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How Wisconsin Became a Bastion of White Supremacy

The Badger State is designed to keep Republicans in power, at the expense of the minority vote. Can Joe Biden overcome these structural disadvantages?

On the night of October 23, 2004, Milwaukee police officer Andrew Spengler hosted a housewarming party. Katie Brown and Kirsten Antonissen brought two friends of their own: Frank Jude Jr., who is biracial, and Lovell Harris, who is Black.

Jude and Harris were the only people of color at the party, and immediately felt uncomfortable. They left the party five minutes later with Brown and Antonissen. In that time, Spengler announced that he could not find his badge, and accused the men of stealing it. 

A crowd of 10 to 15 people from the party—many of whom were off-duty Milwaukee police officers—rushed outside and surrounded Antonissen’s truck, where the four were sitting inside. The mob demanded that they get out of the truck and turn over Spengler’s badge. “Nigger, we can kill you,” Spengler’s friends told Jude and Harris. 

The mob eventually dragged them all out of the truck, though they did not find Spengler’s badge. One member of the mob cut Harris’s face, but he was able to free himself, and fled. The crowd then turned its attention on Jude. Spengler put Jude in a headlock against a car as the mob punched and shouted at him.

Antonissen called 911 on her cell phone. “They’re beating the shit out of him,” she told the operator. “Hang up the phone,” said a male voice in the background. Then the line went silent. Antonissen said when the men saw her calling 911, they wrested the phone from her and threw her against her truck. Brown called 911 twice before the men took her phone, too.

The group of off-duty police officers took turns punching and kicking Jude. Two on-duty police officers then arrived. One of them, Joseph Schabel, joined in on the beating and stomped Jude’s head “until others could hear bones breaking,” according to court documents. The men bent back one of Jude’s fingers until it snapped. Spengler put a gun to Jude’s head. “I’m the fucking police,” he said. “I can do whatever I want to do. I could kill you.” 

As Schabel was handcuffing Jude, an off-duty officer named Jon Bartlett took a pen and stabbed it into both of Jude’s ear canals as Jude screamed in agony.

Two years earlier, in 2002, Bartlett had shot and killed Larry Jenkins, an unarmed Black man, as he fled from police. “If justice had been in my son’s case, the Frank Jude beating would never have taken place,” Jenkins’s mother, Debra, said in 2008. The Milwaukee district attorney’s office ruled the shooting justifiable. 

After the group was satisfied with their work, Bartlett used a knife to cut off Jude’s jacket and pants, leaving him naked from the waist down in a pool of his own blood. Jude was taken to the hospital in a police wagon. 

Jude’s injuries were extensive: a concussion, a broken nose, a sprained and fractured left hand, a fractured sinus cavity, cuts and bruises all over his body, and “gross swelling and bruising” in his left eye. The day his four-year-old son came to the hospital, he thought his father was wearing a Halloween costume. “He said, ‘Take off your mask, Daddy,’” Jude said at the time. An all-white state jury found the officers not guilty. 

The protests this summer in Kenosha over the shooting of Jacob Blake tapped into deeper frustrations with racial inequality in Wisconsin.
Kerem Yucel/AFP/Getty Images

In 2007, a federal jury convicted Spengler, Bartlett, and another police officer, Daniel Masarik, of violating Jude’s civil rights. “The distance between civilization and barbarity, and the time needed to pass from one state to the other, is depressingly short,” Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote in his decision.

His statement could pass as a verdict on Wisconsin as a state, which, under its veneer of Midwestern Niceness, is home to men and women who are as animated by white supremacy as in any state in the Deep South (I know because I’m related to a few of them). In its folksy, mild-mannered way, the state’s blithe tolerance of systemic racism and police brutality foreshadowed the Republican Party’s national strategy of linking its electoral fortunes with racist demagoguery. 

