A Moving Portrait Series Shows How Divided Wisconsin Really Is

"Sometimes that love is challenging how a loved one got to a belief or idea, and sometimes it is as simple as asking strangers about their day and really listening."

Few states embody all the chaos of 2020 like Wisconsin, a key swing state in this week’s election. The state was a major turning point in the 2016 election. Hotly contested and traditionally blue, Wisconsin went for Donald Trump by less than 1%, helping him win the Electoral College — and the presidency. The state is also crucial to the current election and has faced a turbulent year in the spotlight.

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Across the state, coronavirus cases have been rising, and a field hospital has been opened on the state fairgrounds to help overwhelmed hospitals. This summer, Kenosha was rocked by violent protests after the police shooting of Jacob Blake. At one protest against racial injustice, a teenager obsessed with law enforcement shot and killed two protesters and injured a third, actions that were lauded by the far right and defended by Trump.

BuzzFeed News worked with Wisconsin photographer Lauren Justice and spoke with residents about how they feel about the upcoming election in a state deeply divided and reckoning with long-standing racism and a worsening pandemic. For the sake of logistics, we focused on the southeastern portion of the state, around Kenosha, Milwaukee, and surrounding areas. Rural and urban people both described feeling overlooked and finding it hard to navigate politics in personal relationships.

We explicitly did not ask about candidates, as people expressed hesitation in further alienating their friends and neighbors. We did, however, ask what they would like to see changed, how they were handling the deepening partisanship and the relentless media coverage, and how they wanted the pandemic to be addressed, among other issues. Everyone seemed ready for the election to be over and to move on, although what that will look like is still to be decided.

Their responses have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.


"I returned to the family farm in 2014 and now manage it in partnership with my brother. I have been an active Farm Bureau member for more than a decade at the local, state, and now national level. I started as the chair of her county Young Farmers Association and continue to serve on the board of directors.

"Currently, I see myself as seeking answers, looking toward the future, and hoping that our family farm can withstand the storms we have been encountering. This year has brought unprecedented changes and realities to the dairy industry. As a young dairy farmer, I have deep concerns on where the future lies for us. Farming is more than a business, it is a way of life, it is our passion, our legacy and our goal is to keep this moving forward. With that said, I look at our political scene and candidates on how they can build the farming communities and family farms to have the ability to not just maintain but to succeed in the future. Over the past year, I have increased my involvement with politics. Asking more questions, listening more, opening my eyes to new ways of thinking. While my core beliefs stand solid, I know I need to remain open to where this election could take us. As a young dairy farmer, I seek out other farmers to further understand their views. With so much uncertainty in many areas of the country and world, I feel it is so important to see all sides. I am doing my best to do that. "


"I was born in a small rural town in southern Ethiopia and was adopted in the United States when I was around four years old. I have lived in Milwaukee for 13 years now.

"From coronavirus cases continually rising to the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha and the gun violence that occurred afterward, Wisconsin has not looked good. I hope this election year, we can recognize which presidential candidate will put us in a better position to move forward but also recognize that we have to continue fighting against the structurally imperialist settlement we all live under, no matter who wins the election.

"It is a bit frustrating not being able to vote right now, but I am happy to be working with the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin and Youth Rising Up as an initiative with my school to encourage students of voting age to register themselves. I think my role as someone underage, but socially and politically active, is to make sure that my friends are aware of the importance of their vote. While one vote can seem irrelevant, it still has the power to shift an entire election. Who we choose to represent us, in all aspects of government, affects the policies that are made. Those policies impact people in situations that might not be of concern for some folks, but they have to think outside of their privilege if they believe all people should have basic human rights. It is important to reiterate that after the presidential election, we still have to constantly be vocalizing the push for anti-racist policies as well as calling out the people in power when they don’t represent the people."


"I am a lifelong Kenosha resident. I currently own Lou Perrine's Gas and Groceries. I have been a serial entrepreneur since I was in diapers, doing everything from a trucking company to public speaking, and I recently owned a salon with my wife.

"I am a unicorn, an actual free-thinking American who finds no identity with either party. I lean to the left on social issues but right on fiscal issues. I despise the two-party system and find the fringes of those parties to be toxic.

"I don't see much changing. Biden–Harris will campaign far left but come back to more of the same if elected, and Trump will just continue being Trump. The system needs a total overhaul. And when I say that, I do not mean a socialist agenda or far-right agenda. We have to rethink how we operate capitalism (which I love) and eliminate corporatism (which I despise). Real change in our political system starts with campaign reform and term limits. Until then, it will continue to be this broken system fueled by the wealthy and major corporations.

