Monday, July 30, 2012

Texas GOP platform: a far-right wish list and a glimpse of the future

By Barbara J. Miner
You gotta love the Texas Republicans. They say what they mean and they mean what they say. A Texas Republican’s faithful, 100 percent.
To get a feel for that faithfulness, take a look at the 2012 Texas GOP Platform. It supports corporal punishment in public schools, opposes critical thinking, wants to ditch the Voting Rights Act, and pretty much rejects science, whether stem cell research or teaching about evolution and global warming.
That’s just for starters.
A number of the platform’s economic policies are, politely, goofy — such as getting rid of the IRS and property taxes, and returning to the gold standard.
Goofiness and outrageousness aside, it would be a mistake to dismiss the Texas GOP platform. It allows one to see what motivates the party’s hard-core activists, and perhaps to glimpse the future.
Big and bold conservatives — Texas-sized conservatives, one might say — have gained control of the GOP in recent decades and have moved the party to the far right. Today’s goofy plank may be tomorrow’s mainstream mantra.
Once upon a time, for instance, Republicans thought it was “nutty to fool around with the Social Security system.” At least that’s what George H.W. Bush said during a 1988 presidential primary. 
Now privatizing Social Security is a GOP article of faith.
Nor should we forget that Texas is a GOP powerhouse. It is home to both the most recent Republican president, George W., and to 2012 presidential hopeful and Texas governor Rick Perry. What’s more, Texas has 34 votes in the Electoral College — the second largest number in the country after California, and way surpassing Wisconsin’s 10.

The Texas GOP has gotten a bit of flack for its opposition to the teaching of “critical thinking skills” in schools. Now it claims the wording was a mistake.
What the party really opposes, according to Texas GOP communications director Chris Elam, is “outcome-based teaching” that challenges a student’s “fixed beliefs” and undermines “parental authority.”
In other words, the party only opposes critical thinking when it makes students think hard.
Interestingly, Elam didn’t see fit to clarify planks that said a multicultural curriculum “is divisive.” Or that supported corporal punishment in schools. Or that denigrated public health policies on vaccinations.
The plank on the teaching science in schools, despite the swipe at critical thinking, shows definite political sophistication. It doesn’t come out and condemn the theory of evolution, but instead calls for “equal treatment of all sides of scientific theories.” It then specifically mentions “life origins and environmental change” — code for evolution and global warming.
If you ask biologists, however, the theory of evolution is not controversial; it’s established science. And those who are in denial about global warming either live in air-conditioned condominiums or don’t read the newspapers, which have been filled with disturbing reports about melting glaciers and holes in the ozone layer. To say nothing of droughts.
By the time the Republican national convention starts in Tampa on Aug. 27, spin-doctors will have worked overtime to make the GOP palatable to middle-of-the-road voters. But we thankfully have the Texas GOP platform to know where the party may truly be headed.
The platform says what it means and it means what it says. A Texas Republican’s faithful, 100 percent.
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This blog is cross-posted the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin Project