The protests that erupted this August in Kenosha over the police shooting of Jacob Blake signaled outrage not only over Wisconsin’s bloody record of police brutality, but also over a deeper racist turn in state politics—one that helped swing Wisconsin to Donald Trump in 2016. If Democrats want to win Wisconsin this fall—a big “if” still, according to Democrats on the ground—they will have to face down the ugly, and still largely unacknowledged, legacy of white supremacy in America’s Dairyland.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton infamously failed to visit Wisconsin after losing the state to Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary. She became the first Democratic presidential nominee to lose Wisconsin in the general election in 32 years—a fate that even Michael Dukakis was able to avoid. “I suppose it is possible that a few more trips to Saginaw or a few more ads on the air in Waukesha could have tipped a couple of thousand votes here and there,” Clinton wrote in her campaign memoir What Happened, but she added that “contrary to the popular narrative, we didn’t ignore those states.” 

After the 2016 election, many post-mortems attributed Wisconsin’s right turn to simple voter apathy or Trump’s ability to tap into the “economic anxiety” of disaffected white voters. Less noted was the state GOP’s years-long assault on voting rights, the purpose of which was to make it harder for Black people and other people of color to vote. Nearly 90 percent of Black Wisconsin residents live in just six counties nestled in the state’s southeastern quadrant. According to a 2017 study conducted by Kenneth Mayer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the state’s voter ID law deterred or prevented more than 25,000 registered voters in the state’s two most populous counties (which also happen to be its two most liberal counties) from voting in 2016. Trump won Wisconsin by just 23,000 votes.

“Unfortunately, Wisconsin’s become sort of a poster child for many of the worst abuses, which is completely contrary to our progressive good government tradition,” Russ Feingold, the former Democratic senator from Wisconsin, told me.

It’s impossible to talk about Wisconsin’s politics without addressing the state’s deeply entrenched racism. As a state, Wisconsin is still much whiter than the rest of the country. Just 6.7 percent of Wisconsinites are Black, compared to 13.4 percent of the U.S. population.

Milwaukee is the most segregated metro area in the country, according to a 2018 Brookings study. Wisconsin locks up Black men at a higher rate than any other state, according to a 2013 University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee study, which found that 13 percent of Black men of working age in Wisconsin are in jail or prison, compared to the 6.7 percent national average.

Evictions also fall disproportionately on Black tenants in Wisconsin. In his 2016 book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Matthew Desmond found that more than one in eight Milwaukee renters were forced to move involuntarily, either through eviction, landlord foreclosure, or building condemnations, over the course of three years. And as in many American cities, race and class follow similar fault lines. Fully 79 percent of Black families in Milwaukee County are poor or low-income, compared to 39 percent of white families in the county, according to a 2018 UW-Madison report.

You cannot understand what Trump support looks like in Wisconsin without understanding how much white Republican grandpas here love AM talk radio. For the past 30 years, two names have dominated Wisconsin’s conservative talk radio market: Mark Belling and Charlie Sykes. Since 2016, Belling has doubled down on his role as the Badger State’s own Rush Limbaugh, taking to Trumpism like a muskie to lake water. Sykes is a more interesting case. He’s probably most famous for airing racist grievances about welfare queens living large off of whites’ hard-earned tax dollars. In 2013, Sykes published a book called A Nation of Moochers, arguing that “those who plan and behave sensibly are being asked to bail out the profligate.” Two years later, Sykes rebranded himself as a #NeverTrump Republican, and he has spent the past five years expressing shock and disgust at the GOP’s racism.

Reince Priebus (left), Paul Ryan (center-left), and Scott Walker (right), pictured here campaigning with Mitt Romney in 2012, are the faces of Wisconsin’s aggressive rightward tilt in recent years.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Republicans in the state have engineered a system to keep Black and other minority voters as powerless as possible. Democrats may not have “ignored” Wisconsin, as Clinton wrote, but they have been overrun by a ruthlessly effective Republican campaign that began with Scott Walker winning the governorship in 2010.  

Walker has an unearned reputation for being placid and even boring, mostly because of his love of sad-looking ham sandwiches. But that characterization obscures the damage Walker inflicted during his time as governor. Wisconsin became a Koch-sponsored laboratory of the same regressive, anti-democratic policies that we’re seeing enacted all over the country during the Trump era. Walker shattered public employee unions, rolled back environmental protections, and gutted funding for public education. This agenda, wrapped in the language of white resentment, played well in the “WOW” counties—Washington, Ozaukee, and Waukesha—a trio of white-flight suburbs and exurbs that neighbor Milwaukee County and have historically acted as the engine of the state’s white grievance politics. But his most harmful work was passing the voter ID law and district maps meant to dilute the voting power of people of color.  

