Friday, June 29, 2012

Obamacare and voter suppression laws: a disturbing link

Now that the Republicans have lost the Supreme Court ruling on Obamacare, they are reverting to Plan B: Snatch the presidency away from Barack Obama and repeal healthcare reform.

Granted, repeal seems a pipe dream. It requires a Republican trifecta of a presidential victory, holding onto the House and, most unlikely, taking over the Senate enough to garner the 60 votes needed to repeal .

But the Republicans have a secret weapon: new statewide voting laws, in particular voter ID requirements, that have passed in Republican-controlled legislatures in the last two years. The restrictions disproportionately impact poor people, the elderly, the young, immigrants and people of color, groups which tend to lean Democratic.

A leading Pennsylvania Republican, in one of those “oops” moments, made clear that so-called voter ID laws are really about suppressing the Democratic vote.

At a statewide gathering of Republicans in Pennsylvania a week ago, the state’s House Majority leader said that the state’s new voter ID law “is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.”

The statement was made by Mike Turzai, a Republican from Allegheny who made the unexpectedly candid statement when boasting of the accomplishments of the GOP-run legislature, from the so-called “Castle Doctrine,” to anti-abortion regulations, to voter ID.

Unfortunately for Turzai, his comments were caught on video. Reports also noted that Turzai’s comments “drew a loud round of applause from the audience.”

Since the Republican upsurge in 2010, fifteen states passed have passed “restrictive voting laws that have the potential to impact the 2012 election,” according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. The states account for 210 electoral votes, or nearly 78 percent of the votes needed to win the presidency.

The laws range from photo and voter ID requirements to laws that make it harder to register to vote, or require proof of citizenship, or reduce the ability to vote early or vote absentee.

Under Gov. Scott Walker, Wisconsin enacted the most stringent voter ID law in the country.

Reince Priebus, state resident and head of the Republican National Committee, has long claimed that voter ID is needed because voter fraud is rampant in Wisconsin. But there’s one problem. As theMilwaukee Journal Sentinel notes, Priebus has “little evidence to back up his claim.”

Nationally, the Republicans’ new voting laws have spawned a spate of lawsuits and challenges. How many of the challenges will be resolved before November is unclear. (For the status of the laws, go to theBrennan Center for Justice.)

Voter ID has been the Republican’s preferred form of voter suppression. But it’s not the only tool in the Republican arsenal. Take the case of Florida, the state that made “hanging chad” a household term in 2000 and that gave George W. Bush the presidency even though he did not win the popular vote.

In May 2011, Florida passed a bill that changed the rules for both early voting and voter registration. The bill’s sponsor was clear that he wanted to make it difficult to vote.

“I don’t have a problem making it harder,” state senator Mike Bennett said. “I want people in Florida to want to vote as bad as that person in African who walks 200 miles across the desert. This should not be easy.”

Just in case Florida’s new voting law may not sufficiently suppress Democratic turnout, this May state officials begun a dubious “voter purge” program allegedly aimed at non-citizens but which has snared naturalized citizens and U.S.-born citizens lacking appropriate papers. Most of the people on the “non-citizens” list are people of color, especially Latinos, who tend to vote Democrat.

In Florida, as in Wisconsin, dire warnings of rampant voter fraud helped build support for the Republicans’ attack on voting rights. But, as the head of the Florida ACLU noted in a segment on The Colbert Report, "There are probably a larger number of shark attacks in Florida than there are cases of voter fraud."

PolitiFact followed up on that sharks claim. It found a total of 49 cases of voter fraud from 2008 to 2011, compared to 72 shark attacks. What’s more, a report by the Orlando Sentinel found only seven convictions for voter fraud since 2000 — less than one a year. 

The Brennan Center for Justice, meanwhile, calls voter fraud “extremely rare” — noting that in one closely analyzed election in Ohio in 2004, the voter fraud rate was 0.00004 percent. 

One issue that has gotten scant attention is the denial of voting rights to convicted felons.

In Virginia, for instance, almost 300,000 state residents cannot vote because of past felony convictions. Fifty percent of those affected are African American. 

