A mile and a half down the street from Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s mansion in Janesville, Wisconsin, a wave of forty students poured over Memorial Drive Bridge and into Traxler Park. Anglers in camouflage gear fishing the Rock River lagoon looked on.
The Wisconsin high schoolers, in the final steps of their fifty-mile sojourn to Ryan’s hometown to pressure him on gun reform, represented a rainbow of backgrounds and ethnicities. Descending the bridge, they were inspired by the Selma to Montgomery marchers who crossed Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge on “Bloody Sunday” in 1965.
But instead of police violence, these marchers were met with encouraging chants and whoops from a crowd of several hundred gathered in the park for a finish-line rally. The organizers, many from Shorewood High School near Milwaukee, had seen their action, called 50 Miles More, draw national attention since it spun off three days earlier from the Milwaukee March for our Lives satellite event.
Decked out in Packer-yellow bandanas, the students took turns at the podium sharing statistics on gun violence in the United States, calls for gun control measures, and stories from their time on the road in rural Wisconsin.
Fifteen-year-old Bea Millan-Windorski, of Whitefish Bay, said the marchers were happily surprised by the overwhelming support they encountered along the way. She told the crowd about an Evansville family who greeted the marchers on their front porch, “holding up a newspaper with us on the front.”
“There were countless old white farmers beeping at our signs that said ‘Honk for Gun Reform,’” Millan-Windorski told The Progressive after the rally. “Even people that are traditionally part of Ryan’s base understand that there needs to be change.”
“There’s an assumption that just because I’m carrying an American flag I have to be a chest-beating, war-mongering weapons fanatic.”
Seemingly unlikely supporters were in attendance at the rally too. Mike Thompson, a retired white engineer from the village of East Troy, came to the rally brandishing a full-size American flag.
“There’s an assumption that just because I’m carrying an American flag I have to be a chest-beating, war-mongering weapons fanatic,” Thompson said. “I’m trying to change that.”
Seventeen-year-old Maria Mendoza, who attends Ryan’s alma mater, Janesville’s Joseph A. Craig High School, promised that she and her peers would “take their voices to the voting booths.”
“We are constantly told we are too young to know what we are talking about,” said Mendoza, breaking into tears. “In reality, this is all we know.”
At the time of the Wednesday rally, Ryan was on an official visit to the Czech Republic. During the march, Ryan never reached out directly to the students but said through a spokesperson that he “respects those expressing their views.”
Up for reelection in November, Ryan has been a friend to gun manufacturers throughout his career. In the 2016 election cycle, he received more contributions from gun rights groups than any other representative. That year, the National Rifle Association’s Political Victory Fund endorsed him for reelection. More recently, following the February 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, Ryan told a press conference that arming teachers was a “good idea.”
Ryan has built his popularity in Wisconsin’s First Congressional District at least in part on cultivating a working-class image rooted in an idealistic, lily-white vision of America.
“I thought to myself, I’m the American dream on the path or journey so that I can find happiness however I define it myself,” he once told a group of high schoolers.
Nevermind that Ryan’s family, populated by lawyers, were well-known and well-off even before he married into Oklahoma-native wife Janna Ryan’s family fortune. The couple’s longtime Janesville residence is a stately brick Georgian Revival on Courthouse Hill, hovering above Rock River. It once belonged to the scion of the Parker Pen Company, which was founded in 19th-century Janesville but moved to Mexico in 2010.
Ryan’s nearly twenty years of incumbency here was aided over the years by favorable redistricting that experts say has made him “ultra safe.”
Matt Forbeck, a Beloit resident whose mother used to work for former first district Democratic Congressman Les Aspin, was at the Wednesday rally with two of his children involved in the march.
“The real problem was when they redistricted Beloit out of Paul Ryan’s district,” Forbeck said. “It was a strongly Democratic district for decades before that. When they carved it out . . . they made it a much safer district for Paul.”
Wednesday’s rally, while mostly led by students, included guest speaker Pardeep Kaleka, an anti-gun violence advocate whose father was killed in the 2012 Sikh temple shooting in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, one of the deadliest hate crimes in U.S. history.
“My father died praying in a place that he helped build, in a place of worship,” Kaleka told the gathering. “You are all an answer to his prayers.”
Ryan featured prominently on many of the signs brought to the rally. One read “Paul Ryan listen to your conscience!” Another rebutted, “Paul Ryan doesn’t have a conscience.” In the crowd, Ryan’s Democratic opponent and fellow Janesville native Randy Bryce kept a low profile, thanking the young activists afterward for their work.
In the 2016 election cycle, Paul Ryan received more contributions from gun rights groups than any other representative.
In speech after speech, the students poked holes in the arguments traditionally made by opponents of gun control around these parts.
“I am a proud Wisconsin sportswoman,” said Lauren Davis, a junior at Shorewood High School, who like many local teenagers hunts deer with her family. “And I am here to tell you that our policy demands do nothing to infringe on the rights of hunters.”
Seventeen-year-old Tatiana Washington of Milwaukee addressed the House Speaker personally.
“My brown and black sisters and brothers are dying every day, Paul,” she said, voice wavering. “You get to enjoy Packer games and fishing and skiing with your family, while our families are being ripped apart! I’m declaring that this ends today.”
By the time the crowd dispersed from Traxler Park, Washington and her cohort had made two things clear: They do not feel safe. But neither, anymore, should Paul Ryan.
Alexandra Tempus is associate editor of The Progressive.