"Wisconsin proved to be a big swing state in the last election and it will again this election. Naturally, we will be getting coverage just for that. When it comes to the riots, I was very disappointed with how the media portrayed Kenosha. My business was located in the heart of all the riots. Me, my father, and some local residents stayed on our property for six nights straight. The local residents protesting for change were peaceful. They are hurting and voiced their opinions the right way. Were there some local bad actors that took advantage of the situation? Sure, but for the most part, the damage and destruction that occurred in my city came from out-of-towners. My city is strong, we are pulling together, and we will have changed for the better after this. #kenoshastrong"


"Born and raised in Milwaukee, I’ve been heavily involved in community work, youth development, and the arts.

"One observation is during the elections we see a ton of advertisements, and words thrown at us during these times, but what about what's after? The same energy of staying in touch with the community and communicating, along with collaborating to see what are the necessary changes pivotal to moving forward, and bridging the gap between our fellow citizens and our fellow politicians.

"I am a person who has believed wholeheartedly that, more likely than not, you must be the change. I can only give to my community and inspire along with being inspired to work on our community brick by brick to cultivate the youth of tomorrow. My coping is by putting my hands into the community to nurture and work with we, the people!"


"I have lived in Wisconsin since my mother moved to the Burlington area in 2000 and have been a Kenosha resident since 2006. I have been an IT guy and worked in industrial maintenance my entire professional life, but I found a calling in political activism after the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.

"I see myself as an active protester and activist. Growing up in a Republican-leaning household, I was always told my views would become more conservative with age, but reality proved to be the opposite. I view myself as anti-fascist and view the threat of American fascism as one of the greatest threats to international safety.

"My involvement with politics has changed a lot this year. I had never attended a protest, and politics was just for drunken arguments between friends before this year. While I always had supported BLM, I stayed silent and idle on the sidelines. On the first night of the George Floyd protests, I decided to watch the protests and was present outside District 5 station of the Milwaukee Police Department. That night, I was gassed for standing there and witnessed police get aggressive with individuals who were not instigators. The next day, I read their press release filled with lies, exaggerations, and pro-police propaganda, and it changed everything for me. Now I am an active protester, attending as many events as I can and working to create meaningful change and inform the public

"I sometimes feel like Wisconsin is being portrayed as this place where nothing bad happens and “how could this happen to our quiet little city” seems to be pushed a lot. I differ in that perspective. Wisconsin is one of the worst states in the country for racial justice, and that needs to be portrayed. It is time that Wisconsin was called out for our systematic racism, corruption, and police brutality. It breaks my heart that it took the shooting of Jacob Blake by KPD, the mass shooting in Kenosha, as well as the community of Wauwatosa and the #JusticeforTheeThree marches to finally put some much-deserved pressure on the state of Wisconsin to create meaningful reform."


"I see myself in the silent majority in the current political climate. I would like to see the economy get back on track and reduce the deficit. The coronavirus changed my relationship with politics because I am a small-business owner of a dairy farm and a coffee shop owner and I am a conservative. I don't like the direction the Democrats have gone.

"Wisconsin is more conservative than it is being portrayed. The state has many rural areas, and agriculture is prevalent in this state. The Cheese State has many hardworking people in it, and the Milwaukee and Madison communities only represent a small portion of the state but are portrayed as the majority."


"My name is Tanya McLean. I was born and raised in Kenosha until the age of 14, then moved away but returned to Wisconsin at the age of 28. I am the founder and executive director of Leaders of Kenosha. I am also a licensed mental health clinician and educator.

"Within the current political narrative, I see myself and my organization as a conduit for change, hope, and inspiration.

"The change I would like most to see with the coming election is a president and lawmakers that value the life of African descendants and that value being reflected in their legislation and policies.

"I am coping with the national divisiveness seen in this election by diligently organizing to ensure Black and brown people, underserved and underrepresented individuals vote, first and foremost, and understand the power of their vote and how that will translate at the polls.

"I feel, because of the shooting of Jacob Blake in my hometown and all the unrest that has happened, the Black and brown community have been portrayed as “thugs” and “criminals,” I live in the community that was burned down. I was out there and watched people who did not come from our community and who do not look like us burn it down. But this negative narrative that’s been painted drives me even harder to fight for what’s right for the African descendants of my community."


"As a museum professional, fine art photographer, and community arts advocate, I invest my work and time in furthering innovation and creativity. I was born in Milwaukee and have lived in the city most of my life. For nearly two decades, I've worked in Racine and have an art studio there as well. So, both southeastern Wisconsin communities feel like home to me.

"My hope after the election is to see a structured plan for moving forward — together. I also think it will be essential to include diverse perspectives and voices from all across the country while leadership builds a productive course of action to fight coronavirus and rebuild the economy.

