A post on the St. Croix County Republican Party's website urging readers to "prepare for war" is drawing renewed attention to local extremism in the wake of the violence at the U.S. Capitol.
John Kraft, chairman for the group, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he posted the message before Wednesday's attack in Washington D.C. that left five dead. Still, he declined to comment to additional news outlets, and initially refused to remove the message as objections rolled in.
Critics included the Wisconsin Republican Party and St. Croix County Sheriff Scott Knudson, who posted on the department's Facebook page he was "shocked and disheartened by the tone of the message."
Residents say the post struck a chord with the community not just because of national turmoil — the FBI is reportedly on alert for protests at all 50 state Capitols, which include “credible threats” of extremist right-wing violence in St. Paul — but also because of the Hudson area's alleged reputation for Midwestern racism and hate group activity.
In recent years, residents have seen rainbow flags vandalized, events featuring anti-Muslim speakers, and armed protesters at a panel of law enforcement and local officials regarding diversity.
“I feel like it’s a very passive aggressive place to live in," said 37-year-old Andrew Hassan, vice chair of the St. Croix County Democrats. "People will be nice to your face but when they take to social media they’re just emboldened to say whatever they want and there’s no accountability. To me, that’s not community."
Hassan, whose father emigrated to the United States from Sudan, said he often feels like the area doesn't welcome outsiders — a sentiment echoed by residents of color in the predominantly white area over the years.
The sheriff's statement marked a shift in approach from local public officials, who have largely remained silent on previous instances of hateful rhetoric or social conflict in the community, said Dan Myers, who oversees the St. Croix County Democrats.
"We see all kinds of events," Myers said. "Maybe the most frustrating part as a progressive and voter is that the elected officials here are not replying to requests for them to comment on this stuff."
Racism, rhetoric escalating in Hudson
The local Republican party office’s homepage, which stopped functioning late Tuesday night, began with the Latin phrase, "If you want peace, prepare for war.” The rest of the message centers on encouraging readers to "continue the fight" for the Republican Party amid wider attempts to overturn Joe Biden's election as president.
Much of the outrage focuses on word choice, but the slogan itself carries additional weight. In the post, Kraft equates it to former president Ronald Regan’s “peace through strength” philosophy, which he called a “cornerstone of conservative beliefs.”
But in recent years, the Latin phrase has been tied to the alt-right and white supremacy, appearing in blogs and clothing. The alleged coordinator of the plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Ben Fox, was spotted wearing a vest with the slogan at a June protest at the Michigan Capitol.
This fall, in response to the police killing of George Floyd, Hudson residents organized a community listening session on diversity with law enforcement and local officials at a park along the St. Croix riverfront.
Leading up to the event, Kraft posted on the St. Croix County Republican Party's Facebook page a fake image showing protesters wearing black, carrying the Soviet flag along with signs for Black Lives Matter and "Antifa," which he told Wisconsin Public Radio was "clickbait" but "does capture the essence of the effect of this event." A commenter wrote on the altered photo, "bring your AR-15s and get rid of these communist Punk a---s."
Kraft denied the comment was a threat. "Nobody posted an actual threat of violence," he told Wisconsin Public Radio at the time. "I'm not talking to you. Go away."
Later, at the event, a group of right-wing protesters "sometimes jeered and shouted down speakers," WPR reported.
Protesters have also consistently packed city and county government meetings in opposition to various mask requirements. This includes Kraft, who appeared at a September meeting wearing a baseball cap featuring the same Latin phrase that appears in his post: "If you want peace, prepare for war."
Kraft was also one of three litigants against Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers' statewide requirement for masks in public places.
St. Croix County Board Supervisor Cathy Leaf, who championed the mask ordinances, said that leading up to the vote, the board was concerned for safety based on the rhetoric from speakers. Some pounded their fists and shouted “enemies of the people” at board members.
“I take all of that very seriously given the environment we’re all in,” Leaf said. “What is irritating and what I don’t think John Kraft realizes what he’s done — words matter."
"There are people who say, oh, they won’t do that. It’s the rational part of our brain that says they won’t do it — but they did,” she added.
Though the ordinance failed on the county level, the protesters have continued to fill public comment. One told board members who supported the ordinance last week that they were "domestic terrorists."
"I think people just want it to go away, and it’s not," Leaf said. "You have to address it."
Many of the speakers for public comment were encouraged to attend the meetings by local groups Citizens for the St. Croix Valley, which has been in the area since 2017, and Activated Patriots, which created its Facebook page in September 2020.
