A coalition of leftist organizations and allies braved below-freezing temperatures Saturday at the Wisconsin State Capitol to outnumber and outlast far-right groups rallying against a potential gun control measure supported by Wisconsin’s new governor and attorney general.
Madison police estimate the 45-person far-right rally, organized by members of the Three Percent movement and the Free Men Report, was met with 250 counter-protesters. Police reported no arrests.
The small far-right group rallied at the top of the capitol steps, while the crowd of counter-protesters gathered across the street. Over two hours, the counter-protesters closed the gap by moving up the steps of capitol. Police, along with members of the counter-protesting groups’ tactical teams tasked with de-escalating conflict, stood between the two crowds.
On the steps, counter-protesters chanted, shouted, and blew vuvuzelas to drown out the far-right speakers. The counter-protesters stepped up the pressure until the far-right groups left at about 1:15 p.m., hours before the scheduled end of the rally.
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While there was no violence, there were a few tense moments at the Wisconsin rally. Counter-protest organizers noticed several armed men not part of the counter-protest walking through the backs of the crowd. Organizers got the counter-protesters to form a tighter group. At least four armed men were escorted away by police.
Members of the far-right groups who spoke to Rewire.News cited opposition to so-called red flag laws and defense of the second amendment as the reason for their protest. Red flag laws, supported by Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) allow law enforcement and family members to petition courts to temporarily disarm a person believed to be a danger to themselves or others. So-called red flag laws are also opposed by mainstream gun rights groups, including Wisconsin Carry, WAOW reports.
Despite this overlap with mainstream political organizations, neither group limits itself to gun policy or civil liberties.
Groups in the Three Percenter movement patrol the U.S.-Mexico border, alerting border patrol agents to migrants they spot, which can lead to dangerous apprehensions. A Mother Jones reporter observed the group sabotaging supplies left for migrants in 2016.
Three Percenters, a decentralized organization, are a “Patriot movement paramilitary group that pledges armed resistance against attempts to restrict private gun ownership,” according to Political Research Associates. Three Percent members joined hate groups for a pro-police rally in Philadelphia in November.
Meanwhile, the Free Men Report, a small organization based in Madison, promotes far-right conspiracy theories, such as the Islamophobic myth that Muslim immigrants are replacing white Europeans.
The far-right groups began organizing in December. Madison’s chapter of International Socialist Organization (ISO) called the first meeting to organize a counter-protest, said Sylvia Johnson, a member. The coalition numbered sixteen groups on Saturday.
One of the early organizations to join ISO was the Madison affiliate of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). John Cook, the local DSA’s communication coordinator, said their goal was to counter-balance the message of the far-right protesters.
“They’re trying to strengthen their organizational capacity in Madison and we’re not going to sit their and let that happen silently,” Cook said.
OutReach LGBT Community Center was a later arrival. Steve Starkey, executive director of the center, said that despite being mostly a “social service agency,” participating in the counter-protest was aligned with the group’s mission.
“Our mission is to promote equality and quality of life among LGBT people. And LGBT people are among the people targeted by the right and the people we’re protesting,” he said. “I think we’re standing with other groups against fascism and white supremacy.”
As organizers packed up Saturday, the punk band Gender Confetti played a handful of songs for the remaining counter-protesters. Johnson, singer and guitarist in the band, said they “always imagined” the band performing in the context of a protest.
The majority of counter-protesters formed a group directly opposite the capitol, where the far-right rally took place. Off to the side, a smaller group gathered, many from the First Unitarian Society. Tim Cordon, the church’s social justice coordinator, was one of them.
“We think, rather than trying to drown them out or overpower them, it would be better to be there as a silent witness to register our opposition,” he said.
He clarified that he didn’t see his group’s strategy as conflicting with the more assertive approach of the majority of the counter-protesters.
“I think it’s a better way, but I don’t really want to judge,” he said. “Many of my friends are over [with] them. I’m in complete solidarity with that counter-protest.”
While far-right groups have not rallied in Madison in recent years, a slew of rallies have taken place across the United States. Aside from August 2017’s “Unite the Right” at Charlottesville, Virginia, these rallies generally involve a small number of far-right protesters who are vastly outnumbered by counter-protesters.