Hundreds protest Trump, Ryan in Janesville

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Neil Johnson
Saturday, February 4, 2017

JANESVILLE—Of the hundreds of demonstrators who rallied in Jefferson Park on Courthouse Hill on Saturday afternoon, many carried signs protesting President Donald Trump's plans on immigration control and U.S. border security.

One of the signs read: “Will swap 1 Donald Trump and 1 Paul Ryan for 20,000 refugees.”

Another sign, carried by a teenage girl, read: “You can build a wall, but my generation will tear it down.”  

Those were the thoughts of the protesters—500 to 700 of them, according to police and the protest organizers' estimates—who gathered in the cold wind and falling snow in a city park a few blocks from Paul Ryan's Janesville home.

Their signs decried Trump's plans to build an expansive wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and his executive order earlier this month calling for a travel ban that would temporarily halt the flow of some Middle Eastern immigrants into the country.

And they railed against what they believe is U.S. House Speaker and Janesville native Paul Ryan's solidarity with Trump's stance on immigrants and border security.

Beloit resident Jason Dettman's sign seemed to summarize all the others. It read: “We Are a Nation of Immigrants.”

The protest Saturday, organized and led by a group calling itself “Showing Up for Racial Justice,” had gathered people from Janesville, Beloit and from around Wisconsin—plus from states including Minnesota and Connecticut, some people in the crowd said.

“Quite literally, we want to show him (Paul Ryan) there are people who are going to contest the Trump administration and hold Paul accountable, literally in his backyard. It was important for us symbolically to start here and show that in his back yard and his office, we will be here for the next four years. Or longer,” protest organizer John McMahon said.

The group later made a parade route through streets leading down from Courthouse Hill and west to Main Street in downtown Janesville. About 300 continued in a circle around the block outside Ryan's Congressional offices for about a half-hour Saturday afternoon.

The march temporarily shut down traffic at Main and Court streets and along parts of Main Street downtown. Protesters cleared shortly after 2 p.m.

Janesville police, who were monitoring the demonstration at Jefferson Park and during the march downtown, said the protests remained peaceful. Janesville officers and Rock County sheriff's deputies reported no arrests and no property damage during the protest.

About 50 officers monitored the demonstrations and closed streets as protesters made a quarter-mile march from Courthouse Hill to downtown.

U.S. Capitol Police had a presence in Ryan's neighborhood, where the demonstrations began, Janesville police indicated.

The lone incident Saturday, police said, was a moment when two men, one carrying a shotgun and the other carrying a semiautomatic rifle, circled around the protest crowd from the sidewalk around Jefferson Park.   

The two men did not identify themselves, police said, and they left the protest area peacefully.

Janesville police Lt. Charles Aagaard and Janesville police Sgt. Dean Sukus said the two men were operating within state law and were and lawfully exercising their Second Amendments right to display firearms in public.

Sukus said Saturday's crowd made up the largest group of protesters to assemble in downtown Janesville since a wave a local race issue protests about 25 years ago.

Paul Ryan did not appear at his Janesville offices during the demonstrations. According to local Twitter posts, residents observed Ryan watching a Janesville Jets hockey game Friday night.  

Ryan's office did not respond to a Gazette inquiry Saturday asking whether Ryan or his family were at home during the protests.

Ryan's office also did not offer a reaction to the demonstration Saturday but instead emailed The Gazette links to online YouTube videos of Ryan speaking in press briefings about his stance on immigration policy and Trump's $14 billion plan to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Ryan has said he supports the idea of a border wall to curb the inflow of opiates and to decrease the “porousness” of the border between the U.S. and Mexico.

Ryan has said he supports reforms on immigration and immigration screening but does not support amnesty for illegal immigrants now in the country.

Tanya Sadagopan, pastor at the First Congregational Church in Janesville, was one of a few local religious leaders who spoke at the demonstration at Jefferson Park on Saturday. She said a handful of the hundreds who turned out were from her church.

She believes 600 people congregating in Ryan's neighborhood for a demonstration is ample evidence that people “feel like they're not being heard and represented” by Ryan on immigration.

Sadagopan's church plans to vote this week on becoming an “immigrant welcoming congregation," she said.

“It means that we commit to learn about, support and develop practices and programs that promote respectful welcome and inclusion of all immigrants into our congregation and our community. It means that standing on our faith, we welcome the immigrant,” she said.

One of Saturday's demonstrators, Monique Hooker, is a French immigrant. Hooker, a 75-year-old La Crosse-area resident, was getting her visa renewed at the French consulate in Chicago on Friday when she saw a Facebook announcement about the Janesville rally.

Hooker emigrated from France in 1965 from Gourin, a small town in a region of France that still bears the scars of World War II. The town, she said, has its own miniature Statue of Liberty modeled after the one in the New York Harbor—the proverbial gateway for so many immigrants of the past.

On Saturday, Hooker carried a protest sign cut in the shape of the Statue of Liberty. At some point during the demonstration, her paper Lady Liberty's torch got bent over, broken.

She looked at the busted torch.

“It's all right,” Hooker said. “She's still standing as a light in the fog. She's still protecting us.” 

Last updated: 4:44 pm Saturday, February 4, 2017

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