Friday, July 27, 2012

By Barbara Miner

Money can’t buy you love but it sure can buy elections.
Which is why the idea of a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United is sounding better everyday.
According to reports in Thursday’s papers, Wisconsin’s recall more than doubled the previous record for spending on a governor’s race, coming in at about $81 million. 
Scott Walker, aided by a legal glitch that allowed unlimited fundraising for certain expenses, raised $59.7 million compared to Tom Barrett’s $22 million.
Overall, the money spent was about $32 per voter. It would have been cheaper to buy the votes outright.
Oops, that’s illegal.
So instead we have a system where money talks— and talks and talks and talks. Those with money, especially corporations and their front groups, get to not only drown out the views of everyday people, but afterwards they use their expensive lobbyists to twist the arms of elected officials.
It’s legal, but it’s disgusting.
Which is why campaign finance reform has to be on the top of the reform agenda if we care about protecting our democracy. Because if we don’t institute some serious reforms, we might as well admit we are nothing more than a plutocracy.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines “democracy” as “Government by the people.” “Plutocracy” is defined as “Government by the wealthy.”
I don’t know about you, but I sure prefer democracy to plutocracy. But I also fear that “plutocracy” is a more apt description of this country’s current realities.
The Republicans, with a strong base among corporations and rich people, are much better at the money game. Take the case of voter suppression via voter ID and similar measures. The Republicans have been so good at financing their propaganda machine that a disturbing number of people actually believe there’s a serious problem of voter fraud in this country — although all facts show otherwise.
So how to reclaim our American democracy?
One way forward is to overturn Citizens United, the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court 5-4 ruling that sidestepped a century of legal precedent and bolstered the oddity of defining corporations as people.
I am a bit dubious when people start talking about a constitutional amendment — it seems like a pipe dream. But then I think of the women’s suffrage movement, which worked tirelessly for decades and finally won the right to vote for women in 1920 via the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. And the 14th Amendment, which took a Civil War before it passed. Clearly, important changes take time and sacrifice.
The need to overturn Citizens United became more obvious this June when the U.S. Supreme Court broadened the scope of that infamous ruling and in another 5-4 decision shot down a century-old law in Montana limiting corporate spending.
Not surprisingly, the Montana governor has joined the effort to overturn Citizens United.
“The fight’s not over,” Gov. Brian Schweitzer said. “We’re going to overrule the Supreme Court with a constitutional amendment to make it clear that we the people are in charge of America — not we the corporations.” (Schweitzer also wrote an op-ed for the New York Times that’s worth reading.)
This is a governor talking, not some wild-eyed radical from the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Other mainstream politicians are also taking the movement seriously — from members of the U.S. Congress to local and state elected officials. Earlier this month, California became the sixth state and largest state whose legislators called for an amendment to overturn Citizens United, joining New Mexico, Maryland, Vermont, Rhode Island and Hawaii. [
“The movement for a constitutional amendment is spreading like a Montana prairie fire,” Montana’s Gov. Schweitzer has boasted.
He’s perhaps overly optimistic. But at the beginning of the 20th Century, demands for universal women’s suffrage also seemed unrealistic.

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

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Do children deserve playgrounds? Why is this even controversial:

By Barbara J. Miner

It’s a sad day in Milwaukee when we are forced to debate whether young children deserve playgrounds at their school.

Unfortunately, it’s another example of the deeply “separate and unequal” educational realities in our hypersegregated region. Can you imagine an outpouring of complaints in affluent suburbs such as Whitefish Bay or Brookfield if schools were required to have playgrounds?
At issue is a proposed ordinance on whether any newelementary school approved in Milwaukee should include outdoor play space. The Milwaukee Common Council is expected to take up the matter Tuesday.
The proposal seems like a no-brainer. Given children’s inherent energy levels, the rising obesity epidemic among children, and the link between exercise and academic learning, you’d think that the city could unite around this modest requirement.
But voucher and charter advocates are condemning the measure as an infringement on parent’s rights.
You know, sort of like when one’s rights are abrogated by seat-belt laws, and no-smoking ordinances, and immunization requirements.
A Common Council committee voted unanimously last week to require outdoor play areas in new elementary schools. School Choice Wisconsin — the well-funded, conservative group promoting private school vouchers and semi-private charter schools over traditional public schools — issued a press release condemning the committee vote.
The measure would “significantly limit parent’s educational choice in Milwaukee,” the press release complained. “…The goal of this policy is to restrict education reform in Milwaukee.”
Wow. So playgrounds are now a barrier to education reform? That’s kinda crazy.
The issue of playgrounds was forced on the Common Council by a group of grass-roots activists concerned that voucher and charter schools are shortchanging our children.
“Over the past few years, many of us noticed the lack of amenities available for our children to ‘be children’,” a statement by the activists noted.
The activists are particularly concerned about City of Milwaukee charter schools and voucher schools housed in former industrial buildings. Needless to say, the buildings were not constructed with children in mind. They were more often warehouses — putting a sorry spin of reality on the complaint that schools too often warehouse children rather than teach them.
“It is not acceptable for our children to be treated as if they live in the Jim Crow south of the past or a third world country,” the activists noted.
Their statement, sent by email on July 21, was signed by the co-chairs of Women Committed to an Informed Community, the chair of the Christian Community Caucus, the executive director of The Council for the Spanish Speaking, and the newly formed Education Coalition of Milwaukee.
It is irony bordering on tragedy that voucher and charter proponents —who sold their initiatives to the public as a way to improve education for poor children — now want to deny playgrounds to poor children.
The Brown v. Board decision in 1954 struck down “separate andequal” public schools as inherently unconstitutional. Now we have voucher/charter proponents stooping even lower and defending “separate andunequal.”
The Milwaukee Public Schools, despite one’s criticisms of the district, has traditionally included significant space for playgrounds. Nor is MPS building any new schools. Voucher and City of Milwaukee charter schools, meanwhile, are on a growth spurt. And much of that growth is due to decisions made behind closed doors, despite the significant public dollars involved.
Good luck finding out much of anything about the city’s charter schools. Do a search on the City of Milwaukee’s home-page for “charter school” and you get the phone number to call if you want to apply to run a charter school, a notice of a public hearing from 2010, and all sorts of unrelated things likethe “City Charter and Code of Ordinances,” which includes matters such as the city’s boundaries and the duties and authority of city officers.
Almost four decades ago, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall warned about the problems that will confront our nation’s metropolitan areas if we allow hypersegregation between cities and suburbs. In a 5-4 court ruling that limited desegregation to Detroit’s city boundaries, he issued a dissent that was unequivocal, eloquent, and prescient.
“In the short run, “ Marshall wrote, “it may seem to be the easier course to allow our great metropolitan areas to be divided up each into two cities — one white, the other black — but it is a course, I predict, our people will ultimately regret.”
The Common Council is set to meet on Tuesday at 9 a.m. If you believe that children deserve playgrounds, call City Hall at 414-286-2221 and ask to speak to your alderperson.
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This blog is cross-posted at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Poaching is for eggs, not businesses and schools

