Friday, September 16, 2016

Harvesting from deep roots: Alice's Garden grows carrots, confronts segregation, heals a community

Two miles northwest of downtown Milwaukee, 21st Street and West Garfield Avenue frame a small plot of publicly owned land. It’s called Alice’s Garden, named after Alice Meade-Taylor, the first African American director of the Milwaukee County Cooperative Extension. Here, crops push from the earth—corn and tomatoes, sunflowers and herbs—surrounded by wood chips, wheelbarrows, and tool sheds. At first glance, it might look like any other community garden.

But this two-acre tract, hemmed in by chain-link fencing, is about more than urban agriculture. It connects two essential movements in Milwaukee’s African American neighborhoods: Black Lives Matter, and a garden movement focused on healing a community traumatized by the racism, abandonment, and day-to-day realities of living in the country’s most segregated metropolitan region.

Jalanah Smith-Rainey, 10, playing in the garden on movie night. "That's my first time seeing a sunflower," she says.

The garden is in the 53205 ZIP code and just south of 53206, in an area where male employment hovers around 50 percent and more than 40 percent of residents live in poverty. In 2014, when the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a child welfare organization, ranked Wisconsin the worst state in the country to raise an African American child, that designation was driven largely by Milwaukee.
Barbara J. Miner
Alice’s Garden is not isolated from those struggles, but it provides some refuge from them—especially this summer, when the city experienced its most violent racial unrest in decades. Central to that sense of refuge is Venice Williams (pronounced “Venus,” as in the goddess of love and fertility), the garden’s modern-day steward and executive director.

But the story of Alice’s Garden is not just about Venice Williams, as she’d be the first to tell you. It’s a long tale about the land and who lives on it, about justice and injustice, and about the changing nature of a city that has been tormented in recent decades by a loss of industry, and joblessness, and racism.

It’s a cloudless Monday night in early August. Families gather at the garden, unfolding lawn chairs and spreading quilts as gardeners tend nearby plots: watering corn, picking peppers, weeding the peanut patch. Ning Thao, a Hmong gardener, is packaging green onions she’ll sell at a farmers’ market the next day. It’s the garden’s first Family Movie night—a screening of Disney’s Zootopia. The DJ plays a final song while children dance on the makeshift stage. And then, at sundown, Williams addresses the audience—a diverse crowd of people, many whom have never visited before.

Venice Williams.
“Who we are in Milwaukee, it’s here,” she says. “The garden is not just about growing food, but growing the health and wellness of our community.”

Five days later, her words will take on added importance. On Saturday August 13, Dominique Heaggan-Brown, a Milwaukee police officer, shoots Sylville Smith, a 23-year-old black man, after a traffic stop. The killing sets off the city’s worst racial unrest in half a century—angry crowds who will not be mollified, random gunfire, a squad car ransacked and burned, eight businesses torched.
One of the businesses is MJM Liquor. According to witnesses, shortly after 2 a.m., six cars stop at the store. Three or four people get out of each car; they burglarize the store, then set it on fire. The incident happens just three blocks from Alice’s Garden.

After urban farmer Will Allen won a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2008 for his work at Growing Power, Milwaukee became recognized for the strength of its agriculture movement, in which a new generation of green-thumb activists linked wholesome food to racial equality. For years, Alice’s Garden played a role in that mission. But after the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin—the 17-year-old black teenager whose death galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement—the garden pivoted.

“At that moment, when we chose to address that issue,” says Williams, “we turned a corner in terms of the purpose of Alice’s Garden.”

After George Zimmerman, Martin’s killer, was found not guilty in 2013, Williams hosted a showing of the film Fruitvale Station, which tells the true story of Oscar Grant, a black man who was fatally shot by an Oakland transit cop. The post-screening discussion featured an unorthodox twist: only the African American men in attendance were allowed to speak.

“For many of them, it was the first time they felt fully heard,” Williams told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “I’m still hearing from grown men about how powerful that night was for them.”

Meanwhile, gardening continues. There are 122 rental plots at Alice’s Garden, ranging from 8-by-16 feet for $15 a year, to 32-by-16 feet by $50 a year. The plots are rented by 90 different families or community groups, from youth groups to churches. Some gardeners are well past retirement age, some are teenagers. Some are gardening for the first time; others have been working land in one form or another for their entire lives.

A 54-year-old lay Lutheran minister with a theology degree from Valparaiso University in Indiana, Williams says her mandate includes the spiritual.

“We use gardening as the carrot, pun intended, to get people to walk through that gate,” she says. “But we want to impact their entire quality of life. We’re talking about physical health, spiritual health, and the health of the community as we deal with issues of social justice.”
Williams has expanded the garden’s programs to include an array of initiatives–from potluck dinners to yoga in the garden, music concerts, back-to-school clothing swaps, labyrinth walks, herbal apprenticeships, summer job programs for teens, batch cooking classes, and working with Marquette University on production of rice varieties able to withstand Wisconsin winters, including varieties from Africa. Williams estimates that last year, about 5,200 people visited or took part in programs at the garden. To complement the work done there, several years ago she started the Body and Soul Healing Arts Center, which operates year-round at a former Lutheran church.

With predominantly African American heritage but also some Choctaw through her great-grandmother, Williams feels a particular connection and responsibility to the land at Alice’s Garden. “The complexity of this piece of land, I don’t even try to explain it,” she says. “But it’s very real to me.”

Talk to her for more than a few minutes and it’s clear that land, history and ancestors are ever-present forces in Williams’s life. She’ll often tell a story, jumping back and forth through time to eventually make her point. Take for instance, the story of her daughter’s name, Sojourner.

