Saturday, September 29, 2012

There is no more important issue right now than Derek Williams' homicide

By Barbara J. Miner

I was supposed to write a blog this morning on the Tammy/Tommy debate. But every time I sat down at the computer, I could only think about one thing.

Derek Williams’ homicide.

Right now, there is no more important issue in Milwaukee.

As in the past, the death of a young African American while in police custody has become the catalyst for a community to proclaim, “Enough is enough.”

Williams’ death comes amid a growing and disturbing list of police indifference to legitimate concerns in the African American community.

The role of the police, meanwhile, reflects broader areas of indifference.
On any number of indicators — hypersegregation, Black male joblessness, incarceration, poverty, and high school graduation rates — the Milwaukee region is known for its gaping racial disparities. Sometimes we are number one; sometimes we closely follow other rust-belt cities such as Detroit or Buffalo.
While poverty and joblessness continue at Depression-era levels in Milwaukee, our overwhelmingly white suburban counties enjoy some of the highest standards of living in the state.
This has been true for decades. But the refrain — at least we’re not as bad as Detroit, let’s focus on what’s good about Milwaukee —increasingly sounds like a sop to silence the discontented. Meanwhile, the hip and cool new generation of powerbrokers focus on measures to lure to Milwaukee the creative class of mostly white 20-somethings who have realized that urban living can be fun.
When was the last time you heard elected officials and business leaders call for a no-holds barred onslaught against Black joblessness? To combat the region’s apartheid-like segregation? To seriously deal with poverty? As for education, our city’s powerbrokers rely on lofty sounding appeals to private school vouchers and semi-private charter schools, while abandoning any serious commitment to the public schools that serve all students.
Or take a current hot-button issue, transportation. An excellent article in this week’s Shepherd Express explores the $1.7 billion that will be spent on the reconstruction and expansion of the Zoo Interchange “while slashing funding for public transit and killing off regional transit authorities. ... The ultimate beneficiaries of the Zoo Interchange expansion are more affluent white people who will be able to drive more easily between Milwaukee and Waukesha where jobs will be created.”
Between 2000 and 2035, the article notes, an estimated 74,000 jobs are expected to be created in Waukesha County, compared to only 300 new jobs in Milwaukee County.
It’s easy to get lost in statistics and controversies with bureaucratic agencies such as the Southeast Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, whose SEWRPC acronym too often gives the impression that the commission merely deals with the flushing of toilets.
Which is one of many reasons that Derek Williams’ homicide is so important.
It’s not just because it is a matter of life and death, the most important of all issues. In stark terms, Williams’ homicide essentializes what is wrong with too many attitudes in the Milwaukee region toward the city’s Black community: indifference, neglect and blaming the victim.
As in any crisis, the way forward is not completely clear.
Should Police Chief Ed Flynn resign over this and other recent exposes of police misconduct? It’s an important if complicated question, and it’s not surprising that some people are demanding that the buck stop at the chief’s desk and he should go.
Should the federal authorities launch an investigation? That’s an easy one: of course.
Even easier: officials and business leaders should publicly condemn the hateful spewing of talk radio, in particular Mark Belling’s recent rant that referred to Williams as a dirty, rotten thug. 
There’s more to the Derek Williams’ homicide than the unnecessary death of a 22-year-old father of three young children. The case, whether we like it or not, reflects larger political and social realities, from joblessness to poverty, segregation and racial stereotyping.
The Williams’ case is a reminder that race is the elephant in the room in Milwaukee. Everyone — black, white, Latino, Hmong — needs to be part of the conversation of what to do about this elephant before the beast tramples us all.
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This blog is cross-posted at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Williams' homicide and the need to learn from history

By Barbara J. Miner

Police relations with the African community have a long-standing and disturbing history in Milwaukee. The names Daniel Bell, Clifford McKissick, Ernest Lacy and Frank Jude Jr., in particular, will always be remembered.

How police and public officials responded to past allegations of brutality was as important as the initial transgressions. The hope is that the latest disturbing incident — the homicide of Derek Williams while in police custody in July 2011 — will provide an opportunity to heal rather than divide.

Now, as then, it will require not only changes in police behaviors, but also serious attention to related issues of joblessness, poverty and apartheid-like segregation in Milwaukee.

The most infamous case of police behavior, the death of 22-year-old African American Ernest Lacy three decades ago, has troubling similarities to Williams’ homicide. In both cases, police knelt on the suspect’s back; in both cases, the suspect died after an inability to breath.