By Barbara Miner
I always appreciate it when a news article sends me to the dictionary to catch the nuances of a word. And today’s word is “poach.”
I am well familiar with poached eggs — a Sunday treat. I knew there was another definition, and I tried to remember when I first associated poaching with the lords of England arresting peasants for hunting rabbits on their lordly lands. I think it was during the Robin Hood TV series from the 1950s.
The Oxford English Dictionary has this as one of several definitions for poach: “To filch (an advantage, e.g., at the start of a race) by unfair means.” My Webster’s dictionary includes the definition: “to take (anything) by unfair or illegal methods; steal.”
Today’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article, which summarized a forum Tuesday at Marquette University on cooperation between the Milwaukee and Chicago regions, talked about poaching more than just small animals. Entire companies were at stake.
Some at the conference rebranded poaching as free-market competition. Others saw it as narrow parochialism that will keep Milwaukee trapped in the 19th Century.
The forum, based on a report by a global economic think tank in Paris, focused on the need to bolster collaboration with our neighbor to the south if Milwaukee is to be a player in the global market.
Interestingly, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s on-line report on the forum has the headline “Chicago-Milwaukee megacity embraced.” The print copy says “Megacity idea gets discussion.” The actual article, in both versions, makes clear that several key business leaders in Wisconsin weren’t into embracing or cooperating with those FIB’s. Instead, they touted the benefits of poaching and scurrying across the state line to Wisconsin, beyond the reach of the lords of Illinois.
So much for Milwaukee’s business leaders welcoming the future. But then, they were mum when Gov. Scott Walker rejected almost a billion dollars in federal monies for high-speed rail.
I sat down to write this blog not because of Wisconsin’s fondness for poaching small businesses from Illinois. The poaching that I find most interesting involves schools.
To see the connection between poaching and schools, go back to Sunday’s article explaining the forum. It notes the inefficiencies, jurisdictional rivalries and fragmentation of the many governmental entities in the Milwaukee-Chicago area — especially when compared to other mega-regions such as Greater London or Greater Toronto. This fragmentation, in turn, hampers the strategic thinking needed in today’s global world.
A graph acccompanying the article noted there are 453 school districts in the Milwaukee-Chicago metro region, dwarfing all other governmental entities, from villages to townships, cities and counties. (Greater London, with a population of around 8 million people, has only 34 school districts.)
In schools, as in economic development, Milwaukee leaders seem disturbingly content with poaching rather than collaborating and cooperating. As a result, everyone loves to talk about open enrollment, or vouchers, or charters, and all sorts of mechanisms whereby schools are encouraged to poach good students and get those great test scores. “Bad” schools and districts, well they just need to learn to compete better so they are not left with the dregs.
Bring up the idea of metropolitan-wide school redistricting in order to ensure that the Milwaukee region work together to ensure a quality education for all children, and all hell will break lose. I guarantee it.
It certainly did a generation ago when then-legislator Dennis Conta proposed a modest redistricting plan. The proposal surfaced about a year before the federal courts ruled that the Milwaukee School Board had unconstitutionally segregated the public schools. No one knew if the courts might embrace a regional solution to segregation— the suburbs’ worst fear. Conta proposed a small experiment that would promote integration and merge a few Milwaukee schools with Shorewood and Whitefish Bay.
A public meeting to discuss Conta’s proposal attracted 1,000 people, most of them white suburbanites and most of them adamantly opposed. F. James Sensenbrenner, then a state representative and now a congressman, told the audience that the redistricting plan “is using children as pawns for some social technician’s wild eyed scheme.” A Jan. 14, 1975 Milwaukee Journal report said that Sensenbrenner “was loudly applauded.”
Conta’s plan never survived, nor did future proposals to prevent hypersegregation in our public schools. Instead, the suburbs preferred voluntary plans they could control, from Chapter 220 to open enrollment.
Further fragmenting education, the state legislature has championed publicly funded vouchers for private schools and charters overseen by the City of Milwaukee and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Sunday’s graph on governmental fragmentation looked at school districts. If it had included voucher and charter schools, which operate as discrete entities and are often run by private groups that shun public transparency, the results would have been mind-boggling.
School district boundaries in the Milwaukee region are treated as sacred formations. But, as with other governmental configurations, they are made by man, not God. Look at Wisconsin’s history and you will see that when the purposes and scope of education changed, or when districts were too small to provide a range of opportunities, redistricting was common.
In the mid-1930s, for instance, Wisconsin had 7,777 school districts. By changing boundaries, the number of districts had dropped to only 498 districts in 1967.
Any talk of school redistricting in Milwaukee, however, runs into that third rail of the region’s politics: race.
Instead of protecting and promoting the state constitution’s guarantee of school districts “as nearly uniform as practicable,” the region’s powerbrokers have preferred free-market principles of everyone for themselves — every family, every school, every charter, every district.
Some might consider it healthy competition in action. Some might consider it a poaching mentality. Either way, it’s shortsighted and undermines the common good.
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This blog is cross-posted at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Old Boys Network in action

