The state Capitol was the backdrop to a clash of competing protests Saturday afternoon, as both conservative, gun rights advocates and anti-fascist activists organized two opposing protests.
Last month, the conservative gun rights group Wisconsin Patriots Alliance announced plans to protest at the Capitol. The Three Percent United Patriots, a nationwide anti-government militia according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, also helped with organizing.
In response, an array of left-wing groups, led by the Madison chapter of the International Socialist Organization, organized a counter-protest. Sixteen organizations sponsored the move, including the Madison chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, the Communist Workers League and the Outreach LGBT Resource Center.
The counter-protestors met at the top of State Street, while the right-wing protestors met at the foot of the Capitol building.
The impetus behind the conservative protest centered on a belief that state officials were planning to restrict their Second Amendment rights. In particular, newly elected Attorney General Josh Kaul’s call for “red flag gun laws” and universal background checks on gun purchases drew ire from the protestors.
Red flag gun laws, which have been instituted in a handful of states, allow law enforcement officials and family members to request a judge mandate the temporary disarmament of an individual believed to be a danger to others or themselves. Newly inaugurated Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, have both said they’re open to considering similar laws for Wisconsin.
Standing at a podium set in front of a small group of protestors openly carrying assault rifles and pistols, Earl Arrowood, an organizer for Guns Across America, said recent shootings at places like the Thousand Oaks nightclub, Marjory Stoneman High School and the Tree of Life Synagogue could only have been prevented with the presence of more, not fewer, guns.
“What country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance,” Arrowood said down the steps of the capitol.
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Terry Lyon, known as “Open Carry Terry” by the crowd, echoed other protestors who said red flag laws violate their constitutional rights.
Lyon took issue with restricting firearm access by “broad-brushing” people with mental illness — a move which he believes violates the constitution.
“Gun control is not about controlling guns, it’s about controlling human beings,” Lyon said.
But while mental illness is one factor judges could take into account when deeming someone a threat to themselves or others, The Washington Post reported that judges in red flag states have also considered threats, substance abuse and domestic violence as other grounds for seizing weapons.
Outnumbering the protestors substantially, the counter-protestors’ chants echoed in the background and only grew louder as the afternoon continued. Eventually the counter-protestors forced the police to slowly retreat as they worked their way up the steps leading to the Capitol, blaring vuvuzelas and chanting, “Stop the hate, stop the fear, immigrants are welcome here.”
Even though the pro-gun demonstration was scheduled to last until 4 p.m., their numbers had dissipated by 1:30 p.m. – a cause for celebration from the counter-protestors.
While the right gathered in protest of a perceived violation of their Second Amendment rights, the left’s protest was largely focused on the Three Percenters’ activities at the U.S.-Mexico border and at “alt-right” rallies across the nation.
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Three Percenters routinely patrol the border and turn immigrants attempting to cross the Southern border into the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Heavily-armed Three Percenters were also seen providing security to neo-Nazis and other extremist groups at last year’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., which erupted in violence and resulted in the death of counter-protestor Heather Heyer.
The Three Percenters have distanced themselves from white supremacist movements and neo-Nazi groups both online and at the protest, claiming they exist to protect everyone’s rights — not just their own. The counter-protestors, however, didn’t buy it.
“They’re here, armed with guns, saying they’re here to defend the people — but the people don’t need this brutality and oppression,” a representative from the Chicago Solidarity Center said. “They don’t need the rounding up of immigrants and indigenous people.”
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The “fascists,” feeling emboldened by Trump’s implicit support (he called the alt-right participants of the Unite the Right rally “very fine people”), must be “confronted, demoralized and demobilized” by mass demonstrations like the one that unfolded over several frigid hours on Saturday, McCullough said.
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McCollough added that while not everyone at the right’s rally was a fascist or white supremacist, the Three Percenters were “beyond the pale.” The spike in religious hate crimes in Wisconsin and throughout the country since Trump’s election signals a need to dismantle extremist movements whenever they crop up, McCollough said.
“Part of our job is to split those groups apart and take away that potential for the far right to grow,” McCullough said.
Despite tensions between the two groups, the protests did not result in any significant physical confrontations. Although a few members of both groups wandered into the opposing protest — one resulted in a short-lived shoving match — the two groups largely kept to themselves and protested non-violently.
Mayor Paul Soglin, the first speaker at the left’s protest, said young people like the ones gathered before him were the ones who would lead the fight against injustice.
“Were going to fight them on many fronts,” Soglin said. “Here in Wisconsin, we did it successfully last November in terms of removing one of the darkest spots in our history from the governor’s office. And we’re going to fight it on another front: in our communities.”
A Soglin critic repeatedly interrupted the mayor’s speech, saying his talk of supporting marginalized groups ended with homeless people. As Soglin attempted to launch into a promotion of his work on the Tree Lane housing project, a new 45-unit public housing initiative for the homeless, the counter-protestors turned against him, booing him off stage.
“Next speaker,” the crowd chanted. “Next mayor,” a protestor shouted.