On Thursday July 9, 1981, Lacy was helping his cousin paint an apartment near 24th St. and Wisconsin Avenue. Just before 11 p.m., Lacy walked to a nearby Open Pantry Food Mart for a snack. Near the store, he was stopped by three Milwaukee policemen looking for a rape suspect.

Certain details will never be known. But four eyewitnesses —three white students from nearby Marquette University, and a black church elder — later testified at an inquest that they saw Lacy face down on the ground, his feet near the curb and his head almost in the lane for oncoming traffic. He was handcuffed with his wrists behind his back, his arms jerked high into the air. An officer was kneeling on him. The only disagreement among the eyewitnesses was where the officer had put his knee —the neck, the base of the neck, perhaps the upper back — and whether Lacy’s arms were at a right angle to the street or “nearly” a right angle.

Lacy was thrown into a police wagon and police then drove a few blocks to arrest another man on old parking warrants. When the other man was put in the police wagon, it became apparent that Lacy was not breathing, and an officer administered smelling salts. By the time paramedics arrived, Lacy’s heart had stopped. Lacy was taken to a nearby hospital where, just before midnight, he was pronounced dead on arrival. In the meantime, another man had been arrested for the rape.

Jurors at a subsequent inquest, after a month of testimony from 100 people, unanimously found that Lacy died due to an interruption of oxygen to his brain because of the pressure applied to his chest and neck.
For almost two years, sparked by Lacy’s death, race relations in Milwaukee were dominated by the issue of police brutality.

It didn’t ease the community’s anger when, about a week after Lacy’s killing, a jury exonerated police in the death of a young man shot during Milwaukee’s 1967 riots. A policeman had shot the 18-year-old black youth, Clifford McKissick, while he was running away from the scene of a firebombing. The family had filed a civil suit, which took 14 years to work its way through the courts.

A few months later, in December of 1981, the Lacy case again overlapped with past allegations of police brutality. This time, the black community was vindicated. A federal civil jury awarded $1.8 million to the estate of Daniel Bell — a 22-year-old black killed in 1958 after being stopped for driving a car with a broken taillight. One of the officers, Louis Krause, admitted more than two decades later that fellow officer Thomas Grady shot Bell in the back, the gun’s muzzle only six inches away.

When Lacy died in 1981, education, jobs, and housing were pressing concerns, as they remain today. The Lacy case, in what was so starkly a matter of life and death, became a focal point for anger and discontent that had many roots and many causes.

Thousands of people marched throughout the summer, demanding justice. “Fire Breier,” they would chant, referring to the police-chief-for life, Harold Breier. Breier, in turn, would show up at the demonstrations, all but taunting the crowd.
Jurors at the inquest that fall recommended that three of the police officers be charged with reckless homicide. Charges were eventually dropped, with the district attorney citing difficulties in getting a conviction. The Coalition for Justice for Ernest Lacy continued organizing, and forced the Fire and Police Commission to take disciplinary action. One officer was fired and four others suspended.

The Lacy case earned a place of distinction in Milwaukee history as the most-sustained, well-organized community campaign ever against police misconduct. But it was not the last incident to spark concern.

A decade after Lacy’s killing, in 1991, Milwaukee suffered through its most heart-wrenching murders ever. Serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer murdered 17 men and boys, with Dahmer’s gruesome crimes including torture, dismemberment, necrophilia and cannibalism. A number of the victims were young African Americans and Asians. Concerns were soon raised that police racism and homophobia helped Dahmer remain beyond scrutiny as he killed so many for so long.

Then, in 2004, came the vicious and prolonged beating of Frank Jude Jr., self-described as biracial, by off-duty white policeman. At one point, Jude was kicked so hard in the crotch that “his body left the ground,” according to a federal appeals court ruling. Pens were stuck into Jude’s ear canals, and his fingers were broken “by bending them back until they snapped.” One of the police thrust a gun to Jude’s head and said, “I’m the fucking police. I can do whatever I want to do. I could kill you.”

The federal appeals court most eloquently summed up the significance of the Jude case. In a decision upholding the conviction of three of the officers involved, it noted: “The distance between civilization and barbarity, and the time needed to pass from one state to the other, is depressingly short. Police officers in Milwaukee proved this the morning of October 24, 2004.”

The recent actions of police and public officials — the letter of concern from 11 members of the common council, the potential federal investigation, and the district attorney’s reopening of the case — give hope that Williams’ death will lead to a much-needed look at police relations with the African American community.