By Barbara Miner

It’s not often us mere mortals get to see the Old Boys Network in action. So hats off to Chris Abele, our Milwaukee County executive.

For reasons not completely clear, Abele decided to sound off on the strike at Palermo’s Pizza and write an opinion in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Thursday. 
Abele wrote that he had refrained from a public stance because, “I don’t know what the facts are yet.” But, he added, “I do, however, know Giacomo Fallucca, president and CEO of Palermo’s.”
Apparently that was enough.
It’s hard to remember any time in history when workers and management agreed on the causes and solution to a strike. But rather than get both sides of the story, Abele writes that “I called up Giacomo and asked if he’d be willing to walk me through the events.”
Abele, the silver-spoon philanthropist turned politician, apparently is on a first-name basis with the head of Palermo’s, which three years ago projected sales of more than $150 million, and has gone far beyond its mom-and-pop origins. And he obviously has no trouble getting this all-important CEO to answer his phone calls.
Based on his discussion with Fallucca (unlike Abele, I am not on a first-name basis), Abele writes a summary of the Palermo controversy. The opinion’s conclusions can be summed up in four words: company good, strikers bad.
During his opinion, Abele lays out basic company policies, from health insurance to contributions to a 401(k). He forgets to mention, however, that the company does not offer paid sick days. It’s not an inconsequential issue.
Abele also takes a swipe at reporters who did try to get both sides of the story, and complains that during the news coverage of the strike, facts have been ignored. And this is from someone who admitted he didn’t know the facts until he got the scoop from Palermo’s CEO.
Abele then complains that “people have focused on allegations that are questionable at best and outright lies at worst.”
That’s a sweeping condemnation. Unfortunately, Abele never outlines what the lies are, or who made them. Was it the union? The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel? Some Facebook fanatic? And was it a lie about working conditions? About the attempts to organize a union? About the quality of Palermo’s pizzas?
If Abele had read previous stories in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, he might have realized there are some pesty and disturbing facts that potentially paint Palermo’s in a less-than-heavenly light.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, for instance, carried a lengthy feature on the strike on June 24, with quotes and facts from both sides. 
The story notes that the company acknowledged, in a legal stipulation to the National Labor Relations Board, that it fired 75 workers on June 8 — one week after the strike began. The stipulation also said that 82 new workers had been hired since June 2.
Abele goes on at length about Palermo’s community-minded philanthropy, and what a nice guy Fallucca is, and how hard his immigrant parents worked.
But that’s not the issue. The most fundamental questions are: Do workers have the right to organize to form a union? Do workers have the right to go on strike?

