This summer, Milwaukee, Wisconsin will host the Republican National Convention (RNC). Thousands of Republican acolytes will converge on the city, one of many urban centers that the GOP has consistently disparaged as liberal, Black, and dangerous. The selection of Milwaukee as the site of the convention portends conflict. Attendees, steeped in the white nationalism permeating Republican party rhetoric on everything from immigration to gun laws, will encounter the denizens of a city that they have been taught to despise and fear. Many Milwaukeeans, in turn, will be protesting against these attendees’ presence, and against the RNC taking place in their city at all.
Those arriving for the conference are also likely to be aware of the 2021 Rittenhouse verdict in nearby Kenosha, which held that an armed counter-protestor who shot at and killed demonstrators in a protest of the 2020 police shooting of Jacob Blake was innocent by virtue of self-defense. The Republican Party supports unbridled access to guns and applauds “backing the badge” against broad public calls for racial justice and police accountability. Testing out this verdict, which authorizes violence against nonviolent protesters, may be part of the unstated lure of Milwaukee as a site for the RNC.
It is against this backdrop that months after Milwaukee was announced as the RNC host, the city’s venerable Fire and Police Commission (FPC) voted to suspend, for the duration of the convention, a recently passed police accountability policy that had been won through years of grassroots organizing: a transparency requirement that would make officer body camera footage of critical incidents like police shootings rapidly available to impacted families. For a fraught two weeks in July, police-involved violence will be shielded from public scrutiny. Notably, both the decision to invite the RNC to Milwaukee and to suspend the body camera requirement for its duration were made possible by Democratic leadership at the city and state level.
The transparency requirement, called Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) 575, was a historic grassroots win, a step toward meaningful community control over the institution of policing. The near-immediate counterattack it was met with is a measure of the challenges that lie ahead for organizers. How did this suspension of police accountability for the RNC come about? Why did Democrats collude in that decision (and why did they court the convention in the first place)? And most importantly: What do the answers to these questions tell us about future movements for democratic accountability in the city?
The story begins at the state level. Milwaukee, the largest city in Wisconsin, is predominantly Black and brown, a large blue dot surrounded by Lake Michigan to the east and some of the most reliably Republican-voting counties in the nation to the north and west. Besides some counties in the north that include state university campuses or indigenous reservations, and a few in the south that border the sprawl of Chicagoland, the rest of the state is reliably red.
In recent decades, grassroots, local organizations like Voces de la Frontera, an immigrant rights organization and workers’ center, Wisconsin Voices, and Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC) have worked hard to turn out the vote. The result: Wisconsin, which went for Trump by a narrow margin in 2016, flipped for Biden in the 2020 election. In 2022, similar efforts resulted in the re-election of Democratic governor Tony Evers. Yet due to extreme gerrymandering by Republicans, the state remains reliably red. The election of progressive justice Janet Protasiewicz to the state supreme court in April 2023 drew national attention. Less heralded was the advent of a Republican supermajority in the state legislature as a result of the same election.
The political composition of the state works to the detriment of Milwaukee, by far the state’s largest city. Milwaukee has high indices of poverty and inequality; its industrial jobs have long been outsourced; and its public services—among them libraries, health care, housing, and education—have been decimated by declining state investment. Milwaukee is also among the most segregated cities in the nation, consistently ranking in the top five with Chicago, Detroit, and Newark, New Jersey. Police killings of young people from BIPOC communities are a common occurrence here: a tally kept by a local activist counted thirty-five such deaths since 2013.
Many of the city’s problems are inflicted from above: its current position is a product of state policies deliberately configured to favor suburban and rural areas at the expense of urban taxpayers. Even with increasingly severe cuts to public services, the lack of revenue sharing between the state and its largest city has moved Milwaukee closer and closer to a looming “fiscal cliff” in the past decade.
Yet the city has been held up—like so many others in Republican stronghold states—as a paradigmatic case of what happens when progressives get their hands on the levers of power. Indeed, Wisconsin Republicans like former governor Scott Walker have campaigned with louder-than-dog-whistle racism against the perceived waste of public funds in Milwaukee. After the shooting of Jacob Blake in nearby Kenosha resulted in days of protest in 2020, Republicans harshly condemned the state and Evers, using the unrest in the city as evidence that the city was out of control, and that more policing, not less, was needed.
