Drawing on Wisconsin's progressive history and praising the state for being a leader in education, Underly acknowledged standing on “the shoulders of those who came before us," then slammed Republican legislative leaders for their “shortsightedness" in passing a budget that declined to spend part of a historic surplus on schools.
“Not long ago, Wisconsin's budget invested in our public schools," Underly noted. “We saw the impact of this on the kids who graduated from our schools before 2010." But over the last decade, the state has failed to make up for budget cuts made during the Great Recession. As a result, “in 2020, we graduated and an entire generation of kids who have known nothing but austerity in our school funding — who have known years of divestment in their future."
“This, folks," she declared, “is the state of education in Wisconsin.
Calling on Wisconsinites to “stand up to those who want to use our schools to distract and divide our communities." Underly referred to the rash of cases of harassment and intimidation of school board members throughout the state, spurred by conservative groups and Republican donors who have stirred up anger over school mask policies, school funding and anti-racism curriculum.
“I urge us to keep our focus on what unites us instead of getting caught up in division," Underly said. “Our kids are doing just that by focusing on their shared desire to be with their friends, and to learn and to protect each other. And it's time for the adults to step up, too."
Describing public schools and libraries as “the common thread that binds us together," Underly noted that, “the fabric is fraying." The vitriol in public attacks on teachers and school officials is hurting kids, she added.
The anger unleashed in the Trump era, fanned by Republicans at both the national and state level in order to motivate the former president's voters, is now focused on a soft target — local school boards. Across Wisconsin, they have endured mini versions of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. In Kenosha, a crowd jammed a meeting and forced a vote to drastically cut school board members' salaries, while making it mandatory that they attend meetings in person. In Eau Claire, a school board meeting was cancelled after some participants refused to wear masks. Recall efforts targeting school board members for voting to sustain mask requirements and online learning during the pandemic have proliferated across the state. And school board members in different districts across the state quit this fall saying they and their families were threatened by angry members of the public.
Against this backdrop, Underly wryly noted a Republican legislative proposal for a civics requirement in Wisconsin schools.
“If you want a stronger civics curriculum, you'll find no resistance from me," she said. “Maybe it would end up resulting in a future Legislature that understands the complex legal and societal issues our families and communities face." Maybe it would even teach the Legislature, which has been busy running over local control with a series of curriculum mandates, the separate roles of state and local governments. “Most of all," Underly added, “maybe it will encourage us to be better citizens and hold our legislators accountable and set a strong example for our kids of what it means to be civically engaged, but also civilly engaged."
Underly gave her endorsement to the call for civility issued by John Ashley, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards.
“Our kids matter most, our public schools matter most," Underly said. “They are the thread that binds our communities together, and we should be supporting each other instead of tearing down those who dare to provide leadership during a crisis."
Indeed, by targeting teachers, schools, and school board members, conservative “freedom fighters" have ripped the mask off Republican politics in more ways than one, exposing the sheer nihilism of Trumpism, division and destruction. What's at stake, as Underly ably put it in her address, is our shared sense of community, decency, and civilization itself.
“For democracy and civility to thrive, we need our public schools," she declared, bringing it all together. Our public schools and libraries are a precious resource, both for the role they play in unifying and lifting up communities, nurturing our future, and giving us a sense of shared purpose, pride, and values. All of that is currently under attack.
In a video statement released shortly after Underly concluded her speech, Gov. Tony Evers, a former state schools superintendent himself, congratulated Underly and reinforced her message that “our schools are the heart of our community."
Speaker Robin Vos, not surprisingly, pushed back on her strong criticism of his leadership with his own statement. “The Democrats' singular focus to push more money into schools isn't a winning strategy for our kids," Vos declared sourly. “We need to look at improving how they are being taught and why so many students are struggling with the basics – reading, writing, and arithmetic." He called for more assessments and “allowing parents to be part of the conversation."
By conversation, Vos presumably means this week's hearing featuring national conservative activists deriding so-called critical race theory, or the mobs that have been threatening school board members.