The most perplexing part of Abele’s opinion is why he even wrote the darn thing.
Since his election in the spring of 2011, Abele has written only two other op-eds for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (if the paper’s on-line search engine is to be trusted, which I assume it is.)
One last November came in at 538 words and dealt with the county budget. For a county executive, that makes sense. Then there was a 473-word opinion in April, in which Abele summed up his accomplishments during his first year in office. Again, an appropriate topic.
And now we have 742-word opinion attacking the Palermo’s strikers.
What’s up? This is a private-sector dispute between a private company and its workers. Why is Abele even involved? And why with such passion? And why so one-sidedly?
Don’t you think the county executive would want to focus his energies on pressing issues under his control and responsibility, such as the near collapse of our county bus system? Or the increasingly vacant concourses at Mitchell Airport?
Then again, being a member of the Old Boys Network has its own responsibilities. And Abele, in this regard, has comported himself well.
I am sure he will be richly rewarded when it comes time to raise money for his re-election.
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Correction: This blog originally used a figure for Palermo's pizza sales based on a promotion on its "consumer site." The current  number is based on an article in the Business Journal.
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This blog is cross-posted at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The disappearing American Dream

 Work hard, save your money, buy a home — and you, too, can achieve the American Dream.
If you word doubly hard, you may be a “rags to riches” success story along the lines of college-dropout Steve Jobs.
Except there’s a problem. Our supposedly classless, post-racial society of ever-increasing opportunity is beset with discrimination and barriers to upward mobility.
And if you don't recognize a problem, how can you begin to solve it?
The latest examples of the disappearing American Dream come via the U.S. Justice Department and The PEW Charitable Trusts.
On Thursday, the U.S. Justice Department announced that Wells Fargo Bank has agreed to pay $175 million to bury allegations that it widely discriminated against African-American and Latinos in its mortgages.
The country’s largest lender for home mortgages, Wells Fargo was accused of steering Blacks and Latinos into high-interest subprime mortgages or charging them higher fees and rates for prime mortgages. (In an affidavit in a 2009 lawsuit in Baltimore, a Wells Fargo loan officer said that Blacks were often called “mud people” and sub-prime lending was referred to as “ghetto loans.” The New York Times reported that the Baltimore lawsuit was one of several settled under Thursday’s deal.) 
Thursday’s announcement did not specifically mention Milwaukee. It is well known, however, that the city’s Black neighborhoods were disproportionately affected when the housing bubble burst, with that bubble caused in large part by sub-prime mortgages.
Nor is the city’s African-American community a newcomer to discriminatory mortgage and housing practices.
In 1995, the city garnered the dubious distinction of having the highest rate of mortgage loan denials to Blacks of any U.S. city. That same year, American Family Insurance settled a Milwaukee housing discrimination suit which, among other things, alleged that the company told agents not to sell to Black people.


Earlier in the week, a report by PEW Charitable Trusts documented that upward mobility in the United States is severely limited —especially for African Americans. 
Overall, only 4 percent of Americans whose parents were in the bottom fifth in income ever made it top the top fifth, according to its July 9 report, “Pursuing the American Dream: Economic Mobility Across Generations.”
“The rags-to-riches story is more often found in Hollywood than in reality,” said Erin Currier, head of the trust’s Economic Mobility Project.
While most children have a higher income than their parents, the increase is not necessarily enough to move them up the income ladder, the report found. Those born either at the top or the bottom tend to stay there.
The report also documents disturbing gaps in economic mobility based on race.
Unlike whites, African Americans are not likely to make more money than their parents. What’s more, they are disproportionately at the bottom of the economic ladder to begin with.
Some 65 percent Blacks were raised in families at the bottom fifth, based on income. For whites, the figure was only 11 percent. (The study divided households into five groups, from those with the least income and wealth to those with the highest.)
Meanwhile, the number of Black families in the top 40 percent of wealth and income is so small that “estimates cannot be calculated with statistical certainty,” the report said.
The report, unfortunately, was not groundbreaking news. It’s long been recognized that Americans have less economic mobility than Canadians or people in much of Western Europe.
“It’s becoming conventional wisdom that the U.S. does not have as much mobility as most other advanced countries,” Isabel V. Sawhill, an economist at the Brookings Institution, told the New York Times earlier this year. “I don’t think you’ll find too many people who will argue with that.” 
Even Britain, the subject of many a TV series documenting rigid class snobbery, fares better than the United States. One study found that 42 percent of American men raised in the bottom fifth of incomes stay there as adults, compared to only 30 percent in Britain.
But enough of boring statistics and multi-page reports. If you want to have some fun while learning more about the economic gap in this country, watch former labor secretary Robert Reich’s YouTube video on “The Truth About the Economy.”
Reich boils it all down to two minutes and fifteen seconds, complete with stick-figure cartoons to help explain the numbers.
The video will take less time than watching tonight’s television news. And it will be both more informative and more fun.
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This blog is cross-posted at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project. 