Williams grew up in Pittsburgh and in the summer she would visit relatives in Battle Creek, Michigan. “Going to Battle Creek was like watching paint dry, and one summer, I think I was ten or eleven, I told my aunt I was bored,” she says. Her aunt gave her a book to read, the autobiography of Sojourner Truth, the abolitionist and women’s rights activist. “When my aunt came back later that day, she found the book on the kitchen table and asked why I hadn’t read it,” she says. “I told her I’d already finished it.” A few days later, Williams’s aunt took her to Sojourner Truth’s grave in Battle Creek. “After I saw that grave, I said, ‘If I ever have a girl, I will name her Sojourner.’”

From a mural at Alice's Garden.

The modern-day story of Alice’s Garden began in 1832, when the defeat of Sauk leader Black Hawk signaled the end of armed Native resistance in what is now Wisconsin. In 1833, the Treaty of Chicago turned over Native lands to the U.S. federal government, allowing white settlers to move into the region.

One key moment started early on the cold and grey morning of December 4, 1834. Samuel Brown and two companions took a narrow Native American trail north from what is now Chicago, reaching a trading post in what is now downtown Milwaukee four days later. Brown was one of the first white settlers in southern Wisconsin and became a leading figure in the growing Milwaukee settlement. Among his holdings was a farm on the city’s outskirts, on land that today is the home of Alice’s Garden.

Brown made another mark on history. On July 4, 1842, Caroline Quarlls, a 16-year-old fugitive slave from Saint Louis, reached Milwaukee, having traveled by steamboat and stagecoach. But bounty hunters were on her trail and she knew she had to continue to Canada. To elude her captors, on her final day in Milwaukee she was hidden in a barrel. A deacon in the Presbyterian Church and a deeply religious man, Brown picked up the barrel and took Quarlls to his farm for safekeeping. The next evening he hid her in his wagon and they set out for a farm in Pewaukee, several hours away. Weeks later, guided from one abolitionist home to the next, Quarlls arrived in Sandwich, Ontario. Hers was the first documented case of a runaway slave reaching freedom via Wisconsin’s Underground Railroad.

Over time, the land changed. Cities swelled across the country, and Milwaukee grew up, too. Brown’s farm was swallowed by development. German immigrants dominated the neighborhood for many decades, but that changed with the Great Migration of southern black people to the industrial north. Though Milwaukee’s Great Migration was several decades behind Chicago’s and Detroit’s, it no less shaped the city. In 1930, black residents were less than 2 percent of the city’s population. Today, they make up about 40 percent of the city’s roughly 600,000 people. Predatory housing and real estate practices have long restricted the African American population to certain neighborhoods, including where Brown’s farm had been.

In the 1960s and 70s, African American communities bore the brunt of eminent domain policies and an “urban renewal” effort to bring a network of freeways to Milwaukee. In the 1960s, a north-south freeway tore in half the historic Bronzeville neighborhood. Then plans were developed for a downtown freeway heading northwest—right through what had been Brown’s farm. Homes were demolished, trees razed and an entire neighborhood destroyed—all for a freeway project that in 1972 was ultimately abandoned. The empty lots, however, remained.

After the abandoned freeway project, Milwaukee County maintained ownership of the razed land. Alice’s Garden was inaugurated in 1972, but like much of the central city it was an afterthought, given minimal attention and funding. Then Venice Williams entered the picture.

Williams came to Milwaukee on a summer internship in 1988, thinking she would ultimately move on to work in Africa. But, like her stories, her life is ever unfolding. “There is nothing about my life that has ever been linear and I hope there never will be,” she says.

She became involved in the garden about 12 years ago through her husband Demetrius Brown, a Milwaukee native whose family came to the city during the Great Migration. Brown works with urban teens as part of 4-H Youth Development for Milwaukee County, affiliated with the University of Wisconsin-Extension, and had a project at the garden.

“That first year I came in thinking I would plant right away,” Williams says. “I saw these tall mounds in the corner, and I thought it was soil. But it was trash. So that first year all I did was deal with those mounds and apologize to the land for its condition.”

Gardener Shu Yang tends to her corn crop. 

Beyond Williams’s vision and drive, the garden’s transformation is due to two main factors: the support of Lutheran churches, and a public-private initiative to transform the 13-acre Milwaukee County Johnsons Park, of which Alice’s Garden is the northwest tip.

“This place would not exist without Lutheran money,” Williams says of the garden, ticking off a list of Lutheran-funded projects, from the porta-potty to the yoga instructor.

The development of Johnsons Park, meanwhile, was made possible through a $3.2 million project that began in 2009, spearheaded by the Wisconsin-based Center for Resilient Cities. Almost half a million dollars went into Alice’s Garden. Trees were planted, running water installed, and basic infrastructure built: picnic tables and shelters, tool sheds, and a cyclone fence.

In the early evening of Thursday, August 18—four days after Milwaukee’s violent unrest and two days before another potentially tumultuous weekend—women of various ages and races gather at Alice’s Garden for a full moon ceremony and campout. The evening was billed to pay homage to fertile crops and “to honor the fullness within.”  But the week’s events have forced a shift in tone and focus. “We need healing,” Williams says.

A burned-out gas station from the Sherman Park protests.

The almost three-hour ceremony involves a range of spiritual and cleansing rituals, many of them based in Native American traditions and all with an emphasis on renewal and forgiveness. The formal activities end with a potluck dinner.