When it began its search for a location for the convention in 2022, the RNC was seeking to secure electoral victories in purple states like Wisconsin. Milwaukee and Nashville emerged as the finalists. Like Milwaukee, Nashville is a dot of blue surrounded by deep red. But the political demographics of the two states are different: Tennessee went for Trump in 2020 and re-elected its conservative Republican governor, Bill Lee, in 2022.
In response to the Republican bid to hold the convention in Nashville, its predominantly progressive city council attempted to bargain with the state legislature to host the RNC in exchange for increased municipal autonomy from Tennessee’s reigning Republican supermajority. When the governor refused to negotiate policy change, progressive city council members advanced their concerns about public safety. Council member Bob Mendes articulated his anxiety about hosting the convention in the wake of the January 6, 2021 insurrection in Washington, D.C.: “A lot of constituents I’m hearing from don’t understand why we would invite these polarized political times into our home.” Ultimately, despite pressure from the state legislature, the Nashville city council balked at the prospect of hosting the RNC, rejecting the civic risks and expenses involved.
That left Milwaukee. Unlike in Nashville, Milwaukee’s mayor and the state’s governor—both Democrats—jumped at the prospect of bringing the convention to the city. During his ultimately successful mayoral campaign, Cavalier Johnson traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet RNC chair Ronna McDaniel and to advocate for Milwaukee as an ideal location. Why? Johnson anticipated the revenue the convention would bring to the city, casting the project as a boon to tourism and local business: attendees would stay at the city’s hotels, eat at its restaurants, and shop at its stores.
Milwaukee community leaders, like their counterparts in Nashville, worried about the dangers of hosting the RNC. Alderwoman Milele Coggs pointed out that the enhanced security envisioned by the city for the RNC might amplify longstanding conflicts between BIPOC communities and the police. In an op-ed in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Milwaukee Area Technical College professors emeriti and union leaders Michael Rosen and Charlie Dee developed the case against hosting the convention: “Inviting a political party that caters to white supremacists like the Proud Boys, the Klan, and Oath Keepers will not benefit Milwaukee’s citizens. And what message does it send to our children that we are willing to sacrifice our civic values and self-respect to add largess to a few political consultants, national hotel chains, and Airbnb owners?”
As it turned out, even the economic gains anticipated by Mayor Johnson and others would be marginal. Marquette University political scientist Phil Rocco reviewed the rosy projections of the impact of the RNC and found them to be inflated. The convention, he found, was unlikely to benefit local businesses. It was state-imposed austerity that necessitated enthusiasm for the project in the first place: the push to host the RNC, he argued, was “the product of decades of maneuvers by largely unelected urban growth coalitions to remove the investment function from popular control.”
Responding to the long strangulation of Milwaukee by state funding, city council member JoCasta Zamarripa introduced an amendment requiring the RNC host committee to provide the city with 6 million dollars to address long-underfunded urban housing, public education, and workforce development. Mayor Johnson characterized this proposal as a “poison pill” that would undermine the city’s bid to host the RNC.
Yet despite the pushback, the Milwaukee Common Council, encouraged by Mayor Johnson, eventually voted unanimously on June 1, 2022 to approve a framework document before Nashville had even pulled out of contention—dooming Zamarripa’s attempts to secure state support for strapped public institutions. With Nashville gone, the choice of Milwaukee became clear for the GOP, who announced its selection soon after receiving approval. With the move, it had secured a key battleground state.
In the end, it was Milwaukee’s fiscal crisis—created by deliberate state policies—that delivered a victory for those advocating to host the RNC. But the benefits will be slight; the risks high. As noted by city council members in Nashville as well as Milwaukee, the RNC is likely to attract white nationalist extremists, some of whose activities may not be confined to the convention floor. In turn, the potential for conflict drives the impulse to increase policing. For amplified force, the city will rely on its ongoing collaboration with surrounding counties: the Milwaukee Area Investigative Team (MAIT), which brings suburban and rural police officers into the city, will be a key source of additional policing for the duration of the convention.
Given this context—the likelihood of violence during the RNC and the influx of officers to Milwaukee—why did the Fire and Police Commission (FPC) vote to suspend its own policy?
Founded in 1885, the Milwaukee FPC was the first civic body of its kind in the United States. Its origins, according to historian Will Tchackirides, lie in Progressive-era reforms aimed at undermining communist organizing and purporting to “modernize” policing.
