Nice Surprises in the City of Milwaukee

Milwaukee       Before taking my traveling road show from Madison to Milwaukee, I spent some time in the ACORN archives that are part of the Social Change Collection of the Wisconsin Historical Society.  Perhaps four years ago, WHS archivists had picked up another 35 cartons of material from our hall in Baton Rouge where we were storing a ton of stuff that had been in our various New Orleans local and national offices.  I met with one of the archivists who had recently finished accessing, filing, and sorting through the most recent bunch.  He claimed it “filled in some missing pieces,” and that was good news for all of us.

I had been naïve in my first visit to the archives some thirty months ago, thinking I could buzz through the collection.  Over the week I visited, I may have jumped around in thirty or forty boxes.  It was a start, but I was most impressed at how much I had underestimated the task, especially since I was looking for old strategy and program memoranda.  There are now 224 cubic feet of paper archives and that means 224 boxes of materials.  Plus, there are more boxes of photographs and hours and hours of video.  That’s a mountain to climb.  I joked leaving that it would take me two or three months to go through all of what they had.  The archivist at the desk, suggested summer was better than the winter.  Indeed!

Once in Milwaukee, I stopped at a coffeehouse nearby the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee where I was due not long afterwards.  Within minutes, a fellow approached me and identified himself as Dan Grandone, a former Gamaliel community organizer, who was going to the event later that day and now ran a leadership development program with a great name:  WILD.  Anytime you can run into random community organizers on the street by chance, take my word, you’re somewhere close to heaven if you want to note this on your GPS.

At the event there was a former ACORN canvasser in Minnesota and a former ACORN organizer for a brief spell in another office.  UM-W Professor Aaron Schutz, my host, cracked that the urban studies department was chock full of ex-ACORN folks.

It gets even better though.  During the call and response after the meeting, one young man spoke up and gave a testimonial to ACORN.  Turns out he had a slew of relatives in the Lower 9thWard of New Orleans, including a sister who said ACORN had helped get her house together after Hurricane Katrina.   Another young man spoke up not long afterwards saying he was a community organizer in the Milwaukee and wanted to know how they could connect with ACORN.  After the meeting, I visited with all three of the delegation and they turned out to be connected to the Amani neighborhood and the Dominican Center.

The Amani neighborhood has seen steady decline in crime since 2005, including another 12 percent decrease in 2017 alone. It’s located between 20th and 27th Streets and between Center St. and Keefe Ave., right in the middle of the 53206-zipcode.  In fact, one experienced organizer told me that this zip code had the highest incarceration rate in Wisconsin, and perhaps the nation, but crime over this period has dropped at almost double the level of the city as a whole.  They want to see how to bring the ACORN Home Savers Campaign to Milwaukee and how to link up.  Yeeha!

It’s these kinds of surprises that keep me hitting the road, rain or shine, sleet or snow, and here there was plenty of the latter, but these kinds of conversations made the sun shine for me.

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Milwaukee and Other Cities are Explosions Waiting to Happen

 An eviction in Milwaukee in December. Often, landlords turn to informal methods to get families to leave.Photograph by Philip Montgomery for The New Yorker

An eviction in Milwaukee in December. Often, landlords turn to informal methods to get families to leave. Photograph by Philip Montgomery for The New Yorker

New Orleans    For quite a while in these times of inequity and polarization around income, class, race, and so many other issues, there has seemed – at least to me – a fuse steadily and slowly burning towards an explosion in our cities. We are definitely seeing it now in Milwaukee, as the community rioted in destructive anger in reaction to a black policeman 24-years old killing a fleeing black man 23-years old, who was also armed.

The anger is erupting because it comes from an unrequited rage. Elements of the community are saying, essentially, “We don’t care about whether police say the killing was justified or not; the killing has to stop!” We can quibble and disagree about the facts, the tactics, and the collateral damage, but it is hard to argue that police occupation of lower income, largely minority communities is working to either stop crime or, even more importantly, to protect and secure the communities themselves or integrate them fully into the overall life of the city. People are drowning without lifelines or lifeboats in sight. No one could have read the book, Evicted¸ and its close, hard look at conditions in Milwaukee’s lower income neighborhoods around housing, which are little different than scores of other cities, without understanding that all of these situations are powder kegs waiting for matches.

But, as Milwaukee is demonstrating, to see the crisis as a simple matter of police-community relationships where strategy and tactics have gone terribly awry, is also a mistake. These issues and estrangements are bigger than that, and they are more comprehensive. The police are simply at the front of the line, but everyone else is still in the queue, equally responsible. There are few better examples that the surprise the press is finding in Milwaukee that they are also a target of protest and rage.

The police are the close-at-hand occupiers, while the press is now increasingly the far removed observers. As newspapers and other media outlets have drastically cut the staffing of their newsrooms in the technological crisis within their industry, the coverage of communities of class and color, which were never robust, are now even more drastically depleted. Any casual conversation with community organizers will quickly reveal how invisible the work has become and how increasingly shrouded their communities have become. Large protests and similar events go unreported. When covered, it’s often now a student intern or stringer or a photographer sent just to get a picture. We’re back in the 50’s again where the mainstream media largely depends on self-appointed or downtown-vetted community leaders rather than facts and forces on the ground, so who is surprised that when they show up in the community there’s something less than applause.

The New York Times quoted a community advocate in Milwaukee with a radio show saying, “Our stories get mixed.” At first I thought this might be a misquote and that he really said, “nixed,” but he was more likely saying that the stories suffer from too much two-handed coverage, where the voices of the community are muted and the issues, no matter how stark, are diluted.

Not to keep being the Cassandra here, but attention must be paid. As I keep arguing, for all the noise out there, this all seems like the fire this time, and there will be no excuse for policy makers, politicians, and other institutions, large and small, to act even remotely surprised when it breaks out everywhere.

Nothing is being done to solve these problems, so who would be surprised that people start expressing their anger in whatever ways are still available to them.

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Please enjoy this version of The Midnight Special by Billy Bragg & Joe Henry. Thanks to KABF.

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