Shortly before 10 p.m., the full moon makes its way above tree line, its rays forming soft shadows. The sounds of basketballs bouncing at a nearby playground mix with the chirps of crickets. People break into various small groups–some teens make chalk drawings, some women linger over the campfire, a few lay out sleeping bags while others, especially the older women, head home.

I find myself sitting next to Linetta Davis, a 41-year-old African American woman who is dean of students at a Milwaukee middle school. Neither of us is sure if we will stay the night, but we’re not in a hurry. Perhaps it’s the residual effects of the ceremony, perhaps it’s the stillness of the moon. But Davis takes her time explaining how she became involved in the garden, showing little hesitation even though she and I are strangers.

Davis goes back about a decade with Williams, first working with her on a program for African American young men, “Safe in My Brothers’ Arms.” She admits that gardening “is not my thing,” but her 8-year-old daughter, Zora, loves Alice’s Garden. Davis is also a member of The Table, a “first-century-style community in the twenty-first century” that is based at the garden and recently became part of the Lutheran Greater Milwaukee Synod.

I ask Davis to describe the garden’s essence. She pauses before answering. “This is the only place in the city, honestly, where our differences aren’t that prominent,” she says. “And I’m not talking from a color-blind perspective … You can’t ignore race. But it’s not the first thing that enters your mind when you come here.”

“This is almost like an oasis,” she continues. “I wouldn’t just come to this neighborhood and hang out at night. I wouldn’t do that within a two-mile radius of this place. But here, it’s safe.”
We continue talking, and a few minutes later we hear gunshots. Not particularly loud, and not particularly close. But clearly gunshots. I pretend to ignore them. Davis doesn’t.

“Like right now, we’re in this oasis and we’ve just heard gunshots. The contrast is …” Her voice trails off. “I don’t know how to articulate that.”

We talk a few minutes more. “You know,” she says as our conversation ends, “you can come here and forget about the chaos. Even if it’s just for one night.”

Williams, meanwhile, is looking not just to heal the present but to also build the future. What would she like to see at the garden in 5, 10, 20 years? “Oh my god,” she begins, then rattles off a wish-list: a year-round educational facility, food trucks, year-round jobs at the garden, more gardens on empty lots from the never-built freeway, the garden as a tool to revitalize the neighborhood, to build a less-segregated Milwaukee.

But Williams also knows that, as in the past, the land will be shaped by events impossible to predict. The garden, she says, “will always be available to meet the needs of the community. It’s that simple.”

This article was originally published in The New Food Economy on September 13, 2016. 

Friday, September 2, 2016

Homage to Barcelona

At a time when much of Europe is confronting rightwing parties that toy with fascism, hopeful eyes are on Spain—and Barcelona is ground zero.

Ada Colau, it has been suggested, is the world’s most radical mayor. She came to prominence via a video-gone-viral when she called a leading Spanish banker a criminal during a parliamentary hearing and, chastised, refused to back down. An activist from the anti-eviction movement, Colau last year became the first woman mayor of Barcelona last year, one of the world’s most glorious cities.
Part of what makes Colau distinct is her focus on linking democracy, urban revitalization, and global transformation. “[T]he best place to start this democratic, citizen revolution is from the bottom up, from our towns and cities,” she wrote shortly before her election on May 24, 2015. “But many of our concerns, like rising inequalities and a professional political class tainted by corruption, are shared by people in cities all over Europe and much of the rest of the world.”

Colau and her allies in city hall came out swinging, not only defending public schools and public health services but also taking on new battles. Faced with an out-of-control tourism boom, they declared a moratorium on new hotels and hostels. They fined banks that had left apartments empty for more than two years. In a city still recovering from the financial collapse of 2008, they promoted housing, public subsidies, and debt reductions for families facing eviction.
Along with other radical mayors, including Madrid’s mayor, the 42-year-old Colau has become a leading figure in the global movement against privatization, austerity, and corruption. At a time when much of Europe is confronting rightwing parties that toy with fascism, hopeful eyes are on Spain—and Barcelona is ground zero.
The Barcelona City Hall
“We’re living in extraordinary times that demand brave and creative solutions,” Colau said in noting the anniversary of her election. “If we’re able to imagine a different city, we’ll have the power to transform it.”

In a story about Barcelona, it is tempting to focus on Colau. But the power lies with Barcelona en Comú (Barcelona for All), a “citizens movement” that ran candidates on a common platform and has a slim plurality on the Barcelona city council.
Nationally, the forces coalescing around Barcelona en Comú have found expression in the political party Podemos (Yes We Can). Formed in 2014 by university professors and researchers, Podemos was an unexpected force in national elections last December, breaking the dominance of the two Spanish parties that, roughly, can be compared to the Republicans and Democrats. Elections in June, called to break the political stalemate after December, saw a slight resurgence for the center-right party. It was not enough, however, for the center-right to form a parliamentary majority, leaving Spain’s political direction still in flux.
Barcelona en Comú has now been in power for a year, with the thrill of victory tempered by the complexities of governing. Right now, there are more questions than answers.
What happens when radicals seasoned in street protests suddenly occupy the halls of power? What is the balance between overseeing a city of 1.6 million and staying true to the democratic yearnings that brought one to power? Can Barcelona en Comú deliver on its promise of a transparent and participatory democracy?