Should that happen, perhaps we can also hope that joblessness, segregation and poverty will get the serious attention they demand. Indifference is not an option.

As Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes noted so many decades ago:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

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

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Will race be the wild card that wins Romney the election?

By Barbara J. Miner
The rush of commentaries on Mitt Romney’s 47% speech have emphasized his dismissal of just about everyone who isn’t rich, and his fantasy that if he were Latino he’d “have a better shot” at winning the election.
Strikingly absent from mainstream commentaries is Romney’s attitude toward the African American vote.
In an aside during remarks about Hispanics, Romney said: “If the Hispanic voting bloc becomes as committed to the Democrats as the African-American voting bloc has in the past, well, we’re in trouble as a party and, I think, as a nation.”
So we’re in trouble as a nation because the Republicans have a long-standing history of ignoring this country’s legacy of racism and slavery — and thus has alienated African American voters? And because Hispanics might also abandon the GOP?
Yes, the Latino vote involves race, but it’s also tied up with immigration and language issues. Fundamentally, despite advances and a growing appreciation of multiracial diversity, race in this country remains primarily a black/white issue.
Romney is working to mend his fences with Latino voters. On Sept. 19, he appeared at a Miami forum sponsored by the Spanish-language network Univision and proclaimed that his campaign is “about the 100%.” No such overtures have been made to the African American community.
On the one hand, it’s understandable that Romney’s’ comments on African Americans have been ignored. Who wants to potentially inflame racial tension and openly use race to defeat this country’s first African-American president? No matter what you think of Barack Obama, that’s an accomplishment all Americans should be proud of.
Yet sidestepping the role of race also reflects this country’s inability to discuss, as mature adults, the color-line that has been a dominant feature of American society since its founding.
Just because we are not talking about race doesn’t mean it’s a non-factor in the presidential election. If some analysts are correct, this unacknowledged elephant-in-the-room could be the deciding factor.
The most direct acknowledgement of race and the 2012 election has come from musician/songwriter Randy Newman. In his inimitable style, Newman released a satirical song on Tuesday with the refrain, “I’m dreaming of a white president,” with not too hidden echoes of Bing Crosby’s “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas.”
“I think there are a lot of people who find it jarring to have a black man in the White House and they want him out,” Mr. Newman said in explaining his song, which is available for free at his website. “They just can’t believe that there’s not a more qualified white man. You won’t get anyone, and I do mean anyone, to admit it.” 
To which I can only say, “Thank you Randy Newman.”
Other analyses have noted the racial underpinnings of the election, although the stories have rarely garnered front-page headlines.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll in August found that Romney has 0 percent support among African Americans, compared to an unprecedented 94 percent for Obama. Little wonder that the Republicans have been pushing Voter ID and similar measures.
Romney has never hid that he is concentrating on the white vote. Yes, he has a wooden personality and a rich person’s cluelessness, but he’s not stupid.
“Romney’s camp is focused intently on capturing at least 61 percent of white voters,” an analysis in the non-partisan National Journal noted in late August. “That would provide him a slim national majority—so long as whites constitute at least 74 percent of the vote, as they did last time, and Obama doesn’t improve on his 80 percent showing with minorities.”
“These calculations underscore the depth of racial polarization shadowing this election and the achingly slim margin of error facing each candidate,” the analysis continued. 
The unknown question is how many white voters may be swayed by race when they enter the ballot box on Nov. 6.
One fascinating perspective, appropriate to our Internet-era, comes from an analysis of Google by a Harvard University doctoral student in economics. 
In an opinion last June in the New York Times, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz sought to quantify racial prejudice in different parts of the country based on an analysis of Google searches, such as searches for jokes about African Americans or searches that included the word “nigger(s).
“The results were striking: The higher the racially charged search rate in an area, the worse Mr. Obama did [in 2008]…,” Stephens-Davidowitz writes. “If my findings are correct, race could very well prove decisive against Mr. Obama in 2012.”
Among one of the more disturbing facts in the opinion: in a Democratic presidential primary this spring in West Virginia (which had the highest rate of racially charged searches), a white prison inmate serving 17plus years for extortion ran against Obama. He won 41 percent of the primary vote.
Jonathan Chait has run several articles in New York magazine arguing that 2012 is “now or never” for the Republican Party. His analysis is based not on the inflated rhetoric of the Romney-Ryan ticket, but on demographics.
“The modern GOP — the party of Nixon, Reagan and both Bushes — is staring down its own demographic extinction,” Chait writes. White births are now a non-majority in this country, and by 2020 nonwhite voters will be a third of the electorate. In 30 years, nonwhites will outnumber whites.
Much has been made of Obama’s election as evidence of a post-racial reality. But political scientist Michael Tesler cautions against discounting the effect of race on voter attitudes.
The headline on a Slate article summarizing Tesler’s analysis makes the point in six words: “It All Comes Down to Race.” People’s racial attitudes even affected their feelings about Obama’s dog.
The September issue of Atlantic Magazine, meanwhile, has a lengthy analysis of Obama as a Black president that dissects the issue with nuance and sophistication.
“That a country that once took whiteness as the foundation of citizenship would elect a black president is a victory,” senior editor Ta-Nehisi Coates writes. “But to view this victory as racism’s defeat is to forget the precise terms on which it was secured, and to ignore the quaking ground beneath Obama’s feat.”
Which brings us back to Romney's 47% speech. It was remarkable not only because it was so ham-handed, and because it dissed African Americans and Latinos, or because Romney was caught on video so obviously fawning before billionaires. Most devastating, Romney angered the very people he will need to win —elderly and low-income white voters.
How will all of this affect voting on Nov. 6? No one really knows. As the saying goes, it ain’t over till it’s over.
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This blog is cross-posted at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Chicago teachers say "Enough!" to scapegoating