Sunday, July 8, 2012

From "Recall Walker" to "Question Austerity." A movement continues.

A "Holder of the Light" during a recent "Boycott Palermos" message
by the Overpass Light Brigade.

Forget the 30-second sound bite. Lane Hall needs to figure out his message in 20 characters or less.
“Even a tweet is too long for what we do,” Hall jokes.
Hall is a co-founder and driving force in the Overpass Light Brigade —an all-volunteer gathering in Milwaukee that comes out at sunset and shows up at pedestrian passages over the freeway to hold well-lit placards and send messages to travelers below.
The group started last fall with a six-letter message — RECALL.
On June 6, the day after Gov. Scott Walker won the recall vote, the brigade refused to be disheartened. That night, their message was summed up in 15 letters: “We Shall Overcome.”
That spirit endures. “The effort, interestingly, has grown and deepened since the recall,” Hall notes.
Once or twice a week, the Overpass Light Brigade continues to gather above the freeway. Sometimes it’s on the South Side at Warnimont Avenue, sometimes on the North Side near Atkinson; sometimes in nearby suburbs such as West Allis; occasionally in other cities such as Madison or Fond du Lac.
The message changes, depending on the issue of the day. Recent favorites: “Question Austerity,” “Healthcare for All” and “Boycott Palermos,” in support of the strike at the pizza-maker.

What doesn’t change is the group’s fundamental mission: to bear witness using a unique blend of artistic creativity, old-fashioned activism and contemporary social media — fueled by human commitment and a hefty supply of LED lights and double-A batteries.

On a recent 90-something degree day at the Alterra’s coffee shop on Humboldt Boulevard, Hall talked about the beginning and future of the Overpass Light Brigade. Dressed casually in plaid shorts and a loose-fitting collared shirt, he spoke softly, humbly and eloquently about the brigade. His demeanor is more befitting a parish priest than a political activist.
An artist by training and inclination, Hall would not have predicted how a small, personal act last November mushroomed into a movement with near-cult-like status among the art and activist communities. In his wildest imagination, he would not have guessed that the brigade would garner national media attention, from the New York Times to CNN to Rachel Maddow and The Ed Show on MSNBC.

Lane Hall during a recent gathering of the Overpass Light Brigade.