Virginia and three other states permanently dis-enfranchise convicted felons, even if they have served their sentence and are no longer under the supervision of the criminal justice system. Seven states permanently disenfranchise certain categories of felons. Wisconsin is one of 20 states that restore voting rights after felons have completed their sentence, including parole and probation.

Only two states, Maine and Vermont, do not prohibit felons from voting. 

A movement to grant basic rights to felons is not likely to gain traction soon, given both the overall tenor of politics in this country and the Republicans’ habit of using race to instill fear among white voters.

But that doesn’t mean the dis-enfranchisement of felons isn’t a stain on our democracy. In fact, as Project Vote notes, “The United States is the only country that permits permanent disenfranchisement of felons even after completion of their sentences.” 
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This blog is cross-posted at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project. 

Monday, June 25, 2012

Get ready for the Bradley Center scam

I know it’s been a busy few months, but when was the decision made that there absolutely has to be a new Bradley Center, and that the public will bear the brunt of the cost?
An article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Business Section on Sunday assumed that a new center was a done deal. The only question seemed where it will be built, with the Park East area the preferred location.
A couple of other whoppers were buried in the story. First, that the public likely will be stuck with most of the bill, which is expected to range between $350 and $500 million. Second, that the arena probably won’t even pay property taxes on the new building.
You don’t have to be a financial wizard to know that when multimillion-dollar buildings don’t pay property taxes, the bill goes up for Joe Average homeowner.
Boosters for a new arena say it will be provide for more club seats and suites, and for higher-priced tickets closer to the court. “All of those changes would make the center more lucrative for the Bucks,” the article noted.
In other words, more profitable.
WHY THE RUSH?                                                                           Although the Bucks are the main tenant other teams use the aging center, such as the Milwaukee Admirals and Marquette University. (If you want to be like the rest of the Milwaukee media, you have to use the adjective “aging” before any reference to the arena.)
One final thing. You can’t call it the Bradley Center anymore. It’s now the BMO Harris Bradley Center. Yes, that’s the same BMO Harris which recently announced that it will close 17 bank branches in Wisconsin come October, eliminating jobs for an undisclosed number of people.
Why the rush for a new Bradley Center? The existing one is only 24 years old. As columnist Jim Stingl infamously noted a few years back when talk of a new center first surfaced, “I have underwear older than the Bradley Center.”
Apparently, you can never underestimate the longing of boys for their toys. Building a new center is a top priority of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC), probably only outdone by the association's love affair with publicly funded but privately run voucher schools.
One wishes the MMAC had a jobs strategy that went beyond building sports stadiums catering to businesses that use their fancy luxury boxes to watch the games far from the huddled masses — and then writing off the cost of the boxes as a business expense
Herb Kohl, the Bucks owner, has gained kudos for saying he will provide a “significant” contribution to help build a new center. But he’s been mum about exactly how much.
And shouldn’t Kohl and the Bucks, as the arena’s main beneficiaries, bear the main cost? Isn’t that one of the supposed rules of capitalism? That entrepreneurs get to make all those profits because they are willing to take the financial risk?
But if the public pays for most of the Bradley Center, and the center doesn’t even have to pay property taxes, where’s the risk?
This Bradley Center proposal has “scam” written all over it.
During an ongoing economic downturn, with unemployment, poverty and foreclosures in the City of Milwaukee at heart-breaking levels, why is the focus on building a new Bradley Center subsidized by taxpayers but catering to the rich?
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This blog is cross-posted at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The nuns are here! The nuns are here!

Just after 9 p.m., with the sky almost pitch black, Sister Diane Donoghue bounded off the Nuns on the Bus. Although 81 years old, she had the enthusiasm of a young child thrilled at being able to stay up late on a warm summer evening.

In a rare moment of being off-task, Sister Donoghue quickly walked to a chain-link fence overlooking the 1-43 freeway near Atkinson Avenue in Milwaukee’s central city. She wanted to take pictures of something that, in her more than eight decades, she had never seen.