At the end of a “gap year” of travel to study public sector movements in various countries, my husband Bob and I settled into Barcelona for two months. While in Barcelona, I re-read Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell’s classic on the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39.
Upon arriving in Barcelona, Orwell was struck by the city’s egalitarian ethos: “Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized . . . . Waiters and shop walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal . . . . Above all, there was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom.”
The Spanish Civil War did not end well for the revolutionaries, and the military dictatorship of Francisco Franco remained in power until the mid-1970s. The right wing kept a tight grip, from outlawing leftwing parties to labeling strikes as military rebellion.
I thought of Orwell in one of my first interviews with young activists known as “Los Indignados” (The Outraged), or the 15-M Movement. The labels refer to the social protests that erupted on May 15, 2011, demanding an end to the austerity and massive youth unemployment that had stifled the hopes of an entire generation. Spain’s overall unemployment at the time was 23 percent, the highest in the developed world; nearly half of young people under 25 didn’t have a job. Evictions in Spain, meanwhile, had reached an all-time high. More important, however, 15-M went beyond individual issues and asked an all-important question: What’s not working? The unifying answer, for both the younger and more seasoned activists: our democracy.
I had initially surmised that Franco had stamped out Barcelona’s egalitarian ethos. Or, if not Franco, the hyper-individualistic culture of consumer capitalism. I was wrong.

The Can Vies community center.
When we visited Can Vies, a building “occupied” by young activists and used as a community center, I wanted to set up interviews and asked for a spokesperson. I was all but laughed at, albeit with no hint of malice. “No one is the main person, we are all equal,” I was told.
It was a response I received consistently while talking to occupiers, anti-eviction activists, neighborhood organizations, even lawyers. At the grassroots level, the principal form of decision-making in Barcelona is through “assemblies” that focus on consensus and egalitarianism. They are grounded in a commitment to a “participatory democracy” that goes beyond the right to elect political representatives. Participatory democracy is seen as a counterweight to top-down decision-making, which limits popular input and allowed the corruption that ran rampant within Spain’s traditional parties.
I admit, I was a skeptical about the assemblies. I had been in too many meetings in the United States that claimed to honor consensus but in fact were controlled by those who were the best, or the loudest, debaters. But I also knew that across the globe, the problem is too little democracy, not too much. I decided to see how an assembly worked.

It is 6:30 p.m. on a beautiful spring evening in a working-class neighborhood of Barcelona. Inside what seems to be a former garage, some seventy-five people sit on white plastic chairs arranged in concentric circles. The attendees are of all ages, including a few babies. About half are women.
It is the weekly decision-making meeting of the Platform for People Affected by Mortgages, known by its acronym PAH. The group was started by Colau and other activists in Barcelona in 2009 and now with chapters throughout Spain.
It’s unclear who is in charge—there’s no podium or table with official-looking people. A bearded young man passes around a hand-held microphone to whomever wants to speak, and a woman stands in front of a white board with the agenda. Neither intervene in the discussion and instead act as facilitators.
There’s no Robert’s Rules of Order, no formal votes. Confused at first, I soon realize there is an unwritten formality. If you agree with the speaker, you raise your hand and wave. If you really agree, you raise both hands. If lots of people raise their hands, it’s taken as agreement. The woman at the white board gathers the sense of the crowd, and when appropriate moves to the next topic.
I am impressed with the group’s patience and respect. No one dominates and speakers generally keep their remarks short; those who don’t will find the crowd rolling their hands, the signal to move on. What I feared might be an endless succession of people enjoying the sound of their voice turned out to be impressively efficient, through a process honed by years of practice.
In the main presentation, a lawyer discussed strategy for an upcoming eviction trial, including what public demonstrations might be best. PAH wanted to ensure that people supported the decisions. After an hour of discussion there was no agreement and a special meeting was set for a week later.
Afterward, I ask about this. Why would a lawyer publicly discuss strategy? What if the other side found out?
“We want to train people not just to resist, but to learn the law and be involved in our strategies,” explains Elisa Miralles, a thirty-six-year-old PAH lawyer. “We believe it’s important to give power back to people, to let them know they are not alone but part of a community.”
The assembly I attended lasted just over three hours. Such decision-making assemblies are held every Tuesday and on every other Friday, with usually fifty to seventy people, according to Miralles. There are also support and informational meetings, held weekly.
It’s easy to romanticize the social movements of Barcelona. But they rest on countless hours of involvement by thousands of people willing to not only take to the streets but also sit in meetings and hammer out platforms, strategies, and tactics. Participatory democracy requires significant grassroots participation. 

Kate Shea Baird, with dual British and Irish citizenship, came to Barcelona as a twenty-two-year-old in 2008, expecting to stay six months. Eight years later, she is still there. Her day job is with an NGO on urban issues. Her free time is consumed with volunteering for Barcelona en Comú, where she facilitates  the international committee and is also part of its overall coordinating committee. She was drawn to the group after attending a presentation.
“Like many people, I had never been involved in electoral politics,” Baird says. “For the first time, I identified with a political project. It was the right people, the right time, the right place.”
Baird and I meet at one of the Barcelona’s ubiquitous and charming cafes. Dressed in a black leather jacket, black skirt, tights, and boots, with her hair cropped shoulder-length, she looks as if she would be equally comfortable in Barcelona, Brooklyn, or London.
Barcelona en Comú, she tells me, uses a neighborhood-based structure, with residents in different areas meeting, organizing, and electing representatives to a forty-person coordinating committee. A ten-person executive committee makes day-to-day decisions.
About 1,700 active members regularly volunteer, attend assemblies, and are involved in decision-making. About 10,000 members take part in major votes. The first and most important was on the electoral platform and code of ethics for the 2015 elections, which went through months of drafts, discussions, and in-person debates before an online vote. The membership also voted this May to broaden the governing coalition to include a left-centrist party.
I ask about lessons learned after a year in power. For Baird, the main tension is between being a movement and being in government. “We’re used to being activists and having a confrontational relationship with power,” she says. “There is this fine line between having an activist critical spirit, but also supporting the people on the front line dealing with the political opposition and with the media.”
One of the challenges is that Barcelona en Comú won the election, but barely. It has a plurality of eleven of forty-one city council members, and governs through a coalition with other left parties. “This has limited the capacity for our councilors to be on the street and neighborhoods, where they want to be,” Baird says. “We are spread very thin.”
At one point, Baird stops me as I am about to ask another question. Her body language makes clear it is important.
“I think it’s great we have the first woman mayor, but sometimes that can happen as an anomaly,” she tells me. “But if you look at any area of Barcelona en Comú, women are on the front line. Feminism not just a political philosophy, but a way of doing things.”

