up at night.

The security stuff for us is like living and breathing. None of our organizers are strangers to protest situations that are escalated. A lot of us were out there during Kenosha, the Ferguson uprising. And that's just us in Wisconsin. We have people from across the country with experiences in Republican strongholds, like Texas or Florida, that have great experience in guiding on how to keep people safe.

I don't want to come off as naive. We have no illusions as to what's possible through an event like this. But what we're emphasizing is that a lot of this fear that's been generated about this event — this is something that's been planted not only by the city, but by the Republicans from the very start. Them inviting 4,500 police officers sets a tone for people that they should be scared.

What we're asking people is that they don't plan into Trump's agenda. This is not a horrible city. This is a good city that we’re in. We have good organizers that are working on this. We have a great track record. Like I mentioned before, we ran the encampment without incident. And believe me, people were trying from the outside to cause an incident, whether it was from the police, or outside agitators. When I say agitators, I want to be clear that it's right-wingers that I'm talking about.

When the Republicans came here for their national debate, back in August 2023, we were the ones to lead that march without incident. So honestly, I'm coming into this extremely confident. All of our organizers are. Anyone that's worked with our organizations in the past, they know that they can trust us to keep people safe.

You've emphasized that the coalition is planning a family-friendly event. 

Absolutely. I think people need to understand how political a statement that is. What we're saying is that we are against what the Republicans are trying to paint the situation as. We're not going to bite into their escalation.

We've consistently had the take that it's not up to us to make sure that everyone's going to be okay. That's up to the city, that's up to the police. We would encourage [the police] that they're not even there. We don't need them. And we're pretty confident in our ability to keep us safe.

Aurelia Ceja, a member of the Coalition to March on the RNC, spoke at Red Arrow Park, prior to the march to Fiserv Forum.
Chuck Quirmbach
Aurelia Ceja, a member of the Coalition to March on the RNC, spoke at Red Arrow Park, prior to an August 2023 march to Fiserv Forum.

So you're fully focused on the RNC. But with this unique opportunity — the DNC is happening in Chicago, just a month later — is there resource-sharing and planning between you and your counterpart in Chicago? 

Oh yeah, we're in constant communication with our friends in Chicago. We have officially endorsed the March on the DNC, and we do plan on sending a lot of folks down to Chicago. It's been extremely helpful in terms of resource-sharing. For example, we're going to be having a media tent at Red Arrow Park, for the media to be able to talk with people, make sure we're accessible and getting our message out. A lot of that advice [came] from Chicago. We don't get too many big events here in Milwaukee. That's just one of many examples of how we've been able to help each other out.

Share your vision, best-case scenario, for what happens that day. What does it look like to you?

I think we're gonna see people from all different walks of life. We're going to be seeing a lot of very justifiably angry, working class folks that don't want to see this in our city. The biggest ideal for us is that our agenda becomes dominant versus the Republican agenda. The Republicans have all this money and all of this influence that they’ve built over the years. I would really love it if we had such a show of force that people are talking about our politics before they're talking about their politics.

In maybe a less realistic sense, I would really love it if the Republicans felt intimidated from coming out. Because they couldn't even handle people just walking past Pere Marquette Park, where there might be some of them hanging out. I've always said that the Republicans are almost like paper tigers. A lot of bark, no bite. While we have no illusions, obviously, about some of the extremist organizations that very much support the Republicans, I think that on a vast majority scale, [Republicans] understand that they are the minority in the country. That their ideas are actually not the ones that are popular, and that ours are. So I think that anything that drives that point home, that's our ideal goal and ideal situation.

There may be listeners who are hearing this and are thinking, “I want to be there, I want to get involved.” What should they do?

I heavily encouraged people to be involved. Even if they aren't feeling the best about it, we're always stronger in numbers. We will be in Red Arrow Park and starting to gather around 10 am. Get there early — who knows what the parking situation might look like. Just join us and get to know some of these organizations. And even more than that, continue organizing. There's a lot of really great people who have put a lot of their time and effort into this. We can continue to create the change in Milwaukee that we want to see.

Lina is a WUWM news reporter.
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