The nuns were going to take part in the Overpass Light Brigade, which comes out at sunset and shows up at pedestrian passages over the freeway to hold well-lit placards and send messages to travelers below. This evening, Light Brigade’s message was geared toward the Nuns on the Bus tour

“Question Austerity,” the placards read.

It was a fitting end on Tuesday June 19 to what had been a long, long day for the nuns — Day 2 of what will be a 15-day, 9-state journey to highlight the anti-poor essence of Rep. Paul Ryan’s federal budget proposal.

The nuns began with a 9 a.m. press conference at a food pantry in Iowa, got on the bus to Wisconsin, visited Ryan’s office in Janesville to deliver their budget critique, headed up to Milwaukee where they ate dinner at the St. Ben’s meal program in downtown, followed by a “Friend Raiser” at St. John’s on the Lake.

For most normal human beings, it would have been enough for one day.

But the nuns, activists with an affinity for community and blessed with super-human energy, had that one final stop with the Overpass Light Brigade.

Somewhat of a cult event among Milwaukee’s art and activist crowd, the Light Brigade is not usually high on the radar screen of out-of-town guests. But the nuns clearly have their pulse on what’s happening on the streets. (Check out the Light Brigade’s Facebook page.)

Making their way to the Light Brigade’s gathering on the pedestrian bridge, the nuns were escorted by fans and media — and treated like royalty as a bag-piper led the way and cleared a passage.

For once, the nuns weren't expected to deliver speeches. This was a low-key get-together based on mutual respect. The crowd, learning it was Sister Mary Wendeln's 72nd birthday, burst into a spontaneous if ragged rendition of "Happy Birthday."

Wednesday’s schedule is as packed as Tuesday’s. It begins with a 9 a.m. press conference at a dental clinic on Milwaukee’s South Side, followed by joining the picket line at Palermo’s Pizza, where workers are on strike and fighting for a union. Then it’s off to Illinois, with the first stop at Rep. Joe Walsh’s office.

The Nuns on the Bus tour is organized by Network, a social justice lobby [] in Washington, D.C., that was founded more than 40 years ago by group of Catholic nuns inspired by the Vatican II reforms and religious involvement in civil rights, antiwar and feminist movements.

“Because of their work, Sisters see the suffering of people in poverty on a daily basis,” according to the press release that announced the tour. “As a result, they recognize the harm that the Ryan budget will cause.”

Throughout the tour, nuns from different localities will join in for a few days, as others return to their daily work on behalf of the poor. Sister Donoghue is the only nun who will stay on the bus during the entire tour. She is officially retired after decades of working with a low-income housing group in Los Angeles, Esperanza, which translates into English as “hope.”

Throughout the day, the nuns were greeted by fans, treated as both celebrities and saviors. In Wisconsin, where many activists are still coping with the June 5 recall results, the nuns provided a needed boost of enthusiasm and commitment. As if often the case with nuns, they set a high standard. After all, if Sister Donoghue can keep on for 81 years, where’s the excuse for younger people to give up?

Perhaps not coincidentally, the Nuns on the Bus tour overlaps with the U.S. bishops’ “Fortnight for Freedom” crusade against Obamacare and its call for comprehensive contraception coverage in insurance plans, even at Catholic universities and hospitals. The bishops’ 14-day effort of “prayer, education and action” begins June 21 and ends July 4.

No one publicly mentioned the “Fortnight for Freedom” at the nuns’ events in Milwaukee. But the liberal Catholics, fallen-away Catholics and ex-nuns/ex-priests at their gatherings was as good a sampling of the liberal wing of the Catholic Church as one is likely to find in Milwaukee.

The tour also has international implications. The Vatican has taken on the U.S. nuns for paying too much attention to social justice, not enough attention to abortion and gay rights, and for not automatically bending the knee when a bishop speaks. Network was one of the groups mentioned in the Vatican critique.

Some conservative Catholics, who prefer a smaller and purer church, apparently have no problem with ignoring the Nuns on the Bus, and are willing to throw the nuns under the bus to suit their increasingly narrow ideology. [Make sure to catch the NYTimes opinion last Sunday on this). 

