Wisconsin communities see startling uptick in white supremacist activity
One of the protests linked to Patriot Front, and the National Justice Party, held in the wake of the Waukesha Christmas Parade tragedy. (Photo | Patriot Front leaks, Unicorn Riot)

In late March, a banner reading “Resist Black Terror” was hung from the Waukesha Transit Center’s parking garage. Quotes from Adolph Hitler were allegedly featured on the banner calling for a new nation for “only white people(s) of good stock,” and promoting a website linked to a recognized white supremacist group. Exactly who was responsible remains unclear, as local media were asked to not publish the group’s website after the banner was taken down. The incident confronted local officials with what appears to be a growing undercurrent of white supremacist activity in the area, and this phenomenon is not unique to Waukesha.

The last two years has seen a resurgence of seemingly organized white supremacist activity in the areas surrounding Milwaukee. In Waukesha, such groups have ridden a wave of anger and mourning around the Christmas parade tragedy. Six people were killed and dozens more hospitalized after an SUV plowed through Waukesha’s annual Christmas parade. Police quickly arrested the driver, 39-year-old Darrell Brooks of Milwaukee, for the act. Brooks, who is Black, had been released on a low bail before the parade tragedy, a point which many Republican legislators used to blast the city of Milwaukee, District Attorney John Chisholm, and criminal justice reform policies.

Protests and rallies held in the wake of the Christmas parade tragedy featured signs with messages like, “Stop BLM Terror,” “Stop anti-white hate,” and “Justice for Waukesha.” Some protesters called for hate crime charges against Brooks. People at one rally represented a mix of members of established white power groups. Images of the rally surfaced in a 400 gigabyte leak of materials from a Patriot Front chat server, a group which promotes neo-facist and white nationalist ideologies. The leaks were published by the independent media outlet Unicorn Riot in January.

One group represented at the rally was the National Justice Party (NJP), which formed in August 2020 and describes itself as an advocate for “white civil rights, the working and middle class and the traditional family.” Members identified themselves with buttons at the rally. Patriot Front was also linked to the Waukesha rally. Recently, the NJP began promoting a documentary called “Terror in Waukesha,” describing Brooks as a “black terrorist.” Law enforcement in Waukesha, however, have rejected the notion that parade tragedy was an act of terror.

After the racist banner was hung in view of city hall, Waukesha City Administrator Kevin Lahner said the city didn’t want this sort of message spread. “We noticed an uptick in this following the Darrell Brooks arrest,” Lahner told local media, “and so we’ve seen more activity like that. Folks on social media, folks being in town that have those sorts of messages.” Captain Dan Baumann of the Waukesha Police Department spoke of the uptick in more general terms. “We have seen both sides of the fence, if you will, exercise their First Amendment rights,” Baumann told Wisconsin Examiner. “While the behavior and message is something we don’t condone — we have seen hate speech since the 2020 protests and riots throughout the country — I don’t believe I would isolate it to a particular group with a specific ideology.”

Wisconsin Examiner reached out to all 15 alders on the Waukesha Common Council and received no reply to inquiries about white supremacist protests. In nearby West Allis, local authorities are continuing to investigate cases of property damage and racist letters targeting Black residents in the community. In early March, a family reported to police that someone smashed their car windows, slashed tires and left behind letters using racial slurs for Black people and telling the family to leave the neighborhood. The incidents were so disturbing that the family sent their daughter to live with relatives.

The harassment occurred about a week before racist banners were hung in Waukesha. West Allis Police Department (WAPD) Deputy Chief Robert Fletcher told Wisconsin Examiner that in March 2021, “the WAPD received a report of vandalism with a threatening note with racist language, and a separate report of a note with racist language.” Both of those incidents targeted the same victim, someone different from the family targeted in early March, 2022. As of April 7, the WAPD has opened yet another case involving someone leaving behind threatening racist notes. Fletcher said that while the department has no updates, “the incidents are being thoroughly investigated. As this is an active, ongoing investigation, we are not releasing specific details regarding the investigation at this time.”