Barcelona graffiti
Child care is provided at Barcelona en Comú assemblies. Women make up at least half of all members of various committees. Six of Barcelona en Comú’s eleven city council members are women. When the coordinating committee noticed that the men were speaking more than women, “We started to experiment with mechanisms to help prevent that.”
A recent publication by Barcelona en Comú on how to build a citizen’s movement declares: “It’s essential that there is a gender balance in all areas of work from the very beginning. A revolution that isn’t feminist isn’t worthy of the name.”
With his gray hair, corduroy sports jacket and button-down shirt, Xavier Riu Sala is not likely to be mistaken as a youth activist. But the sixty-one-year-old former teacher symbolizes an important link between the 15-M movements and Barcelona’s long history of neighborhood activism.
More than three decades ago, Riu helped found an association in his Esquerra de l’Eixample[1]  neighborhood. But over time, he notes, the group “became a little lazy. It became unclear how to move forward.” Then the 15-M movements erupted.
In some neighborhoods, the two movements did not mesh well. Not so in Esquerra de l’Eixample, thanks in part to people such as Riu.
One example of disparate forces working together in l’Eixample involves a 5,500-square-meter plot of land known as Germanetes, formed after a Little Sisters of the Poor convent was torn down in 2003. The city bought the land, promising a neighborhood park, school, and elderly housing. But nothing happened. After the 15-M movements, the young people had had enough talk and were planning an occupation.
Riu knew many of the young people; they had been his students. He reached out, and before long they were meeting weekly at a nearby cafe. The combined pressure of the neighborhood association and the young people worked, and development plans moved forward.
The project has two finished components. One section is self-managed by the 15-M activists and includes gardens, a geodesic dome for meetings and performances, and a rock-climbing wall. The second section, known as Jardins D’Emma, is overseen by the city. It opened in May and includes everything from a children’s playground to a dog park, gardens, and ping-pong tables. The groups are negotiating with the mayor’s office to co-manage the park, with decisions subject to neighborhood control.
Plans are also in the works in Esquerra de l’Eixample for “Superblocks,” each covering nine square blocks. Within each “Superblock,” car traffic would be channeled to the perimeters to allow more green space and pedestrian walkways. Plans also include renewable energy and urban agriculture projects.
There are two main types of struggle in Barcelona, Riu tells me. One are the unions, neighborhood groups, and traditional parties, mostly involving older people. The other are social movements that have sprung up in the last five to ten years, mostly involving youth.
“In this neighborhood, we worked together,” says Riu. “And when you work together, you have power.”

In Homage to Catalonia, Orwell writes about “breathing the air of equality.” He admitted there was much he did not understand about the complicated politics of the anarchists and communists, and some things he did not like. “[B]ut I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for . . . . Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine.”
Despite Franco’s victory, Orwell’s views did not change: “Curiously enough the whole experience has left me with not less but more belief in the decency of human beings.”
It is unclear how the 21st century people’s movements in Barcelona will end, and it is only natural there will be ebbs and flows. But Barcelona demonstrates that it is the struggle, not just the victory, that defines who we are as citizens.
This article was first printed in The Progressive September 2016 issue. Special thanks to Bob Peterson for his help with the article.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

To Change the Future, Know Your History

Milwaukee has a well-deserved reputation as perhaps the worst city in the country to raise an African-American child. The city's intense segregation and disparity did not happen overnight, but are the result of decades of practices and policies.

Following is an excerpt from Chapter 7 of my book Lessons from the Heartland: A Turbulent Half Century of Public Education in an Iconic American City. The chapter details the tumultuous events of the summer of 1967 — both the city's long-standing practice of valuing law and order over social justice, and the power of sustained grass-roots organizing.

Chapter 7

A Good Groppi Is a Dead Groppi.
—White supremacist sign during Milwaukee’s open housing marches

Except for Alderman Vel Phillips, who had been raising the issue for five years, no alderman would even consider the topic [of Open Housing]. “Seventeen white Milwaukee aldermen listened silently for 30 minutes Tuesday while their lone Negro colleague urged them to consider the adoption of a city fair housing ordinance,” the Milwaukee Sentinel wrote of the day’s events. “Then, without a word of comment or criticism, they voted to reject the proposal.”

That summer, Phillips got support from outside the council. Father James Groppi and the NAACP Youth Council launched their Open Housing campaign, demanding the city pass legislation prohibiting discrimination in the sale, lease, and rental of housing property in Milwaukee. The campaign began with picketing outside the homes of prominent aldermen. On July 30, however, the marches were interrupted by what in Milwaukee are known as the 1967 Riots, part of a national explosion of pent- up black rage.

