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Activists urge primary voters to protest Biden’s record on Gaza at the ballot box

The group called on Democratic primary voters to vote 'uninstructed' — not for a candidate

Halah Ahmad, far right, leads a press conference outside Milwaukee City Hall on Tuesday, March 19. Ahmad is a spokesperson for the Listen To Wisconsin campaign, which encourages voters to mark “uninstructed” on their primary ballots on April 2 to protest President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza. Anya van Wagtendonk/WPR

Activists gathered in downtown Milwaukee Tuesday to urge voters to mark their Democratic primary ballots “uninstructed” — instead of in support of a candidate — to protest President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza.

On the first day of early voting in Wisconsin, their message was that Biden cannot take their votes for granted, and their support is contingent on his calling for an immediate ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.

“Wisconsinites have had enough. We do not consent to this genocide,” said Halah Ahmad, a spokesperson for the group. “The Wisconsin Uninstructed campaign is a grassroots effort of multigenerational, multiethnic multiracial communities across the state that want to use the April 2 primary to say no to genocide, to call for a permanent ceasefire now.”

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The activists hope to collect 20,000 uninstructed ballots, representing roughly the margin by which Biden won Wisconsin in 2020. They hope to demonstrate he cannot win the key battleground state without them.

They are also calling for Biden to withdraw military aid to Israel and to reinstate humanitarian aid to a UN agency supporting Palestinian refugees.

In Wisconsin, 15 percent of the vote will need to be uninstructed for that group to receive delegates at the Democratic National Convention in August.

Similar campaigns at the primary ballot box garnered 101,000 uncommitted votes in Michigan and about 46,000 votes in Minnesota.

Layla Elabed, who organized the uncommitted voters campaign in Michigan, said swing state voters must leverage their electoral power to send a message to the White House.

“Biden couldn’t have won 2020 without Michigan and Wisconsin,” she said. “Biden must stop funding the war in Gaza if he expects any support from our communities before it’s too late.”

Activists with prominent Milwaukee nonprofits said they were key to Biden’s victory in 2020, and that he cannot take their continued support for granted.

“It isn’t that we’ve moved away from the Democratic Party. It’s that the party has abandoned those very ideals that united us, and the party has moved away from us,” said Kyle Johnson, the political director of Black Leaders Organizing for Communities, a key Milwaukee organizing group.

Some Democratic critics of similar campaigns have argued that former President Donald Trump, who is expected to receive the Republican party nomination and has said he would not allow refugees from Gaza into the United States, would be worse for the Palestinian cause.

David Shapiro, an activist with Jewish Voice for Peace Action’s Milwaukee chapter, echoed that concern, but said that Biden, the presumptive Democratic Party nominee, needs to earn his base’s support.

“I am deeply concerned about the prospect of another Trump presidency and its potential impact in our communities,” he said. “However, that fear does not justify complacency in the face of injustice. I will be voting uninstructed to send a wake up call to the Democratic Party.”

Israel’s bombardment of Gaza began in October after Hamas militants crossed Israel’s borders, killing about 1,200 people and taking about 240 hostages.

The Israeli military responded with air bombardments and a ground incursion that has killed an estimated 30,000 Palestinians, injured 70,000 more and displaced most of the area’s 2.3 million residents. Human rights groups have said that aid has been restricted and warn of impending famine and what the United Nations has described as “catastrophic levels of deprivation and starvation.”

The United States provides about $3 billion in military funding to Israel each year. The Biden administration recently announced it would airdrop food and other supplies into Gaza.