Sophie Bolich

Downtown Business Owners Urge City to Relocate RNC Protest Zone

Concerns over safety after failed attempt to ban firearms in 'soft zone' security perimeter.

By - Jun 10th, 2024 12:33 pm
Pere Marquette Park in 2020. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Pere Marquette Park in 2020. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The City of Milwaukee on Friday rejected an effort to ban firearms in the security perimeter around the Republican National Convention.

A failed proposal, led by Alderman Robert Bauman, would have seen the city attempt to override state law and prohibit the weapons in the convention’s “soft zone,” which will encompass much of Westown and include the expected free speech zone at Pere Marquette Park.

And though Bauman found little support among fellow city officials, several downtown bar and restaurant owners shared the alderman’s concerns about what they see as a potential tinderbox just steps away from their businesses.

“I understand and appreciate the alderman’s concern and I agree with him,” said Gino Fazzari, chef and owner of Calderone Club and San Giorgio Pizzeria Napoletana, who noted that the location of the likely demonstration area, or free speech zone, at Pere Marquette Park, gives him pause.

“It’s not because of the registered protestors that will be, effectively, expressing their First Amendment right peacefully, it’s the paid agitators that are being sent here from all over to come here and cause disruption and conflict.”

Fazzari’s restaurants are located side-by-side at the corner of E. Kilbourn Avenue and N. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive., just across the street from Pere Marquette Park.

With the park bound on one side by the Milwaukee River, he worries any escalation would spill over into the adjacent streets and sidewalks, posing a risk to his customers and employees.

“If there is a conflict—and there’s a very, very good chance that there will be because, if you follow anything on social media, you know there are people looking to cause conflict here — those are the people I’m worried about,” Fazzari said. “And yes, they will be armed.”

Fazzari, along with fellow downtown business owners Omar Shaikh and Jake Dehne, are urging the city to select another location — one that’s farther removed from the downtown entertainment district.

The city has pledged to create a free speech zone that is within “sight and sound” of the convention.

The park, 900 N. Plankinton Ave., is on the west bank of the Milwaukee River between Kilbourn Avenue and State Street and was the designated protest area for the 2020 Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee. City officials have yet to confirm if this will also be the case for the RNC.

“I’m excited to showcase the city for sure,” said Shaikh, who operates 3rd Street Market Hall and Carnevor. “My concern is having that designated area of Pere Marquette Park as an area that people can file a permit to protest, because that’s in the heart of our entertainment district. I think that’s probably one of the worst locations that the city could choose.”

“This is really the time to shine for all those businesses over there. And so their customers have to feel safe. Their staff has to feel safe.”

Fazzari said he is already fielding calls from patrons, staff and other concerned parties regarding security measures during the convention.

“I’ve received not only comments from and concerns from staff, but from family members of staff,” he said. “We have some young college students that are working here, and I have received calls from parents saying, ‘we don’t feel safe sending our children into that environment.'”

Shaikh suggested MacArthur Square as an alternative demonstration area. The park is located at 841 N. James Lovell St., atop a parking garage in front of the Milwaukee County Courthouse.

As Shaikh pointed out, it’s the same distance from the convention site as Pere Marquette Park; however, it’s more isolated, which could cause it to fall short of the city’s “sight and sound” promise.

“There’s a lot less business density around that area, so hopefully the city does the right thing here,” Shaikh said.

Fazzari also pushed the city to reconsider, though he didn’t mention an alternative choice. “I think they really should find a different area that would better allow for expansion without forcing them right into the businesses,” he said.

The business owners spoke out on Friday, following a special meeting of the Public Safety & Health Committee during which members voted against Bauman’s proposal to include firearms in a list of prohibited items inside the “soft zone.”

As of June 7, that list includes tennis balls, gas masks, lumber, fireworks, human waste, locks, umbrellas, tape, coolers and canned goods.

Dehne, whose entity, Sydra Group, operates a number of local businesses including Lucky Clover Irish Pub, RWB Milwaukee and the upcoming 90s2K Cafe, said the city should be able to restrict firearms as well.

“There is high concern amongst business and property owners in the area with the protest zone only being a hundred feet from our business district,” he said. “I feel like if they can restrict guns in the hard zone, they should also be able to do it in the soft zone.”

He also questioned how security will handle additional protests throughout the soft zone, and encouraged officials to consider a different approach. “People should be allowed to peacefully protest, and there are other areas like the courthouse open space and Red Arrow Park that are equally as close to the soft zone as areas for organized protest.”

Despite misgivings about the demonstration zone, Shaikh said he is satisfied with the convention’s overall security plan. “I’m obviously not Secret Service or law enforcement, but I do know that they’ve been communicating with the businesses; they’ve been really good to work with.”

Several other downtown business owners did not respond to a request for comment, but Fazzari said that a number of his colleagues share the same concerns.

“This isn’t just my thought or feeling, this is most everyone in this Old World Third Street business entertainment district, and also the restaurants and taverns right around and adjacent to that area,” he said. “They’re all concerned.”

Shaikh said he’s confident that he and his fellow entrepreneurs can come to a consensus in urging the city to reconsider the placement of the free speech zone.

“I think we can get all the businesses on board with that,” he said.

For more information on the effort to ban guns in the area around the RNC, see our earlier coverage.

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Categories: Food & Drink, Politics

4 thoughts on “Downtown Business Owners Urge City to Relocate RNC Protest Zone”

  1. Jhenry1131 says:

    Exactly why I chose not to work at the RNC.

  2. says:

    Brother Gino, the “paid agitators” headed toward Milwaukee are the delegates to this MAGApolooza. It’s those lunatics we have to be worried about….and their guns.

  3. TosaGramps1315 says:

    I’ve noticed that golf balls, baseballs, softballs, basketballs, soccer balls, cricket balls, croquet balls, jai alai balls, ping pong balls, marbles and bb’s are not banned in the soft zone. Nor are knives, nail guns, grenades, and tactical nuclear weapons. But I rest very easily each night knowing that businesses and their patrons will be safe from tape, coolers, canned goods, lumber, locks, umbrellas and tennis balls.

  4. kaygeeret says:

    Given the history of violent protest that the maga republicans have shown (Jan. 6th for one), it beggars the mind that allowing guns, et. al. into this zone is a good idea.

    I hope that the WI National Guard is in alert.

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