But if Tuesday’s events are any indication, the Church will do so at a peril to its soul.

Photo captions. Top, Sister Donoghue snaps a photo of the Overpass Light Brigade. Sister Campbell marches onto the overpass to join the Light Brigade. Middle: Sister Wendeln enjoys the Happy Birthday song. Bottom: The Overpass Light Brigade's message Tuesday night. More photos on Facebook. All photos by Barbara J. Miner.

This blog is cross-posted at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project. 

Monday, June 18, 2012

Voter ID or Voter Suppression?

The dust is settled, the instant analyses have faded, and it’s time to separate the wheat from the chaff of Wisconsin’s recall election. This is important not just for the state. We do, after all, have a presidential election this November.

The chaff? It is all Barrett’s fault because his message was muddled. The Democratic Party sold out the grass roots. Obama sold out Barrett. And so on.

The wheat? First, that money is corrupting our politics. Second, that voter ID laws and other forms of voter suppression are inherently undemocratic — and are being used to ensure Republican power not only on a state level, but also to elect a Republican president.

(Yes, there clearly are other complicated questions. For instance, what is the appropriate relationship between grass roots organizing and electoral politics? How best to counter three decades of an unrelenting conservative message that government is evil, public sector workers are greedy, and the social safety net props up the undeserving? Answers to such multi-faceted questions require extended essays, not blog posts.)

Regarding money, there has been significant post-recall discussion over Citizens United and what the Wisconsin recall may portend for November’s vote. But there has been less discussion about Voter ID laws and attempts to suppress the vote in communities that tend to vote Democratic.

Here in Wisconsin, race somehow became a non-issue in analyses of the Walker/Barrett results.

Following the June 5 vote, the Milwaukee local media sliced the results any number of ways — union versus non-union households, conservatives versus liberals versus independents, male versus female, rural versus urban.

But it was New York Times blog that pointed out the clearest divide, one based on race. Only 5 percent of Blacks voted for Walker, while Barrett garnered 94 percent of the Black vote. Whites were more evenly split: 57 percent for Walker, 43 percent for Barrett.

Ever since the end of slavery, voting requirements have been tied up with issues of race. The Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1870, prevented any state from denying the right to vote to any male citizen on account of his race. African Americans became either the majority or a significant percentage of the population in former Confederate states. Overnight, southern politics were transformed.

But it wasn’t long before Blacks and poor whites were disenfranchised, whether through poll taxes, literacy or residency requirements or changes in registration. It wasn’t an accident that one of the most contentious struggles of the civil rights movement involved the right to vote — with the 1965 Voting Rights Act a seminal accomplishment.

Federal law has helped prevent wholesale backsliding into voter suppression, especially in southern states. But voter suppression is still alive and well – and in 2011 took on new life. Following the Republican upsurge during the 2010 elections, states across the country passed laws that restricted the right to vote, with the impact falling disproportionately on people of color, poor people and the elderly. Many of the bills were inspired by the American Legislative Exchange Council, which develops templates for conservative legislation.

“The Advancement Project, an advocacy group of civil rights lawyers, correctly describes the push as ‘the largest legislative effort to scale back voting rights in a century,’” the New York Times noted in an editorial.

In Wisconsin, Walker and the Republican-dominated legislature passed Act 23, which instituted a number of changes. The most controversial required a voter to present an acceptable photo ID, such as a state-issued ID or a driver’s license.
The laws are allegedly a response to voter fraud, which allegedly leads to a lack of popular confidence in our elections.

But the laws are a solution in search of a problem. Outright voter fraud is extremely rare. Most irregularities stem from felons unknowingly voting, from mis-steps by election officials, or from record-keeping errors. Wisconsin’s voter ID law addresses none of these concerns.

What’s more, the most lasting assault on public confidence in our elections is a result not of voter fraud, but a hurried decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that granted George W. Bush the Florida election by some 500 votes and thus the U.S. presidency as a result of our winner-take-all system of electoral votes.