Over the past 10 years, Walker and his allies in the Wisconsin state legislature mastered the dark arts of gerrymandering, voter disenfranchisement, and general ratfuckery. “I sort of think of the Trump era as starting in Wisconsin in 2010,” Ben Wikler, the head of the Wisconsin Democrats, told me. “You can see in the way that Republicans here are operating in the state legislature that the Trump era will not end when Trump is gone. The obsessive pursuit of power at the expense of basic democratic norms is just deeply embedded in the Republican political culture here.” 

2010 was the year that the Tea Party’s Ron Johnson ousted Feingold, a left reformist  champion. As ill luck would have it, 2010 was also a census year, meaning that Walker and Republican lawmakers were able to draw one of the most absurdly gerrymandered congressional maps in the country. “Wisconsin’s maps are so gerrymandered that Republicans can win close to a supermajority of House seats even with a minority of the vote,” the Brennan Center for Justice’s Michael Li wrote in April. 

Ten years after the Tea Party wave, Wisconsin Republicans aren’t even trying to hide their agenda. After the 2018 midterm elections, state Assembly Leader Robin Vos all but lamented the fact that people who live in cities are allowed to vote. ​“If you took Madison and Milwaukee out of the state election formula, we would have a clear majority,” Vos said. The midterms saw the election of a Democratic U.S. senator and the end of Walker’s reign, but gerrymandering was key to the GOP’s ability to hold on to the state Assembly and its seats in the House.

All of which means that, no matter how badly Trump flubs his response to the pandemic or how deeply the economy sinks, and no matter how much Joe Biden leads in the polls, Democrats face a structural disadvantage in Wisconsin that has been built on the state GOP’s antipathy to people of color. And that disadvantage has only been exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis.

In 2017, I flew home from Washington to Milwaukee to see my parents. It had been a rough week for Democrats in Congress, as the GOP had once again tried to gut the Affordable Care Act. After we landed, I rolled my carry-on out of the airport and gave my mom a hug. I heard a voice behind me say, gloomily, “I need a hug.” I turned around to see Representative Gwen Moore, the only person of color to represent Wisconsin in Washington, who was on the same flight home as me. “I’ll give you a hug, Gwen Moore!” my mom said. I watched Moore and my mom—two proud Milwaukee women born in the same year—hug it out on the airport sidewalk.

When I told Moore this story in a phone interview, she let out a nervous laugh. “Oh, I’m so scared that was me,” she said. Moore lamented the way Covid-19 has kept people from literally embracing each other. “I’ve become this other person who doesn’t hug,” she told me. “It really is taking some adjustment for me.”

Like other Wisconsin Democrats, Moore is determined to rebuild the so-called “blue wall” that crumbled in 2016. But even state party leaders are uneasy about the odds, in no small part because of the obstacles to voting created by the pandemic. 

“We should plan for a knife’s edge election,” Ben Wikler told me. “In Wisconsin, things tighten so much, so fast, so often, you have to organize as though every vote could be the one that tips the result.” 

This fall will actually be Wisconsin’s second statewide election of the pandemic. In April, as Covid-19 was spreading across the country like wildfire, Wisconsin’s GOP lawmakers refused to postpone a state Supreme Court election. When Democratic Governor Tony Evers issued an order to delay the election to ensure voter safety, Republican leaders challenged it at the state’s hyperconservative Supreme Court, which ordered that the election continue as planned. As a result, Wisconsin faced a shortage of almost 7,000 poll workers in the April election.

“The way to understand what happened in April is only if you think about the context of all these attacks that have been going on for 10 years,” said Feingold, who now leads the nonpartisan American Constitution Society. 

While Democrats ended up prevailing in the April election, Wisconsin is at risk of stepping on yet another rake in November. In mid-September, Wisconsin set a new daily record since the pandemic began, with more than 1,500 confirmed Covid-19 cases in the state. Earlier that week, the state Supreme Court—which in May showed new levels of judicial negligence by striking down the state’s stay-at-home order—temporarily delayed hundreds of thousands of absentee ballots from being sent to voters, lobbing yet another Molotov cocktail into an already chaotic election.