Hall, a 56-year-old professor in the English Department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, always had a political conscience. But he wasn’t one who took to the streets. “I would never have called myself an activist before Scott Walker,” Hall says.
Like others, Hall was compelled to action by Walker’s 2011 attack on public sector unions and a budget that cut deep into education and social services. When the recall officially began last fall, he knew he had to take a public stand. His artistic training came in handy.
“Art is often a product of certain problems and questions,” he explains. “In this case the problem was that the rally to launch the recall began at 4:30 p.m. But it gets dark at 4:30 in November. So that was a simple design problem — how to get visibility in the dark for your message.”
Hall worked on solving the problem with his wife and collaborator Lisa Moline — an associate professor of art at UWM who is equally integral to the Overpass Light Brigade. They came up with the idea of a string of Christmas lights affixed to a piece of corrugated plastic, powered with batteries and bearing the message “Recall Walker.”
“I had no idea whether it would work or not,” he recalls. “But it worked beautifully.”
Before long Hall and Moline faced a new problem, of how to get their message out to a broader group of people. In the second week of December, they decided to go to a pedestrian overpass above the freeway and attach to the fence a six-letter, six-placard message: Recall.
Milwaukee winters are not pleasant, but Hall explains that it wasn’t the cold that almost scuttled the effort.
An angry passerby, a man in his 30s, started ripping down the signs, saying they were illegal. Moline, not one to be intimidated, started taking the man’s picture to document the destruction.
“You can’t take my picture!” the man screamed.
“The hell I can’t, you’re messing with our property,” Moline replied.
Hall looked over and saw the man trying to take Moline’s camera. “And he has her in a headlock,” Hall recalls, the disbelief still evident more than six months later.
“I remember thinking, ‘This is so surreal. It’s cold, there’s this traffic below, and these weird lights, and my wife and this guy I’ve never seen before are in a fight on the bridge.’”
Luckily, the story has a good ending. The scuffle ends, the man leaves, and he later apologizes.
In the meantime, however, the police have arrived. They tell Hall and Moline their action is legal, but only if people hold the letters. The placards cannot be affixed to the overpass fence.
That legality turns out to be a blessing in disguise. What was a two-person effort turned into a movement as people volunteered — despite the bone-chilling cold on winter nights — to stand and hold the signs.
“We call the volunteers ‘Holders of the Light,’” Hall says of those who carry the placards. “And it made the effort more than just signage or lights on a fence. It became a form of witness.”
As an artist, Hall has always believed the process is as important as the product. And he’s content with how the process has evolved: collaborative, innovative, a loose affiliation of volunteers with no big egos claiming ownership rights to the idea or technology. (Instructions on how to make the signs are available through a post at Daily Kos
Today, the core group has expanded beyond Hall and Moline to include activists such as recall organizer Jenna Pope and Joe Brusky of Occupy Riverwest. Some volunteers are regular Holders of the Light, others show up for a specific cause or location. The gatherings often take on the feel of a celebration, with scores of people gathering on the pedestrian overpasses. 

Future messages will be dictated by events. But, Hall predicts, they’re not done with Walker. “When it’s appropriate,” he says, “we’ll go out with ‘Indict Walker.’”
Joe Brusky live streams a recent gathering of the Overpass Light Brigade.
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The Overpass Light Brigade has a Facebook page, a website and a twitter account: OverpassLightBrigade @OLBLightBrigade.

Recent messages of the Overpass Light Brigade. 

All photos by Barbara Miner.

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This blog is cross-posted at my personal blog, "View from the Heartland: Honoring the Wisconsin tradition of common decency and progressive politics," at You can also sign up for email notifications at that blog.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Will the Catholic Bishops help elect Mitt Romney?

Are the U.S. Catholic bishops becoming de-facto supporters of Mitt Romney's presidential campaign?
The Holy Hour for Freedom at St. Jerome’s in Oconomowoc on July 2— part of the bishops’ campaign against the Obama administration’s inclusion of contraception in health care coverage — gave credence to such concerns.
In his 15-minute sermon, Father John Yockey of St. Jerome’s delivered a fire and brimstone message on “the many ways that the current administration has demonstrated downright aggression and hostility [to religious liberty], for the Roman Catholic Church in particular.”
The political message was saved for the end, when Father Yockey pointedly asked those gathered “to go out and engage in action that will turn this dreadful threat around.”
Prayer was recommended, as was talking to neighbors “who perhaps don’t understand the gravity of it all.” But Father Yockey’s most direct message was his ending admonition: “And we can vote Nov. 6.”
Having established “the current administration” as the enemy, Father Yockey did not need to connect the dots and mention Obama as the man to be defeated in November.
The St. Jerome’s gathering was part of the bishops’ nationwide organizing effort known as Fortnight for Freedom. The campaign ends with a mass on July 4 in Washington, D.C., and here in Milwaukee with a mass at St. Mary’s in Elm Grove.
A number of Catholics worry that the Fortnight for Freedom is leading the church down an unnecessarily vitriolic path where opposition to birth control trumps all other concerns and where the bishops have carved out little space for peacefully resolving a highly emotional and complicated issue.
“From stymying the needed health care reforms in 2010 to waging an all-out political campaign against the President over (of all things!) contraception access, the priorities of the Church in America are in utter disarray,” notes the liberal group Catholics United.
Even some bishops are worried. After 43 Catholic institutions filed suit last May against the Obama administration, Bishop Stephen Blaire of the diocese of Stockton in California argued that the move was premature and overly partisan.
Some groups on the “very far to the right” are turning the controversy over contraception into “an anti-Obama campaign,” Bishop Blaire said.
Bishop Blaire was one of many who preferred dialogue and discussion over drawing lines in the sand. As a blog for the Catholic magazine Commonweal noted, “The contraception mandate does not go into effect until August 2013. It doesn’t take a year to put together an employee health plan. So why sue before exhausting all other options?” 
Interestingly, only 13 of the country’s 195 dioceses joined in the anti-Obama lawsuits.
At St. Jerome’s on Monday night, Archbishop Jerome Listecki attended but did not speak. While much of the Holy Hour for Freedom was inside the air-conditioned church, the core of the event involved reciting the rosary while walking outside around the church’s perimeter, in 90-something temperatures. Listecki was dressed head-to-toe in archbishoply garments and perhaps it was the heat, but he seemed noticeably subdued.