In Milwaukee, as in other cities, anger in the black community had long simmered over police brutality, unemployment, housing discrimination, school segregation, political and economic disenfranchisement, and the refusal of the white power structure to acknowledge the pressing need for change. On July 12, 1967, disturbances broke out in Newark, New Jersey, sparked when two white policemen arrested a black cabdriver for improperly passing them. Rumors that the cabbie had been killed led to six days of rage, leaving twenty- six people dead. Less than a week aft er the end of Newark’s riots, Detroit was in flames. Police action— this time against an aft er- hours bar— once again lit the fi re. Disturbances grew so intense that not only did the governor call out the Michigan National Guard, but President Lyndon B. Johnson sent in army troops equipped with machine guns and tanks. The riots lasted five days, leaving forty- three people dead and more than two thousand buildings destroyed.

Milwaukee’s two-day upheaval began the night of July 30. By national standards, it was a relatively small disturbance. But it left whites in Milwaukee absolutely terrified, and it had a lasting impact on the city’s psyche.

The outbreak was fueled by rumors that a white policeman had killed an African American boy. Before long, the central city was beset with arson, gunshots, and looting. At around 3:00 a.m., Mayor Henry Maier instituted a twenty- four- hour curfew and asked that the National Guard be called out. Only emergency and medical personnel were to leave their homes. Mail delivery and bus ser vice were suspended. Those who violated the curfew were subject to immediate arrest.

The following morning, the city’s freeways and streets were empty and still. Six armored personnel carriers, each mounted with a .50 caliber machine gun, were ordered into the Milwaukee area. In the central city, the Milwaukee Journal reported, “every pedestrian and civilian vehicle was challenged by troops armed with bayonet- tipped rifles.” The riots left four people dead, almost a hundred injured, and 1,740 arrested.

Maier’s show of force was widely praised as saving the city from even more devastating consequences. At the same time, nothing of substance was done to alleviate the conditions leading to the unrest and anger in the African American community. [emphasis added.]

Shortly after the riots, Father Groppi and the NAACP Youth Council again took up their demands for open housing. And, just as they had crossed into the suburb of Wauwatosa, the civil rights demonstrators were not afraid to venture into white supremacist strongholds of Milwaukee. The decision led to the now legendary marches across the Sixteenth Street Viaduct separating the city’s downtown and Inner Core from the South Side.

On Monday, August 28, 1967, protesters gathered at St. Boniface in the central city. For the first time, they set out for the South Side, infamous as a stronghold of ethnic whites opposed to civil rights.

In a tribute to Father Groppi’s reputation among his former South Side parishioners, a small group of supportive whites from St. Veronica’s met the demonstrators at the beginning of their march across the bridge.1 By the time the protesters walked the half mile across the bridge, however, matters had changed. Most of the three thousand whites on the other side were hostile, with signs that read “A Good Groppi Is a Dead Groppi.” Some yelled “Sieg heil,” others “Go back to Africa.” The marchers continued. Before long, counterdemonstrators along the march route were throwing bottles, stones, and chunks of wood at them. Another five thousand white counterdemonstrators were waiting when the civil rights protesters arrived at their destination, Kosciuszko Park in the heart of the South Side.

The next night, Groppi and the Youth Council once again headed to the South Side. This time, an estimated thirteen thousand counterdemonstrators challenged them. Once again, Groppi and the marchers continued. After their march, they returned to their Freedom House in the Inner Core. At about 9:30 p.m., the house was on fi re. Groppi said the police started the fi re with tear gas; the police said a firebomb had been tossed into the house by an unknown person. When fi re trucks arrived, the police would not let them near, citing reports of gunshots and fears of a sniper. “Youth council members said the gunshots came from police weapons,” writes journalist Frank Aukofer in his civil rights history of Milwaukee. “No arsonist or sniper ever was found.”2

After the day’s events, Mayor Maier banned nighttime demonstrations. On the night of August 30, however, Groppi held a rally at the burned- out Freedom House and led a march down city streets. Police ultimately arrested fift y-eight people.3 The next night, declaring that Maier’s ban violated their First Amendment rights of assembly, marchers headed toward city hall. Some 137 people were arrested, including Alderman Phillips and Father Groppi.

Within days, the mayor was forced to lift his ban. Keeping their promise to continue marching every day, Father Groppi and the Youth Council didn’t stop even during the cold winter months, when temperatures sometimes dipped below zero.

On the South Side, white racists organized Milwaukee Citizens for Closed Housing, led by a white priest, Father Russell Witon. Decrying  “forced open housing,” Father Witon and his supporters organized counterdemonstrations at the Milwaukee archdiocesan chancery office and in the central city. The group, however, had more fury than staying power. Their efforts dwindled.

Open housing supporters, meanwhile, refused to give up. Beginning with the walk across the Sixteenth Street Viaduct on August 28, 1967, they continued with marches and protests for two hundred consecutive days.4 Finally, propelled by national events, Milwaukee’s power brokers realized they could no longer hold onto the past. On April 30, 1968, Milwaukee’s Common Council finally passed the open housing bill. The vote occurred two weeks after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated during his campaign in support of striking sanitation workers in Memphis. Riots of rage broke out across the country. In Milwaukee, an estimated fifteen thousand to twenty thousand people marched somberly but peacefully through downtown.

The open housing legislation ended a long chapter in Milwaukee’s civil rights struggles, spanning almost a decade and involving the city’s seminal civil rights leaders and organizations. As early as 1961, [Desegregation activist Lloyd] Barbee helped organize a thirteen-day sit-in at the state capitol to ban discrimination in housing. In 1965, by that time a legislator, Barbee successfully co-sponsored statewide open housing legislation, but even supporters acknowledged it was a weak bill. In Milwaukee, meanwhile, Phillips and Groppi were pushing the more comprehensive local ordinance.