Compounding all this is the fact that 2020 is a census year. If Republicans maintain control of the state assembly and senate, which looks all but certain at this point, they will once again get to redraw the maps in their favor, effectively hand-picking their own electorate for the next 10 years. And if Republicans win a veto-proof majority in the state legislature, the governor will be powerless to reject the new maps. “The maps we draw next year will define our ability for a decade—that’s a long time—to get things done,” Evers said in August.

What’s happened here is so disheartening because, while Wisconsin’s history is steeped in the same injustices as the rest of America’s, it also provides one of the strongest liberal legacies in the country. You can’t tell the story of the progressive movement in the United States without Wisconsin, and especially not without Milwaukee. At the start of the twentieth century, Milwaukee elected not one but three socialist mayors. These “sewer socialists”—so-called because of Mayor Daniel Hoan’s dedication to improving the city’s sanitation system—governed Milwaukee for 38 years. During that time, they created the city’s parks system and fire department, championed public education, raised the minimum wage, led public vaccination campaigns, decontaminated the city’s drinking water, and fought for an eight-hour workday. 

Milwaukee’s socialist leaders “called their fellow citizens to a higher conception of the common good, one that placed cooperation above competition and mutualism above bare self-interest,” local historian John Gurda wrote in 2010. “They believed that a government based on those ideals was humanity’s best hope for the future.”

Wisconsin has a strong history of environmentalism, starting with the state’s Native tribes. Conservationists from John Muir to Aldo Leopold kindled their love for the natural world at the University of Wisconsin. In the 1950s and 1960s, Democratic Governor Gaylord Nelson and his Republican successor, Governor Warren Knowles, each made conservation a top priority while in office. 

Organized labor was once the bedrock of Milwaukee’s European immigrant community. My grandfather, George Prijic, was a card-carrying member of the Milwaukee bricklayer’s union for more than 50 years. His daughter, my mother, was a proud member of the Wisconsin public teachers’ union for more than 30 years. In the spring of 2011, she protested Scott Walker’s union-busting legislation at the state Capitol, shoulder to shoulder with thousands of fellow educators, state workers, and students. 

Unfortunately, Wisconsin is also the birthplace of Senator Joseph McCarthy, and the state’s recent political history has been shaped by a group of white men (and occasionally, white women) who have picked up the conservative culture wars where McCarthyism left off. They cleared and sodded the field that became Trump’s golf course, all while insisting that they weren’t involved in the game. Look at Scott Walker, who, with other GOP governors in states like North Carolina, co-authored the instruction manual for his party’s voter disenfranchisement strategy. Look at former White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, who slunk out of the West Wing after six months on the job without even a book deal to show for it. In 2019, Vice President Mike Pence swore in Priebus as an ensign in the Navy Reserve—a rank usually reserved for recent college graduates rather than 47-year-old political operatives. Priebus beat out 37 other candidates to become a naval human resources officer, despite the fact that he had no prior military experience. 

Or look at former House Speaker Paul Ryan, a self-mythologizing machine who stuck a smiley face on his party’s grievance politics while convincing the Washington press corps he was but a humble wonk. Ryan likes to tell friendly reporters that the only reason he stayed in Washington after Trump’s election was to protect the nation from the president’s own worst impulses. By Ryan’s telling, he acted as the noble statesman, throwing himself on the grenade of the Trump presidency (an act of self-sacrifice that entailed securing a tax windfall for the country’s richest people). These days, Ryan is as difficult to catch on camera as the mythical Hodag, offering little to no comment on police brutality or Black Lives Matter or Trump’s racist appeals, even as Kenosha, his own district of 20 years, went up in flames. 

Wisconsin hasn’t always been this way. But a lot can change, quickly, when powerful people, feeding off the dark forces of this country’s racist politics, are willing to wrest power away from workers by any means necessary. If it can happen here, it can happen anywhere. Still, I have to believe my home state can return to its liberal roots. To think otherwise would be a disgrace to my grandfather, who laid brick upon brick toward a future better than this.