During the protests of 2020, West Allis again contended with someone distributing white supremacist literature. In early June 2020, Milwaukee’s Fusion Center distributed an intelligence bulletin after dozens of anti-Semitic fliers were hung in West Allis and nearby Milwaukee neighborhoods. The fliers read “white lives matter,” piggy-backing off the theme of police shootings which fueled that summer of protest. They also declared “you will not replace us” and “Jews will not replace us,” echoing a racist trope about white Anglo Saxon protestants being displaced by other ethnic groups.

Those same phrases were featured in white nationalist protests in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. White power groups chanted the phrases as they marched with lit torches through the city’s streets during violent clashes that ended in one anti-racist protester’s death and many injuries.

The name of a group, the “White Aryan Resistance,” was also featured on materials in West Allis during 2020. Fletcher said that his department was aware of the Fusion Center bulletin. “These four cases were all in the same geographic area,” he said, explaining that the fliers had been left on front lawns. “The WAPD was unable to determine who left the fliers.”

A very similar episode occurred in the city of Wauwatosa the same summer. Letters were distributed to neighbors by a group calling itself “the Whites for Wauwatosa.” The letters were sent to people who’d purchased yard signs which expressed displeasure at the actions of city leadership. While the signs weren’t obviously racist, the letters declared that “we whites must stand together.” It continued that “we must keep Wauwatosa free from Blacks and their lack of morals. We must keep Blacks from destroying our property, raping our wives and daughters, and recruiting our children into street gangs. We MUST keep Wauwatosa great. Together we can keep Wauwatosa white! Together we can keep Wauwatosa safe!”

The Wauwatosa Police Department, which monitored and disrupted Black Lives Matter protests, stated that it wouldn’t investigate the letters since they didn’t rise to the level of criminal activity.

In the city of Milwaukee, vaguer white supremacist messages were left outside City Hall during the summer of 2020. “Knights Templar are reborn,” they read, followed by a Latin phrase translating to “God Wills It.” A relic from the Crusades, the phrase has been adopted by some modern white power groups. Both the Wauwatosa and Milwaukee police departments told Wisconsin Examiner they haven’t received recent reports of racist or white supremacist activity.

Fletcher stressed that the activity in his own jurisdiction is being taken seriously. “The city of West Allis is committed to being a diverse and supportive community, racially motivated crimes undermine this commitment,” said Fletcher. “In addition to any physical or financial loss associated with these crimes, there is a serious emotional loss suffered by the victims. The West Allis Police Department is committed to making the city of West Allis a safe community for all and as such takes these incidents very seriously and will ensure that they are thoroughly investigated.”

Wisconsin’s long-standing ties to white supremacy

For some, the prevalence of this activity isn’t surprising. Milwaukee, known as one of the nation’s most segregated areas, is home to nearly 70% of Wisconsin’s Black population. In the city of Milwaukee, 64.2% of the population is white, followed by 27.2% for Black residents, 15.6% for Hispanics and 4.7% for residents of Asian descent.

The city of West Allis, while in Milwaukee County, shares a border with Waukesha County. Of the 59,000 people who live in West Allis, 80.4% are white,13% Hispanic, 6% Black and 3% Asian. Wauwatosa is similar — 84.3% of the population is white, compared to 5.7% for Black residents. Waukesha, according to U.S. Census.gov, is 92% White, 3.8% Asian, 4.9% Hispanic and 1.8% Black.

The suburbs of Milwaukee have long-standing histories of discrimination. Wauwatosa, for instance, was a restrictive-zoning city where Black home ownership was actively discouraged for decades. Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington are mostly white, heavily Republican counties west, north, and northwest of Milwaukee respectively.

In the suburb of New Berlin the National Socialist White People’s Party, later renamed the New Order, has its headquarters. The organization has been situated there since the 1980s, on 88 acres of property, the number 88 being a Nazi code code for “hail Hitler.” In Baraboo, a group of boys appearing to give a Nazi salute in a prom picture made national news in 2019.