A study by New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice predicts that the changes in voting requirements in 14 states in 2011 will affect five million voters and could swing the upcoming presidential election. “The states that have already cut back on voting rights will provide 185 electoral votes in 2012 — more than two thirds of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency,” the center notes.

Last March, after lawsuits were filed against Wisconsin’s voter ID law, Gov. Scott Walker cavalierly dismissed the importance of protecting the right to vote. “There are many pressing issues facing our state; rehashing and litigating voter ID at the taxpayers' expense isn't one of them,” Walker argued in a March 7 opinion in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Judge David Flanagan of Dane County Circuit Court begged to differ. In his March 6 opinion granting a temporary injunction against the law’s ID requirements, he noted that the right to vote “is a fundamental, defining element of our society.” He went on to note that Wisconsin’s 2011 voter ID law “is the single most restrictive voter eligibility law in the United States.”

Judge Flanagan also referred to uncontested affidavits that “offer a picture of carousel visits to government offices, delay, dysfunctional computer systems, misinformation and significant investment of time to avoid being turned away at the ballot box.” A trial occurred in April and briefs are now being submitted. It is unclear whether a final decision will be issued before the November elections. Additional lawsuits are proceeding through both state and federal court.

For many people, especially white middle class people with cars, it can be hard to imagine how a voter ID law might suppress the right to vote. But almost a quarter of people aged 65 and older do not have a Wisconsin’s driver’s license or identification card. The same is true for 55 percent of all African American men and almost half of African American women. The percentages are significantly higher for African American men and women aged 18-24. Poor people are also less likely to have a photo ID.

Forty uncontested affidavits were filed in one of the lawsuits against Wisconsin’s voter ID law. The affidavit from Juanita Guardiola shows the Catch-22 nature of the law.

Last fall, Guardiola and her son Mauricio went to the DMV offices to get photo IDs. Guardiola was told she had to pay $28 for her ID, which irked her, but it was Mauricio who received the royal run-around.

Mauricio had a birth certificate, a school ID, a laminated social security card, and a letter to the home address from his physician. All seemed in order. But the clerk said that in order to get a photo ID, Mauricio had to produce a non-laminated social security card.

The next day, it was off to social security administration office, where they were given a printout confirming Mauricio’s social security number. Then it was back to the DMV office. The clerk, however, refused the social security printout and required an original card.

So it was back to the social security office, requesting a new card for Mauricio. But, as the affidavit states, “The clerks informed us that we could not receive a new social security card without producing first a photo ID from the state of Wisconsin.”

Photo caption/credit: The photo is from a series of U.S. postage stamps commemorating the Civil Rights Movement. This particular stamp pays homage to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and is based on a photograph by Bruce Davidson, “Youths on the Selma March,” (1965).
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This blog is cross-posted at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project. 

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The nuns are coming! The nuns are coming!

Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition. The nuns are coming

The Vatican is doing its best to silence American nuns, but the nuns are refusing to shut up, sit down, and do whatever the bishops say.

On June 6, Catholic sisters announced they would begin a multi-state bus tour to highlight the nuns’ good works on behalf of poor people and to criticize Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget. The bus is expected in Wisconsin on June 19.

“Because of their work, Sisters see the suffering of people in poverty on a daily basis,” according to the press release announcing the tour. “As a result, they recognize the harm that the Ryan budget will cause.” 

The tour comes amid a struggle that broke open in April when the Vatican harshly rebuked the nuns for, among other things, focusing too much on social justice and too little on gay marriage and abortion.

The Vatican, stained by its complicity in a global network of pedophiles, has found that the U.S. public has more respect for the nuns than the bishops. In Cleveland, for instance, 640 people attended a prayer service in late May to honor the nuns. “When the nuns were asked to stand for a blessing, the congregation responded with a spontaneous standing ovation that lasted nearly five minutes,” according to a New York Times report.