“Unfortunately, politics is too much a part of the conversation around schools," says Heather DuBois Bourenane of the Wisconsin Public Education Network. “Threats to school board members, who are our neighbors, who have families of their own, who thought that they were serving their communities and signing up to help our kids, are way beyond the line," she adds.
No wonder several of those school board members resigned when it all got to be too much. But, says, DuBois Bourenane, bullying has driven some people to quit, “others have become even more deeply committed to doing what's best for our students and our communities, and are using this moment to shake awake those who have too long been asleep to a decades-old assault our public schools."
One of those people seizing the moment is Jill Underly.
Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.
A straw poll at the semi-annual Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference in Michigan suggests that Donald Trump influence among Republican Party activists seems to be waning as the country moves on from his November election loss.
According to a report from MLIVE, attendees are already lining up behind alternatives to the former president for the 2024 presidential election and when asked if a Trump endorsement would sway their vote, a majority took a pass.
"An endorsement from former President Donald Trump may not be a decisive advantage among Michigan Republicans, according to a straw poll sponsored by The Detroit News, " the report states, basing it upon an "unscientific poll surveyed more than 740 Republicans of the conference's 1,300 attendees."
As Exhibit A, MLIVE reports that Matthew DePerno has received Trump's endorsement in the Attorney General race but, among attendees at the conference, ran "dead last" in the list of potential candidates.
"About 60% of those surveyed said they would vote for a Republican 'even if the candidate didn't agree with Trump's assertion that the 2020 election was stolen,'" the reports states, adding that favorites for the 2024 GOP presidential field still includes Trump at 47% followed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (25%), South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (8%), U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (6%)"
You can read more here.
'Calling it payback shows it's premeditated': Unite the Right organizers go on trial for planning violence
The orgy of fascist violence that exploded in Charlottesville, Va. during the event known as Unite the Right on Aug. 11-12, 2017 provided a shocking manifestation of the polarization, division and scapegoating projected by Donald Trump during his ascent to power.
It's been more than four years since white supremacists led a torchlit march to the Rotunda at the University of Virginia, surrounding counter-protesters whom they kicked, punched and struck with torches, while local officials and visiting faith leaders huddled in fear in a nearby church on Aug 11. The following morning, they marched through the streets of Charlottesville chanting, "Jews will not replace us," charged through a group of clergy members, and fought pitched battles in the streets with antifascist counter-protesters. After Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared the rally an "unlawful gathering" they brutally beat a young, Black man named DeAndre Harris with sticks in a parking garage, and a man named James A. Fields Jr. accelerated his car into a crowd of marchers, killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of others. Unite the Right is widely acknowledged as the largest gathering of hate groups in decades.
The organizers of Unite the Right will go on trial on Oct. 25 in a civil suit brought by the nonprofit Integrity First for America on behalf of students, clergy and other Charlottesville residents who were injured in Fields' car-ramming attack, the assault at the Rotunda and by the waves of neo-Nazis who charged through counter-protesters outside the park where the Lee statue stood. The lawsuit seeks to prove that the defendants conspired to violate the civil rights of Black and Jewish people and their supporters through a "common plan of violence and intimidation in the streets of Charlottesville."
The violence in Charlottesville on Aug. 11-12 didn't come out of nowhere.
Pitched street battles in Berkeley, Calif. in March and April, and then in Portland, Ore. in June reflecting escalating tensions between right-wing groups emboldened by Donald Trump and antifascists made it practically inevitable that violence would spill out in Charlottesville. "Despite clear evidence of violence," an independent review would find, police in Charlottesville "consistently failed to intervene, deescalate or otherwise respond."
The violence was also predictable because the white supremacist figures behind Unite the Right had organized previous events in Charlottesville. Richard Spencer, a white supremacist who was elevated into the national spotlight when he pronounced, "Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!" to Nazi salutes at a conference he hosted in Washington DC shortly after the 2016 election, would set his sights on Charlottesville the following spring.