"At the beginning of 2020, I didn't feel like my voice made much of a difference to national politics. When coronavirus changed all our lives, it seemed to also establish a common experience and goal. I had hoped we could work together to fight the virus — and in my best imagination — reinvent and improve the country's future. Sadly, reality is far more complicated than my dreams and hopes. Instead, many factors inflamed divisiveness.

"We have so much more to learn and many more people to include in the conversation of how to proceed. I still have hope that the election's outcome will start to realize our potential to move the US forward — building solutions to our shared problems of combating the virus (and future public health issues) and rebuilding our economy by listening to our multitude of diverse voices. I know it won't be easy, but I hope that compassion and understanding will make a difference to further equity and progress. Over the last decade, I have voted in nearly every election — including largely uncontested local elections. For this spring's elections, I mailed in absentee ballots, and weeks ago, dropped my early vote into a ballot box for the presidential election. It looks like the voter turnout will be larger than ever, and I hope that makes the transition I imagine into a reality."

OLIVER DEBE, Kenosha, with his husband, Adam

"I am a proud Kenosha native who recently returned after living in Chicago for eight years. As a Double Demon alumnus of DePaul University, I now serve as a new student specialist and adjunct instructor for Gateway Technical College in Kenosha, Racine, and Walworth counties.

"To be honest, the divisiveness has been a challenge for me. I strive to hear other perspectives with active and intentional listening, and I attempt to see and respect perspectives different from my own. I recognize that I have many forms of privilege, and many others do not. Now more than ever is my time to listen to and learn from others. For me, this is the best coping mechanism at this time with our national divisiveness.

"As a lifelong resident of Kenosha and Wisconsin, I am saddened by the negative press on our great Badger State. Wisconsin is a great place to live, work, and travel, with many unique and special places, businesses, and people across the state. While our state does have its challenges, I believe there are so many more good things and people that live in Wisconsin that go unheard due to the negative press recently."


"I was born and raised in Watertown on my family’s dairy farm. I started farming full time in 2014 and am currently a partner with my dad in our dairy and crop farm called Simply Crazy Farms. I grew up having very conservative values, and I would say that has continued into my adult life, where I still have pretty conservative viewpoints. My parents, especially my mom, are very active in our county’s Republican Party.

"In regards to policy, I think every farmer would tell you the same thing: We need to figure out trade. We have been experiencing bad prices for years, and just when we think that 2020 was going to actually be a productive year, COVID happened and trade was virtually halted. The government assistance programs allowed us to survive the year, but that doesn’t fix the problem. We want trade, not aid.

"I’m truly counting down the days until the election is over. I just want to move on from all the hate, anxiety, and division this election is causing between my friends and my family. I want this country to remember we are Americans first and members of a political party second."

TEJEAN NEAL, Milwaukee

"I was born in Milwaukee, so technically I've been here for nineteen years. I'm a college student, artist, and perhaps a political activist.

"I think [the divisiveness] was natural to come. For a lot of Americans, this is an election between good and evil, while for others it’s the lesser of the two.

"I think people are realizing how racist Wisconsin is. I mean it's the 'Deep North,' and it was pivotal in the last election and will be in this one. "


"I honestly see myself as a 'nomad' or 'stranger' in our political narrative. I know that it is more complex than our two-party system but due to my faith and following of the way of Jesus, I find it hard to have a simple “party line” vote.

"Locally, I want to see great investment and care from leadership. Choices have been made that have destroyed business and people’s health and parents’ trust in the school system. Reclaiming trust and integrity in our leaders is key. Country-wide — probably not as far from the latter, but along with integrity to office leadership — I would love to see a more robust and accommodating plan for immigration. People who jump through all the hoops to come to this amazing country now have more restrictions and a hard time. We can do better to grow better as a nation.

"Right now, [Wisconsin] are portrayed very poorly. From having the Jacob Blake shooting to protests, riots, additional shootings, buildings burning, the media has had a field day covering Wisconsin. From the outside, it might look like a disaster — honestly, it might be — but one thing I know to be true is that the people of Wisconsin, and Kenosha especially, are fighters and strong. They don’t just give up and roll over. Folks are fighting for their livelihoods and businesses. Some are fighting for their rights, while others are rightfully sitting back instead of fighting."


"For many years I thought my only option was to either identify as a conservative or a liberal. As I've grown into myself and my understanding of politics, I find I identify with more progressive ideals. At the core, I am a people-first person and my political preferences tend to line up with what will do the most good for most people.