The Sisters’ tour is being billed as “Nuns on the Bus: Nuns Drive for Faith, Family and Fairness.” It begins in Iowa on June 18, stopping in Janesville and Racine in Wisconsin on June 19, and ending July 2 in Virginia.

Not coincidentally, Nuns on the Bus overlaps with the U.S. bishops’ “Fortnight for Freedom” crusade against Obamacare and its call for comprehensive contraception coverage in insurance plans, even at Catholic universities and hospitals. The bishops’ 14-day effort of “prayer, education and action” begins June 21 and ends July 4. Events are planned throughout the Milwaukee Archdiocese, including an opening mass on June 23 and a closing mass on July 4, both with Archbishop Jerome Listecki.

The nuns’ bus tour is being organized by Network, a social justice lobby in Washington, D.C., that was founded more than 40 years ago by group of Catholic nuns inspired by the Vatican II reforms and religious involvement in civil rights, antiwar and feminist movements. The nuns and laypeople in Network stayed true to the group’s founding mission; the Vatican, meanwhile, moved on to its preoccupation with all things sexual.

The Vatican’s attack on the nuns focuses on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents about 80 percent of U.S. nuns. (The conference is listed on Network’s website as one of a number of “Partners and Coalition Groups.” Network, meanwhile, was mentioned in the Vatican’s critique of the leadership conference.)

The nuns’ leadership conference took its time responding to the Vatican’s charges. On June 1 the group issued its first public statement and noted that its national board had met and had “raised concerns about both the content of the doctrinal assessment and the process by which it was prepared.” The statement also lamented that the Vatican’s assessment had “caused scandal and pain throughout the church community, and created greater polarization.”

Most significant, the statement categorized the Vatican’s actions as symptomatic of a larger problem in the church involving matters of faith and justice. “The board believes it is imperative that these matters [of faith and justice] be addressed by the entire church community in an atmosphere of openness, honesty, and integrity.”

Given the Vatican’s long-standing reliance on feudal structures and beliefs, it wasn’t hard to see the statement as a broadside against Rome’s increasingly fragile relationship with 21st Century realities.  

Less than a week after the statement, Network announced its Nuns on the Bus tour. Officially, the nuns are being deliberative. In practice, they are still speaking out for social justice and refusing to be silenced.

A side drama is unfolding, meanwhile, on a 2006 theological treatise on love and sexuality that seemed destined to gather dust on academic bookshelves — until the Vatican attacked the book.

On June 4, the Vatican’s doctrinal enforcer — the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — called a book by Sister Margaret Farley inconsistent with Catholic teaching. The Vatican said Catholics should not use the book. (The congregation is the institutional successor to the Inquisition and the same group that censured the U.S. nuns.)

Farley’s book, blandly named Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, involves wide-ranging issues of sexual desire and “our yearning for pleasure.” More blasphemous, it presents a theological defense of gay marriage, masturbation (referred to as “self-pleasuring”), and the right to marry again after divorce.

Farley is far from a theological lightweight. She is a retired professor emeritus at Yale’s Divinity School and past president of the Catholic Theological Society.

If you want to have some fun reading about this rather racy controversy, check out Maureen Dowd’s June 6 column in the New York Times. Dowd also takes on Milwaukee’s beloved former Archbishop and now New York Cardinal, Timothy Dolan.

The New York media has fulfilled its journalistic responsibilities and treated Dolan as the politician he is, and thus fair game for media scrutiny. The Times stance, in particular, is noticeably at odds with the kid gloves’ approach that the Milwaukee media has taken, and continues to take, with Dolan.

Back in 2003, when there were reports that the Milwaukee Archdiocese had paid off a pedophile to leave the priesthood, then-Milwaukee Archbishop Dolan said that the inference of a payoff was “false, preposterous and unjust.”

But as news reports last week made clear, the Archdiocese under Dolan did indeed pay off at least one and quite possibly more suspected pedophile priests in order that they accept “laicization” —giving up their priestly status. The New York Times called Dolan on his double-speak and fraudulent denials; the Milwaukee media did not.

But back to Sister Farley and self-pleasuring.