Anne Bonds, an associate professor in UW-Milwaukee’s department of geography, has focused much of her research on how racist history has endured to this day. “These things have always been with us,” Bonds told Wisconsin Examiner. “Specifically white supremacy and white nationalism, these things have never gone away. But of course, we know that there have been moments in time where we see an explosion or growth, and a more visible presence of these groups on the landscape. And, certainly, that’s what we’ve observed over the last few years.”

Bonds notes that during the Trump presidency white nationalist ideology crept into the mainstream. After the racist riot in Charlettesville, the former president was reluctant to specifically condemn the white power groups that descended on the city.

In a backlash against public health orders during the pandemic, people marched with Confederate flags in Madison, and Black legislators endured death threats and racist harassment for supporting stay-at-home orders and other COVID policies.

Bonds also sees the clashes in Kenosha after the shooting of Jacob Blake as a pivotal moment. News of the Waukesha parade tragedy followed closely the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, the self-styled teen militia member who fired his semi-automatic weapon on protesters in Kenosha and was acquitted in the deaths of two people. Bonds said the tragedy in Waukesha “was weaponized by these organizations across the United States to say that this is some kind of retaliation from Black Lives Matter groups to the acquittal of Rittenhouse.”

White supremacist groups have mostly operated underground, with activity flaring up around particular events. Whether it’s the election of the nation’s first Black president, the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020, or tragedies like Waukesha that can be harnessed by fascist and white power groups, “these groups have never gone away” Bonds tells Wisconsin Examiner. Among them are the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, Patriot Front, Knights Templar and others. Over the last two years, “there’s these groups that felt more comfortable being more explicit in their message,” Bonds says. “And we saw that here in Wisconsin, too.”

Bonds herself has seen stickers put up around downtown Milwaukee advertising a local white power group in the recent past. “People are recruiting more explicitly, and there’s some kind of level of acceptance that’s been established,” she says. “And using certain events, really tacking on Black Lives Matter really emboldens this sort of reactionary response … But also this idea that people need to defend their neighborhoods and their homes.”

Bonds notes that the rhetoric expressed in the Whites of Wauwatosa letters demonstrates this classic dimension of white power ideology. “That is really picking up on some of the very ways that those kinds of ideas shaped the founding of those neighborhoods in the first place,” she says. Some of the first housing covenants barring non-white home ownership, Bonds noted, were established in Wauwatosa’s Washington Highlands neighborhood in 1919.

The Oak Creek Law of 1955 made it easier for suburban areas to remain independent from the city of Milwaukee. Bonds describes the 1950s as “the period of white flight, where white people are moving out of cities and moving into suburbs specifically because they don’t want to live next to people of color. Black Americans especially, but also Jewish Americans and other groups that were vilified at the time. But definitely always targeting African Americans. So these surrounding suburbs are purposely designed and created to be white enclaves,” with policies excluding people of color and other ethnic groups.

The Southern Poverty Law Center tracked 12 racist groups in Wisconsin. Not all of the organizations are white power groups; the list includes the Nation of Islam, which the law center lists as anti-Semitic. Nevertheless, the New Order, Patriot Front, Proud Boys, The Base, United Skinhead Nation, Women for Aryan Unity, and others are present throughout the state.

The far-right John Birch Society has a long history in Wisconsin and still maintains a headquarters in Appleton, a group Bonds points out which has historically been anti-immigrant and “very opposed to neighborhood integration, or efforts to reduce segregation.” It’s difficult to determine the identity of groups or individuals that have vandalized property and left behind racist fliers and letters recently, however.

Bonds finds hope in Wisconsin’s progressive and activist history. “You know, Waukesha was a site of the Underground Railroad,” she says . “Wisconsin, at one point in time, had a pretty strong abolitionist movement. So, within all of this there’s also these histories of groups that have always confronted these efforts, and confronted racism and white supremacy.”

She believes it’s important not to ignore the actions of extremists. “While it’s really disturbing to see everything that’s happening, having these conversations is essential to make sure that this doesn’t continue,” says Bonds. “We don’t want to just ignore it, because these groups exist. And we need to take them seriously, and talk about what their presence means in our communities.”

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