But in recent decades, organizers have looked to the FPC as a potential lever: an organization responsive to public pressure to reform police departments. This is because the composition of the FPC grants it unusual power over the city’s police department. It presents itself as a civic cornerstone. Its local, non-governmental employee members are appointed by the city mayor. And as its 2022 annual report proclaims, the commission “has full authority to investigate and discipline department employees for rule violations and acts of misconduct.”
Since 2021, the Milwaukee Alliance against Racist and Political Repression (MAARPR), known locally as the Milwaukee Alliance, has pressed the FPC to live up to its civic promise by enacting a policy allowing the rapid release of body camera footage to the families of people impacted by police violence. The policy came directly out of conversations with the families of young people killed by police, like Maria Hamilton, whose son Dontre was shot by police while sleeping on a park bench in 2014. Hamilton emphasized that she and others confronting family tragedies at the hands of MPD had as much—or more—of a right to view body camera footage as did the police: “We have a right as taxpayers, as community members, to see that footage the way you all did.”
To Milwaukee Alliance organizers, public access to body camera is part of a broader campaign for community control. Families experience additional trauma when the police force them to wait for evidence of what happened to their relatives. But in the right hands, body camera footage can disseminate knowledge and build grassroots power. Allowing the police to administer the release of that footage means that they get to control the story. But if such footage is in the hands of impacted people, they can create the narrative around police violence.
MAARPR’s mission draws on a deep local history of resistance. The original MAARPR, founded in 1973 as part of the National United Committee to Free Angela Davis and All Political Prisoners, emerged out of a multiracial convergence of communist and “third world”-oriented organizing in Milwaukee. Understanding urban politics through a frame of anticolonial resistance, original MAARPR organizers saw community control of the police as key to any hope for racial justice in the city. As University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee historian Eli J. Frank explains, “young radicals of color proposed a redistribution of the state’s investments in death-dealing toward investment in the interests of thriving, healthy communities.”
In April 2020, local organizers refounded MAARPR, demanding accessible Covid testing on the city’s historically Black North Side. Since the killing of George Floyd a month later inspired a florescence of protest for Black lives, the Milwaukee Alliance has become an important local force, demanding community control of policing. The Alliance pushed for a police standard operating procedure—which the FPC has the power to vote on and approve—mandating a fifteen-day turnaround for the release of police body camera footage of critical events to impacted families, a reform similar to policies enacted in cities like New York and Washington, D.C. Their proposal was the product of countless meetings between FPC commissioners, organizers, and impacted families and mass attendance at public FPC sessions.
But police reforms—even modest ones, like the proposal for body camera footage release—are never met with unconditional acceptance. Before the passage of Standard Operating Procedure 575, area police forces expressed their opposition. Daniel Thompson, chief of police in nearby suburban Waukesha, long a Republican stronghold, threatened that such a policy could result in the termination of MAIT collaboration.
But Milwaukee Alliance organizers persisted. Two years into the campaign for video camera access, after a packed and emotionally charged meeting on April 20, 2023, the FPC passed SOP 575. It was a triumph of grassroots pressure for police accountability. FPC Chair Ed Fallone, who had cautioned throughout the process that the new policy might elicit retribution from the state legislature, called the act “a major step forward for the city of Milwaukee.”
Negative responses came swiftly. The day after SOP 575 passed, the Milwaukee Police Association (MPA) filed a lawsuit against the city, claiming that the quick release of body camera footage could threaten investigations. The policy, they argued, was “reckless,” beyond the purview of the FPC and a violation of MPD’s contracts.
It is no surprise that a police union would object to a policy designed to reveal officer malfeasance. But SOP 575 was also met with a far broader political backlash—one that took place with vindictive speed. On May 20, a mere month after the FPC voted for the passage of SOP 575, the same civic body voted to suspend it for two weeks, for the duration of the Republican National Convention in July 2024. Unlike the packed meetings that saw the passage of SOP 575, there was no public commentary at the FPC meeting curtailing it. The vote took place behind closed doors.