The story didn’t end with the Vatican’s attack. On June 7, less than a week after the Vatican’s denouncement of Just Love, the Catholic Theological Society of America said it considered Farley’s work “reflective, measured and wise.”

“Wise” is not often used to describe the crisis-plagued Vatican these days.

The Theological Society’s statement not only supported Farley, it also raised concerns about the Vatican’s “rather constrained understanding of the task of theology.”

So here we have the Nuns on the Bus overlapping with the bishops’ Fortnight of Freedom, and Catholic theologians in the United States chastising the Vatican’s straightjacket approach to theology.

To make matters even juicier, the Pope’s butler has been arrested as part of a broadening scandal involving byzantine power struggles, leaked documents, and fears of money laundering by the Vatican bank.

Who needs another Dan Brown novel? All you have to do is read the news.

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This blog is cross-posted at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

"There is always something you can do. Always"

It’s the morning after and I feel lousy. Too much adrenaline during the day on Tuesday and too little sleep that night. The extra free drink as part of Art Bar’s Tuesday night special didn’t help.

But oddly enough, I don’t feel dispirited.

As I sort through my conflicted feelings, pithy slogans and ready-made analyses escape me. When people ask me how I feel, my mind spirals back to two distinct memories.

 The first involves a trip to Chile in 2004, visiting my daughter during her junior-year-abroad while in college. We were in a rural area that Nov. 2, and news from the United States was sketchy. It wasn’t until the next morning that I found out that President George W. Bush had been re-elected. I went into a deep funk, questioning the intelligence of the American people and wondering where my country was headed.

But over time the forces of history —ever patient, ever unpredictable, and always larger than one individual or one event— reasserted their power.

Four years later, we elected the first African American President of the United States. No matter one’s opinion of Barack Obama, that accomplishment — for him personally, and for our country in general— can never be taken away. Obama’s election was a living reminder of Martin Luther King Jr’s dictum: “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

Today, we are in the midst of that arc, and it is unclear when it will bend. Yes, Scott Walker won the recall election. But I have no doubt that in time history will expose Walker for what he is — a dictatorial, mean-spirited and ruthless politician who, in the end, is a little more than a pawn of the rich and privileged.

The second memory that comes to mind is closer to home.

On June 4, 2011 — almost a year to the day before the recall election — former NAACP Youth Council member Mary Arms proudly carried an “I Love My Public Schools” placard as she crossed Milwaukee’s 16th Street Viaduct. Next to her, long-time friend Betty Martin carried a sign that linked Milwaukee’s Open Housing marches of the 1960s and Walker’s attacks on public education, asking: “1967, Fair Housing After 200 nights. 2011, How Long for Education Rights?”

The viaduct is the same bridge that Arms and Martin crossed 44 years earlier during Milwaukee’s civil rights era, to be greeted by thousands of angry whites shouting racial epithets and, in some cases, hurling rocks and beer bottles. In June of 2011, however, the bridge was testament to the reality that while change can take decades, change will come.

That day, Arms and Martin were in the forefront of a multiracial display that is not necessarily the norm in Milwaukee. Instead of jeering whites threatening civil rights marchers, there were African-Americans, whites and Latinos, young children and grey-haired veterans, ministers and teachers joining together under the slogan: “We Are One Milwaukee and Our Kids Count.”

“People used to ask us during open housing, ‘How long you guys going to march?’” Arms recalled. “‘Until we get what we want,’ we’d reply. And that’s the spirit we need today.”

In an interview in her dining room in the fall of 2011, Arms talked about the significance of both the civil rights movement and the fight against the Walker agenda. She shows the same positive spirit she had as a teenage member of the NAACP Youth Council.

Arms learned at a young age not to be afraid of political turmoil, and over time she has seen her share of political ups and downs. Born in 1950 in Belzoni, Mississippi, Arms’ family moved to Milwaukee when she was two, but she returned to Belzoni every summer for much of her youth. Civil rights icons were a part of Arms’ daily life when she visited her relatives, often stopping by her grandfather or uncle’s home.