The Catholic bishops have defined the dispute as a matter of religious freedom. The heart of the controversy centers on birth control.
Under Obamacare, all employees that provide insurance are to include, free of charge, voluntary sterilization and contraceptive services. Official Catholic doctrine, however, considers both sterilization and birth control as evil.
In an effort at compromise, in February the Obama administration exempted religious employers from the contraception mandate. Catholic organizations that are not primarily religious in nature — such as universities, hospitals and social service agencies — would be required to provide contraception coverage but the church would not have to pay.
The bishops rejected the compromise.
The bishops’ stance led to a growing unease among many Catholics. They are concerned that, under the banner of religious freedom, the bishops are denigrating the complexities of religious pluralism in a democratic society.
“The bishops cannot coerce non-Catholic women employees in Catholic institutions by denying them their right … to receive free contraceptions and sterilizations,” Father Edward Ruetz argued in the National Catholic Reporter. “This creates a dilemma — the conscience of Catholics vs. the conscience of non-Catholic employees.”
Cathleen Kaveny, who teaches law and theology at the University of Notre Dame, argues that “the most striking aspect of the bishops’ claims about religious liberty is the absolute nature of their assertions (they don’t really make arguments). They give the reader virtually no hint that such questions must be assessed in a framework of competing rights and duties, particularly the duty to promote the common good.”
Unlike the bishops, a number of Catholic institutions have had little difficulty in finding a workable compromise. The National Women’s Law Center notes that a range of Catholic-affiliated institutions, mostly universities but also some hospital chains, provide various levels of contraception coverage to their employees.
Marquette University is among such universities, and its coverage predates a 2010 Wisconsin law not dissimilar from Obamacare’s contraception requirements.
Although the Catholic Church condemned the Wisconsin law, Marquette spokeswoman Mary Pat Pfeil said at the time that the university recognized many of its employees are not Catholic and that contraceptives are sometimes prescribed for reasons other than birth control.
“The choice to use a contraceptive is both a medical decision and a matter of conscience,” Pfeil said in defending Marquette’s position.

The sharp differences between the Catholic bishops and the rights of women have received considerable press coverage. Less discussed are the racial implications of the bishops’ stance.
While taking part in the rosary processional around the church’s perimeter on Tuesday, I had a good overview of the several hundred people in attendance. Granted, I did not see every person up close, but it looked to be an all-white crowd.
On the one hand, that’s not surprising. Oconomowoc is 96 percent white, according to the U.S. Census. Only 2.7 percent of its residents live below the poverty level.
The demographics at St. Jerome’s Holy Hour for Freedom give pause.
What does it mean when church leaders encourage an all white, generally affluent gathering that they should vote on Nov. 6 to defeat the country’s first African American president because his health care reform includes birth control?
To be sure, Oconomowoc is Republican territory. But there certainly must be Catholics who see the disconnect between the Romney campaign’s agenda and the church’s teachings on social justice. Which raises another question.
Is the church providing cover for those who can now cite religious liberty and rationalize why they won’t vote for a Black man who wants to expand the social safety net and increase taxes on the rich?
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For a lengthy but thoughtful series of reflections, check out Commonweal magazine’s essay, “The Bishops & Religious Liberty.” 
 The National Catholic Reporter, an independent newspaper and web site, also has extensive coverage. 
 The New York Times, meanwhile, has had several good articles on whether some contraceptive services, as defined by the Catholic Church, are tantamount to abortion
 This blog is cross-posted at  the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project.