The left-leaning college town in the bucolic Virginia countryside prominently showcased monuments to Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, while the University of Virginia — Spencer himself was an alum — honored its founder, Thomas Jefferson. With efforts afoot to remove the Lee and Jackson monuments, the increasingly emboldened fascists of the alt-right located a ripe target to air their grievance against multiracial democracy amid majestic statuary honoring venerated white men.
Spencer joined forces with Jason Kessler, a local fascist who contributed to the conservative website the Daily Caller, and on May 13 they organized a torch-lit march to the Lee statue in which attendees carried flags and chanted Nazi slogans, "Blood and soil," and, "You will not replace us." Meanwhile, the North Carolina-based Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan exploited the controversy in an effort to raise their own profile by staging a rally of their own in Charlottesville on July 8. The Confederate monuments in Charlottesville provided a focal point to summon together the varied strains of white male fragility, misogyny, antisemitism, anti-immigrant grievance, anti-LGBTQ and anti-trans beliefs, and Christian nationalism — to literally unite the right.
Several pieces were already in place. Under the leadership of Matthew Heimbach, the neo-fascist group Traditionalist Worker Party had built a coalition with the old-guard National Socialist Movement, secessionist League of the South and youthful Vanguard America under the banner of the Nationalist Front. Those groups had rallied together in Pikeville, Ky. in April. Traditionalist Worker Party had provided security for Spencer during an appearance at Auburn University in Alabama earlier that month. Spencer was also forging organizational links with Identity Evropa, whose founder, Nathan Damigo — a Marine Corps veteran from California's Central Valley — had punched an antifascist woman in the face without provocation during a rally in Berkeley, Calif. in April.
Mike Peinovich, an irreverent podcaster with a show called "The Right Stuff," along with Damigo, had attended the earlier May 13 torch rally in Charlottesville. Andrew Anglin and his partner Robert "Azzmador" Ray helped promoted Unite the Right through their grotesquely racist and overtly fascist website the Daily Stormer, and had similarly promoted the May 13 torch rally. Christopher Cantwell, a one-time Libertarian whose views evolved towards overt Nazism as host of the "Radical Agenda" podcast, also contributed to organizing and promoting Unite the Right. Rounding out the organizing core of Unite the Right was Augustus Sol Invictus, a devil-worshiping lawyer and unsuccessful US Senate candidate. Invictus was also the head of the Fraternal Order of the Alt-Knight, a short-lived auxiliary to the Proud Boys that was known as its "military wing."
There's little doubt that the dozen-plus defendants elaborately coordinated Unite the Right. [Last month/on Sept. 15], the plaintiffs filed a list of 3,328 exhibits they plan to introduce into evidence, including upwards of 150 text messages exchanged among them. The plaintiffs' exhibit list also cites more than 850 posts on Discord, a gaming chat platform that the organizers used to secretly plan and coordinate Unite the Right. While antifascists have infiltrated and leaked the contents of some of the Discord planning channels, the lawsuit contends that the #leadership channel reserved for top leaders remains undisclosed. According to the complaint, Kessler and Elliott Kline — No. 2 in command at Identity Evropa — "moderated, reviewed, directed and managed" the Discord chat platform, which was broken out into 43 separate channels for different topics and mobilizing supporters from different regions of the country.
The plaintiffs allege that Spencer, then the most prominent figure in the white supremacist movement, has said that Identity Evropa was designated to organize participation in the rally among people coming from outside of Charlottesville, with Kessler as a local counterpart. Identity Evropa leader Nathan Damigo, in turn, delegated organizing duties to Elliott Kline, who would take the reins of the organization from Damigo shortly after Unite the Right.
Kline allegedly said he ran Unite the Right "as a military operation," according to the complaint, while noting that he had previously served in the Army.
As first reported by the Daily Beast, the plaintiffs are likely to present evidence suggesting a flow of funding from private donors to support organizing for Unite the Right. An arrangement to pay Kline for his organizing efforts was disclosed in the original exhibit list filed by the plaintiffs on Sept. 14. The document was placed under seal the following day by court order following a subsequent filing by the plaintiffs explaining that it "inadvertently included some information designated as 'Confidential' and 'Highly Confidential'" under a previous protective order. The contents of the restricted exhibits were published on Twitter by antifascist activist Molly Conger.