Barbee, Phillips, Groppi, and countless other activists easily moved between housing, school, and employment issues. They believed not only that the issues were inherently intertwined but also that they all had deep roots in overarching problems of racism and discrimination. ...

Monday, August 1, 2016

Lecciones de Medellín: Cómo la capital mundial del asesinato se convirtió en un “modelo” de innovación urbana

El otoño pasado, días antes de que mi marido y yo saliéramos de Milwaukee a Medellín, Colombia por tres meses, miramos la serie de Netflix, “Narcos.”

Roberto y yo nos miramos preguntándonos, “¿Estamos locos?”

Unas semanas más tarde, viajamos a la Comuna 13, una vez considerado el peor y más peligroso barrio de Medellín. Usamos el sistema de bici-reparto de Medellín (que es gratis) para llegar al metro. Pagamos 70 centavos para tomar el metro hasta la Comuna 13, luego otros 40 centavos para tomar un autobús a un sistema de escaleras eléctricas, gratis,  que va en zigzag a las colinas escarpadas  del barrio, subiendo el equivalente de un edificio de 25 pisos. Un poco  después, nos montamos en un sistema de góndolas por 1.7. millas, un sistema que ha acortado el tiempo de viaje de más de un hora hasta menos de 10 minutos. Las góndolas, una parte integral del transito público de Medellín, pueden transportar más de 3,000 personas por hora.

Las góndolas de Medellín.

Medellín fue la primera ciudad en el mundo en usar góndolas para el transporte público, y también la primera en usar escaleras mecánicas en un barrio residencial.

Roberto y yo pensamos en Wisconsin, donde una de las primeras acciones del Gobernador Scott Walker fue rechazar el subsidio del gobierno federal de $810 millones de dólares para el tren de alta velocidad.  Es imposible no preguntarse por qué Medellín, una cuidad en un país supuestamente “en desarrollo,” está más adelantada que los centros urbanos en los Estados Unidos económicamente poderosos — y años luz más adelantada que Milwaukee.

Un enfoque en los barrios pobres
Es una tarde hermosa del sábado — cada día parece primavera en Medellín, donde las temperaturas del día se mantienen cerca de 23º C todo el año. Carolina Andrea Ramírez, una madre soltera de 34 años afro-indígena de gran energía, nos lleva en un viaje por la Comuna 8, en las colinas del este de la ciudad.

Medellín, cuyos 2.4 millones de habitantes la hacen la segunda ciudad más grande de Colombia, tiene 16 comunas — o barrios de la ciudad. La Comuna 8, con una población de aproximadamente 135,000 habitantes, es uno de los sectores más pobres.

Ramírez nació en la Comuna 8 y vivía en las calles desde los 14 hasta los 28 años de edad. Hace aproximadamente un año formó una organización de la comunidad, Corazón de León, que se concentra en “ofrecer a los jóvenes otra opción que las drogas,” en particular el arte y la música.

Nos encontramos con Ramírez debajo de la construcción del nuevo sistema de góndolas. Caminamos hacía arriba, las calles se convirtieron en escaleras, que se convirtieron en caminos de tierra. Después de poco tiempo, entramos en una área de un ,cinturón verde con “eco-parques,” juegos infantiles, parcelas de jardín orgánico, y un camino que parecía de adoquines, a la cima de un colina conocida como Pan de Azúcar (Sugar Bread), que tiene una de las mejores vistas de Medellín.

Los proyectos son parte del Jardín Circunvalar, traducido más o menos como
“The Circular Garden,” que, a su lado, es parte de un cinturón verde que se está construyendo en las colinas de Medellín. A medida que caminamos, traté de pensar en un proyecto similar, multifacético, en un barrio pobre de Milwaukee, especialmente un proyecto controlado y financiado con fondos públicos, no pude.

Los proyectos de la Comuna 8 reflejan lo que se llama “urbanismo social” en Medellín, que se refiere a proyectos públicos completos, holísticos que unen el transporte público al espacio verde, a bibliotecas, proyectos culturales, parques, instalaciones deportivas, escuelas y guarderías.

Estos esfuerzos han atraído reconocimiento internacional, incluyendo un 2013 “Premio Verde” de la escuela de posgrado de diseño de la Universidad de Harvard, en el 2013 y un  premio “Ciudad Innovadora del Año” de The Wall Street Journal y Citi en 2012. Pero, lo que hace que Medellín destaque es que sus proyectos más ambiciosos han estado situados en barrios pobres.

Las páginas de la red del gobierno invariablemente explican los proyectos de la ciudad en términos elogiosos. Yo tenía interés en la perspectiva de Ramírez, una activista del barrio.

“Todo en Medellín es muy complicado,” ella comienza. Haciéndose eco de una creencia generalizada en un país infame debido a la corrupción política, ella cree que todos los políticos “son ratas.” La diferencia, explica, “es que en Medellín las ratas también hacen cosas buenas.”

Al pedirle datos concretos, menciona mejoras en educación, guarderías para las madres que trabajan, parques públicos, o en la góndola que se está construyendo. Pero no es sólo eso, añade. Su experiencia al vivir en las calles le enseñó la importancia de creer en un futuro mejor. “Ahora,” dice,” hay más esperanza.”