"With this coming election, I would love to see issues of humanity depoliticized and the idea of political accountability move to the forefront. Personal ideologies aside, party lines should not decide the treatment of people. Human rights, social justice, and equity are not political. What should be political is the accountability of our leaders on every level to work for their constituents and provide transparency.

"I'm trying to focus on what I can control. Sometimes, that is challenging how a loved one got to a belief or idea, and sometimes it is as simple as asking strangers about their day and really listening.

"I've become much more invested at the local level. I have always been aware of local elections but didn't give much time to really considering how local elections set the framework for how the national narrative shows up in our community. Now I find myself writing to city, county, and state officials on a regular basis."


"I’ve been living in Wisconsin for about four years now. I moved here from Ethiopia when I was five years old. Since I was a kid, I have been doing activism work. I now work for a nonprofit organization called 50 Miles More, a youth-led organization that works for Black liberation and equality.

"I think it has been revealing of the underlying racism that has always been there but that progressive white people have tried to hide. I think I’m coping with that the same way I always have, in not being too trusting of the “I love Black people” narrative.

"I think the response to COVID has been very telling of how much this country and politicians don’t value POC, who have been disproportionately affected by this disease, both financially and physically. I think this pandemic has been a testament to the amount of corruption and greed that plagues this country.

"The idea that Wisconsin is a purple state, that the media constantly projects, completely disregards the deep-rooted racism and voter suppression against the Black population of southeast Wisconsin."


"My name is Jason Lopez and I have lived in Kenosha since 1991. I am currently the deputy director of Black Lives Activists of Kenosha, which advocates change in our community and other communities in Wisconsin and beyond. My role as an advocate is to stand up for the vulnerable people in my community against systemic racism and racial injustices. In this upcoming election, we have the opportunity to elect a president that best represents the people of our nation.

"I cannot allow my children to grow up in the same culture of racial divide and an unjust capitalist society that was created to make the rich richer and poor poorer. August 23, 2020, will forever be remembered as the day Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back by a Kenosha police officer, but I will always remember it as the day I decided not to sit on the sidelines and watch people in my community be treated like their lives don't matter.

"America is tired of living a false dream of equality for all and that is why we must educate ourselves, develop our economic leaders, and change the political landscape of this nation from the ground up. We need a revolution, not by bullets but by ballots. Stand up, demand change, words without action are pointless. We must have integrity and dignity in everything that we do and don't sacrifice them for no one. In the words of the great Bob Marley, I leave you with this, 'Better to die fighting for freedom then be a prisoner all the days of your life.' This Is How We Make America Great!"

CARRIE MESS, Watertown

"I am a dairy farmer, blogger, and mom of two little boys. My husband and I, along with his parents, milk 100 cows and grow crops on 300 acres. I grew up in Madison and now live near Watertown.

"I am a moderate. I feel that neither political party is meeting the desires of the majority of Americans.

"My hope is that we move forward after November in a way where we see bipartisan legislation again that is actually beneficial to all. I am so sick of partisan politics removing any shred of common sense and common ground from politics.

"I'm really tired of the fighting, and it's making me withdraw from friends and family. Even though social media is an important part of what I do, I am spending less time scrolling.

"I've always had an interest in politics and that hasn't changed. But I feel like instead of debating policy, we are now more focused on the people that Biden and Trump are. That's frustrating because policy is what we should be looking at, but it's also completely understandable that so many people can't get past the people that we have to choose from. "


"I am an Afro-Latina woman attending the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee for marketing and advertising. I love creativity, color, and fashion. I try to implement these interests into all the aspects of my life! I was born in Illinois but have lived in Wisconsin since I was three years old. I currently work as a Leaders Igniting Transformation (LIT) fellow at my college campus. As a fellow, I work with LIT to amplify young, like-minded, powerful, and diverse voices to regain control of the future.

"I know it’s hard to have a “perfect” politician. But one thing I’ve learned in this election is that we are just as in charge of the future as any politician in office. I want to see a change in who is in charge in an effort to create a future that will one day be led by a very inclusive, culturally ethical, and determined president.

"My political involvement has grown a lot. I wouldn’t be lying if I said when I turned 18, I thought way more about finally being able to get a tattoo than being able to exercise my right to vote. However, my perspective about voting has done a complete 180. I now have a better understanding of the importance of voting — in every election. I know there are a lot of people who believe their vote doesn’t matter. As someone who used to be one of those people, I want to say this: Maybe your vote won’t make or break the election but it will influence it. Think about your mindset. The mindset that keeps you from voting. Now think of all the other people who might think the same as you. That one vote not mattering has changed to hundreds and thousands of people who think their vote doesn’t matter. That’s a lot of voting power that is being disregarded. Your vote matters because you have the power to make it matter. Go vote!" ●

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