Mayor Johnson and other advocates of hosting the RNC in Milwaukee believe that the convention will necessitate greatly increased policing. For those additional forces the MPD will have to rely on MAIT—a body made up mostly of police departments in the deep red counties surrounding Milwaukee. In these counties, body cameras are not required, and there is little push for reforms like SOP 575. The official explanation for the suspension of SOP 575 is that it was necessary to accommodate these suburban and rural police departments, which are important because of the need to enhance policing at the convention. “The commission still fully embraces the wisdom and necessity of [the policy],” Fallone said. “We’re simply reacting to a request from our police chief that will assist him in preparing for security and a successful Republican National Convention.” Their goal, he argued, was purely pragmatic, meant to avoid “chaos in this city” during the convention.
While that explanation may seem plausible, it also reveals a broader pattern of statewide efforts to control urban areas that have won democratic control of governance. Suburban and rural police departments outside Milwaukee have effectively bent the FPC to their will, acting in direct opposition to the city’s communities who advocated for SOP 575’s enactment. The policy’s suspension is temporary (for now), but it has become clear that forces beyond the control of the FPC will threaten to make maintaining it, and the Milwaukee Alliance’s campaign for community control, far more difficult.
The FPC’s reasoning also relies on a notion of a city potentially out of control, necessarily subdued by police. This image has deep roots in the long history of state repression of popular movements. Most recently, it has been invoked in attempts to suppress the Movement for Black Lives. But political protests in Milwaukee have largely been peaceful. Historically, the police are the ones who have been violent—hence the need for reforms like SOP 575. The suspension of the law for the duration of the RNC, rushed through the FPC a year in advance of the convention itself, indicates, at worst, that authorities in Milwaukee already anticipated police violence and wished to hide it from public scrutiny.
It also reveals how Milwaukee politics are being drastically reshaped by the Republican extremism prevalent at the state level. In June 2023, the state legislature, newly empowered with a Republican supermajority, finally conceded to longstanding requests from Governor Evers and Milwaukee officials and offered a revenue-sharing bill that could avert fiscal disaster in the city. The bill, known as Act 12, granted Milwaukee a broader share of state taxes (though far less than requested) and allowed it and Milwaukee County to impose local sales taxes.
But while it moved in the direction of funding Milwaukee more equitably, Act 12 was also resolutely pro-policing, deliberately targeting successful initiatives for community control. A grassroots campaign to remove police from Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), led by Leaders Ignite Transformation, a Black and brown youth organization, succeeded in 2020. But Act 12 mandated the installation of school resource officers, which many have criticized as little more than renamed police officers, back into public schools. MPS board president Marva Herndon commented that the legislation would “destroy Milwaukee’s right to self-govern.”
Act 12 also singled out the Milwaukee FPC, mandating that the commission include representatives from police and firefighter unions and increasing the number of votes needed to suspend or modify regulations. Under these conditions, it would be easier to ignore the grassroots impetus that brought about SOP 575, or even to discard the policy itself.
Even the revenue sharing Act 12 affords Milwaukee is coercive. The policy limits the use of county and city sales taxes to funding pensions and investing in public safety: hiring more emergency, fire, and—most concerningly—police workers. For the state, argued Rocco, the bill was a kind of “dairyland realpolitik,” in which the price for its rescuing the city from the fiscal starvation it had deliberately imposed was the snuffing out of municipal democracy.
Red state policies often punish blue cities with targeted austerity, only to then turn around and blame them for the resulting crisis conditions. In February 2023, state legislators responded to a water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi by passing House Bill 1020, which undermined city government by creating a new, state-controlled court system specifically in Jackson and amplifying the power of the Capitol Police, whose conduct has been criticized as violent by some community leaders. The earlier water crisis in Flint, Michigan took place under the watch of a state-appointed “emergency manager” installed by Republican governor Rick Snyder. Such efforts deliberately flout both democratically elected leaders and grassroots efforts to increase local accountability in urban centers; they target majority Black and brown cities, effectively undermining community control.
Act 12 is one of the newest additions to a long list of Republican-led sanctions against cities across the country. After its passage, organizers in Milwaukee, who achieved a measure of progress working with Democratic—though still moderate—local politicians, must now do so under the watchful eye of a reactionary state hostile to the very idea of urban self-government. Yet they are not abandoning their work. This summer, protestors from around the country will gather to march on the RNC, led by a national coalition (of which the Milwaukee Alliance is a central part). There, the world will witness the results of the state-imposed rollback of police accountability in Milwaukee.
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