The Citizens for the St. Croix Valley, which formed out of opposition to the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Hudson and blocked an "inclusion resolution" declaring Hudson a welcoming city, has previously been listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-Muslim hate group.
While it is no longer on the organization's list of hate groups, the group's website still has anti-Muslim and anti-LGBTQ content. The SPLC said in 2018 that they added the group because of members' racist, anti-Muslim letters to the editor in the Hudson Star-Observer and events featuring anti-Muslim speakers.
One of those events, at the Hudson House Hotel in May 2018, featured what the group called "private security" — men wearing leather vests and carrying guns.
"That was the most fearful I had felt in a setting in Hudson in the 20-plus years I’ve lived here. And I think they probably wanted it to be that way,” resident Liz Bruch told RiverTown Multimedia at the time.
After the event, two of the men approached a teenage girl who was taking pictures of a large Republican bumper sticker display. They leaned towards her, causing her to take steps backwards, while questioning her about the stickers on video, the girl's mother told RiverTown Multimedia.
On its website, Activated Patriots says it does not represent the Republican party, which "has failed the right." The group on Monday posted an update titled "The Time Is Now," which encourages followers to keep checking the website for information on meetings, national news, as well as "local spots to find ammo in stock" and "survival and prepping articles." It tells followers to "remain smart, vigilant, prepared, and always ready for whatever fight is next."
The St. Croix County Republican Party co-hosted an event with Activated Patriots on Friday at the Hudson House Hotel. The event, which was created on Facebook before the attempted coup at the U.S. Capitol, was billed as a gathering "in support of the achievements of our 45th President, Donald J. Trump and learn what we can do at the local, County, and State level to follow the example he has set for us."
Afterwards, in a now-deleted public Facebook post on his personal account, Kraft thanked attendees and said, "it has never been more clear we are at war with the left."
Local leaders respond
Both the Wisconsin state Republican and Democratic Parties released statements denouncing the language in Kraft’s post. Wisconsin state Republican Party chairman Alex Hitt said his group "suggested at an earlier date" that Kraft remove the message, which he declined.
“Especially in light of recent events, it’s an ill chosen phrase to express their sentiments," he said in a statement. "It’s everyone’s right to peacefully organize but violence for political purposes is always unacceptable."
Sheriff Knudson specifically denounced violence at the Capitol in his statement.
"If taken in the literal definition of 'war,' I strongly condemn. People were injured and lost their lives last week at the U.S. Capitol, one of them a police officer. Any loss of life is devastating, but under the conditions they lost theirs, it was disastrous. I hope that scene is never repeated, in any area of this country," he wrote.
Myers, chairperson for the St. Croix County Democrats, said Kraft's language is "old, tiring, and speaks for a very, very small minority."
"It’s critically important that people know that the St. Croix Republican Party does not speak for republicans or conservatives in St. Croix County. It speaks for the violent, hate-filled rhetoric of the Trumpists," he said. "These are the extremists. They’re not the general, run-of-the-mill, republican conservatives."
Wisconsin state Rep. Shannon Zimmerman, R-River Falls, did not return a call for comment.
Hudson Mayor Rich O'Connor, who has been informally endorsed by the St. Croix County Republicans page, said he didn't want to comment on the post or group specifically, citing his non-partisan role.
"I think that this is a classic example of why we all need to tone down the rhetoric," he said. "We really really need to start having better conversations with the people, with our neighbors, around us."
After the listening session and ensuing protests, O'Connor started an initiative named after the Golden Rule, which essentially promotes following the age-old adage, "Treat others as you would treat yourself." He said he plans to highlight model behavior at public meetings and distribute 20,000 bookmarks across the city promoting the initiative.
"I thought, OK, it’s time to comment on the hate that has infected everything, from federal, state, and starting to infect our community," he said. "I thought it was time to make a statement at that point."
The Hudson Inclusion Alliance, which formed in response to has hosted events such as "The Longer Table" and promotes inclusivity and equity.
Kerry Reis, one of the group's co-founders, said the mayor's initiative was a good "first step."
"I fully support the mayor’s efforts on the Golden Rule Initiative," Reis said. "The first step is awareness. For a lot of people, they don't realize it is just the first step, which is in some ways the easiest step."
But for some residents, like Hassan, the policy needs to go a few steps further.
"The prefix of all of this is denouncing hate in all its forms. That includes people who are anti-Muslim, anti-LGBTQ," he said. "I don't like people playing politics when we’re a local community like this. And I don't like someone taking a topic like equality and diversity and turning it into this stupid 'golden rule.'"