“We were supposed to stay with Granny and help with gardening and things,” she says. “But I also remember all these people, you know like Fannie Lou Hamer, Medgar Evers. And my grandfather wasn’t afraid to house the Freedom Bus Riders at his farm."

After Milwaukee’s Open Housing marches, decades quickly sped by as Arms raised five children and helped with her 12 grandchildren. Her health could be better, and she eagerly waits the day she can retire from her office job at a local hospital.

Reflecting on decades of history, Arms does not have any easy answers. She isn’t on the inside of political deliberations on how best to counter Gov. Walker and the Republican agenda, and is not committed to one particular tactic over another. But she is proud to have been a foot soldier in struggles spanning a half century, well aware that it is the people on the ground that keep a movement alive.

As a foot soldier, Arms says, she has learned one essential lesson: “You just got to keep on, make sure you keep that fire going. There’s always something you can do. Always.”

— — —This blog is cross-posted at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project. 

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

June 5: Early morning turnout high in Milwaukee's central city

Milwaukee central city residents registering as they prepare to vote on Tuesday June 5.

Volunteers gather at Amistad, a former nightclub at 24th and North.

A dimly lit, former nightclub at 24th and North is one of several Milwaukee locations that may hold the key to today’s recall election.

The building is at the heart of get-out-the-vote organizing by Wisconsin Jobs Now, a non-partisan group that has been using the former Amistad club since May 21 to coordinate the work of hundreds of volunteers.
Tuesday, the building was a swarm of activity — volunteers canvassing neighborhoods to remind people to vote, drivers with 15-passenger vans taking people to the polls, volunteers answering phone calls and relaying names of those needing rides. There was even a mobile billboard driving around the city to remind people to vote.
If mid-morning reports from several central city polling locations are any indication, the efforts are paying off. Turnout was high, with scores waiting in line to both register and vote. In the enthusiasm of the moment, some even compared turnout to Obama’s election in 2008.
While the Walker campaign has clearly dominated in terms of money for advertising, Barrett's supporters have people power and troops on the ground. Unions, churches and concerned citizens, knowing that the City of Milwaukee vote is essential, have focused their efforts on getting out the vote. Months of organizing have come down to this day.
By 8:30 a.m., organizers at the 24th and North site had the names of more than 700 people wanting rides — “and calls are still coming in,” noted Janet Veum, a spokesperson for Wisconsin Jobs Now. 
One of the main tasks was driving people to the polls, a necessary effort in a central city where many residents do not own cars and others are unsure where they should vote. Drivers were trained in necessary legalties, and it was made clear their job was to get people to their polling location regardless of whom they supported in the election. Equally clear, but unspoken, was the fact that most central city voters are Democrats.
Driving with one of the volunteers, I accompanied a voter to her polling place at Milwaukee College Prep near 38th and Center. There was little doubt that get-out-the-vote efforts were making a difference. A line of people stood, documents in hand, waiting to register to vote. An equally long line waited their turn to get their ballot.
By 10 a.m., there were almost 400 people who had voted at that location — well on the way to significantly surpass the roughly 725 people who voted in the primary. 
Back at the 24th and North organizing center, meanwhile, by 10:30 a.m. even more volunteers had shown up. And they would be needed. Most people tend to vote in the late afternoon or early evening, after they get off work.
Will the efforts be enough? That was the unanswered question. But one thing was clear. The depth of enthusiasm and commitment from the hundreds of volunteers isn’t likely to dissipate — regardless of who wins. This is a battle for the long haul.
And as much as people are focused on Barrett versus Walker, everyone also knows there are also larger issues at hand. June 5 is a lead-up to November 6. Then, as now, the City of Milwaukee vote will be key.

Photo captions. Top: voters registering at the Milwaukee College Prep location.  The Wisconsin Jobs Now organizing center at 24th and North. Bottom: Mahlon Mitchell posters at a Milwaukee central city corner; volunteers enthusiastically gather to get out the vote. All photos by Barbara J. Miner.

This blog is cross-posted at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project.