"I am going to move forward tomorrow and get you on payroll," Damigo told Kline, according to one of the texts.
In another text, a person named "Coach" broaches the topic of getting paid for his movement work in a discussing a breakup.
"I'm about to double down in the movement harder than I already have," Kline said. "I asked her if she thought it was a good idea. She was excited. And now she wants out. It's too late for me to turn it down now. Half the reason I took the opportunity was because I knew I'd be able to support her with it. It's no secret but I'm taking over IE from Nathan and I'm going to be paid from private donors some good money."
The identity of Identity Evropa's private donors remains unknown, but a text from Spencer to Kline suggests he had some involvement in the arrangement.
"Also, we're going to pay you," Spencer reportedly said.
With the paid position, Kline apparently stepped up his involvement in organizing Unite the Right — and coordination with Kessler.
"You and I should get used to speaking daily now," Kline told Kessler. "Now that this is my full-time job, I'll be much more available to you."
The upcoming trial also promises to reveal funding for another significant group in the Unite the Right coalition. One of the plaintiffs' exhibits is described as a "document containing list of 2016 contributions to Traditionalist Worker Party."
Traditionalist Worker Party came into Unite the Right as part of the pre-existing Nationalist Front coalition, which took on specific duties in Charlottesville.
An essay by Traditionalist Worker Party officer Matthew Parrott, which the plaintiffs plan to introduce into evidence, describes how the group joined forces with League of the South and National Socialist Movement "to help create two shield walls" for "the fight."
"While most of the Identity Evropa men were occupied on other fronts, they sent a detachment of fighters to assist us and to relay intelligence to Jason Kessler and other organizers," Parrott wrote in the essay, according to the lawsuit. "They offered more fighters, but we had our positions amply covered."
Since 2017, the organizers of Unite the Right have attempted to distance themselves from the bloodshed in Charlottesville. But the plaintiffs argue that the violence that took place on Aug. 11-12 was promised and planned by the defendants, citing their voluminous communications in Discord, social media posts, and statements on their own websites.
"I recommend you bring picket sign posts, shields and other self-defense implements which can be turned from a free speech tool to s self-defense weapon should things turn ugly," Kessler reportedly said in the #announcement channel on Discord on June 7, according to the lawsuit.
More explicitly, in an undated text to Spencer included in the plaintiff's original exhibit list, Kessler reportedly said, "We're raising an army my liege. For free speech, but the cracking of skulls if it comes to it."
Spencer, in turn, reportedly texted Kline: "This is going to be a violent summer."
After the National Guard flushed the white supremacists out of the park where they were gathered on Aug. 12, Kline reportedly sought people with guns to confront the authorities. Ultimately, Kline's plan did not come to fruition because the rioters ultimately fled Charlottesville after Fields, who had rallied with Vanguard America, attacked counter-protesters with his car.
"I need shooters," Kline said, according to the lawsuit. "We're gonna send 200 people with long rifles back to that statue."
Bickering among the organizers — and revisionism — started less than a week after Fields' deadly attack, with Spencer repudiating Kessler for tweeting that Heather Heyer's death was "payback."
"I will no longer associate with Jason Kessler; no one should" Spencer wrote. "Heyer's death was deeply saddening. 'Payback' is a morally reprehensible idea."
Kline upbraided Kessler for his lack of discretion.
"It's almost as if you don't get how this works," Kline told Kessler in a private text included in the plaintiffs' original exhibit list. "Calling it payback shows it's premeditated."
Kline's texts escalated in intensity as he attempted to drive home the point.
"Saying that someone's death is payback for something that happened years ago is admitting premeditation," he told Kessler. "How you couldn't see that shows you're a crazy moron."
Then: "WHEN YOU SAY SOMETHING IS PAYBACK IT TAKES AWAY YOUR INNOCENCE YOU STUPID F***."
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