“Soy una Fajardista”
Cuando Pablo Escobar fue muerto en 1993, Medellín era un caos. Además de la violencia, la ciudad estaba fuertemente segregada. Barrios enteros fueron considerados “zonas de no-entrar,” peligroso para residentes y visitantes igualmente. Había un consenso creciente de que Medellín, un eje industrial y económico de todo el país, tenía que cambiar.

El empuje para una Medellín nueva recibió un impulso importante con la apertura del metro en 1995. Pero la elección del reformador Sergio Fajarado como alcalde en 2003 fue un momento decisivo, y Fajardo se ha convertido en un símbolo icónico de la transformación de Medellín. Incluso hoy, los candidatos políticos buscan votos proclamando, “Soy un Fajardista.”

Un profesor y periodista carismático convertido en político, Fajarado fue elegido como parte de un movimiento cívico independiente de los partidos principales. Su estatus es en parte debido al ritmo de cambio que hubo durante su mandato de alcalde de 2004 a 2007, antes de que él llegara a ser gobernador del estado de Antioquia por dos términos.

Lo más importante es que Fajardo y su movimiento cívico interrumpieron la manera normal de hacer negocios en Medellín. No tenían interés en mostrar arquitectura o proyectos ostentosos, diseñados para dar a Medellín una nueva imagen internacional. Vieron la arquitectura, el diseño y la innovación como herramientas de transformación social.

Después de tomar posesión del cargo, Fajardo destacó tres problemas principales: la desigualdad, la violencia, y una cultura de corrupción. Prometió un compromiso con la educación, la transparencia y la lucha contra la corrupción, así como la importancia de espacios públicos y participación cívica.

“Nuestros edificios más bellos deben estar en nuestros barrios más pobres,” dijo Fajardo.

El barrio cerca de las escaleras mecánicas 

De manera interesante, Fajardo pasó sus años formativos en Madison, graduándose de la Universidad de Wisconsin—Madison con un doctorado en matemáticas en 1984.  Esta fue una era cuando “La Idea de Wisconsin” — “que la educación debe influir en la vida de la gente más allá de los límites del aula” — todavía era honrada y protegida,  y la reputación global de la universidad permaneció intacta.

Algunos de los muchos proyectos iniciados durante la administración de Fajardo incluyen la reconstrucción de los Jardines Botánicos de Medellín (que son gratis); la construcción y renovación de escuelas públicas; la expansión de los parques públicos y plazas; la ampliación del sistema de góndolas, y el desarrollo de parques bibliotecas, que son una combinación de bibliotecas con espacio verde, un concepto que desde entonces se ha extendido a otros países de América Latina. Muchos de los proyectos fueron desarrollados con la participación de consejos comunitarios financiados con fondos públicos.

De balas a libros
En el barrio San Javier en Medellín, arriba de la estación del metro en la Comuna 13, hay un parque biblioteca,“Parque Biblioteca Presbítero José Louis Arroyave,” nombrado por un sacerdote asesinado a tiros por fuerzas paramilitares in 2002. Los murales dan paso a un sendero serpenteante y espacio verde, que, a su vez, dan paso a un jardín orgánico, esculturas y, en la cima, la biblioteca.

Pero la Comuna 13 tiene una historia más oscura. En un país donde la violencia militar/paramilitar/rebelde/bandas/droga es común, el barrio es el sitio de una de las invasiones militares más infames de una zona urbana en Colombia— Operación Orión, en 2002.

Durante ese otoño, el presidente conservador de Colombia ordenó una ofensiva militar para expulsar a los rebeldes izquierdistas. Miles de soldados y policías atacaron, apoyados por helicópteros armados y fuerzas paramilitares. Aproximadamente 100,000 residentes del barrio quedaron atrapados en el fuego cruzado.

Nadie sabe exactamente cuántas personas murieron, pero las cifras se extienden a más de 70 personas. También, los paramilitares “desaparecieron” a personas sospechosas de simpatías izquierdistas. Las estimaciones de los “desaparecidos” civiles alcanzan hasta 300 personas.

Hoy, la Comuna 13 es hogar no solamente para el parque biblioteca, pero también el metro, las góndolas, las escalaras y los servicios, sociales, educativos y culturales ampliados. Los murales a nivel de la calle, en la base del parque biblioteca hablan de la historia del barrio. El arte es impresionante y los mensajes son claros “Intervención militar, nunca más,” dice un mural. “Somos Comuna 13, donde la memoria y vida son presente,” dice otro.

La Comuna 13 es sólo un ejemplo de cómo la Medellín de 2015 es significativamente diferente de la Medellín de 1995. Los inversores extranjeros han tomado nota. Añadiendo a la historia de Medellín como centro industrial, el sector tecnológico de la ciudad ahora es el tercero más grande de América Latina.

Algunos críticos han rechazado los cambios de Medellín como adornos que dejan intactas las estructuras básicas. Sin embargo, no se puede negar el progreso y la interrupción de negocios como era costumbre. Y en una época cuando, en todo el mundo, las iniciativas del gobierno están dominadas por la privatización y fondos públicos para proyectos privados, Medellín es un anomalía.

A medida que Roberto y yo leíamos noticias de Madison durante el otoño, estábamos desanimados por los ataques continuos contra los tradiciones de un gobierno transparente, un sector público fuerte y un sistema vibrante de la universidad en Wisconsin.

Como a veces bromeábamos, “La Idea de Wisconsin, estilo Latinoamericano, está viva y bien en Medellín.”
— —
Bárbara Miner es una escritora y fotógrafo en Milwaukee, WI, EEUU. Esta opinión ha sido adaptada de un artículo en la edición de diciembre-enero de la revista The Progressive.

Gracias a Floralba por su ayuda con la traducción.