By Barbara J. Miner

Much of the media debate on the Chicago teachers strike has centered on teacher pay and evaluation. But underlying the strike is growing apprehension over this country’s education reform strategy.

The dominant education narrative, promoted primarily by Republicans but increasingly embraced by Democrats, goes something like this:
Our education system is failing because we are not holding our schools to high standards.
Teachers are primarily to blame. Too many teachers are either self-centered, incompetent, lazy, or refuse to adhere to those high standards (as measured by standardized tests).
Unions are protecting these teachers.
If we want our country to thrive and our children to succeed, we must break the unions, close failing schools and get rid of the lazy and/or bad and/or greedy teachers.
One way to do so: promote semi-private, non-union charter schools where principals have the power to hire and fire at will.
Are there lazy teachers? Of course, just like there are lazy journalists, lazy doctors, lazy corporate CEOs. Are unions without blame? Of course not.
But the dominant education reform strategy substitutes scapegoating for substantive reform. It seeks to get rid of unions, dumb down the teaching profession (and pay less), and promote corporate-based reforms that treat children and teachers as cogs in a machine whose main purpose is to churn out higher test scores.
In this political and economic climate, no one cavalierly goes on strike. The Chicago action, in essence, is a case of teachers believing they had no other way to get across their message that “Enough is enough.”
Alex Kotlowitz, in an opinion in a New York Times on Sunday, lays out the problem of asking teachers to be miracle workers. He writes: “In the absence of any bold effort to alleviate the pressures of poverty, in the absence of any bold investment in educating our children, is it fair to ask that the schools — and, by default, the teachers — bear sole responsibility for closing the economic divide? This is a question asked not only in Chicago, but in virtually every urban school district around the country.” 
An analysis in the Chicago Reader, the city’s long-standing alternative newsweekly, has good background on the local specifics of the strike, but within a national context. “Keep in mind before you join the rip-the-teachers chorus,” the article cautions. “Mayor Emanuel's pushing us toward a system in which all teachers— charter and union — are lower-paid, at-will employees who have about as much job protection and say in their workplace as grill-line workers in a fast-food restaurant. Please tell me how that's good for kids.”

An article in the New Republic most clearly lays out the national repercussions of the Chicago strike. It also takes on the myth that charter schools — a reform promoted by Democratic and Republicans alike as the answer to our education woes— are out-performing traditional public schools. “Although 88 percent of charters are nonunion, giving principals in those schools the flexibility that reformers prize, the most comprehensive study of charter schools (backed by pro-charter foundations), concluded that charters are about twice as likely to underperform regular public schools as to outperform them,” the article notes.
An article on the Huffington Post is one of the few to explain that the teachers’ demands also focus on increased resources for children. The teachers’ vision of reform includes smaller classes, music, art, phy-ed and library for students, and more wraparound services with professional social workers, nurses and counselors.
The international news agency Reuters, in its analysis of the strike’s causes, touches on the racial implications of Emanuel’s reform strategies. “Already,” Reuters writes, “the demographics of the teaching profession in Chicago have notably shifted, as the private managers who run charter schools tend to favor rookie teachers who are younger and far less likely to be minorities, studies have shown.

 Today, just 19 percent of the teaching force in Chicago is African American, down from 45 percent in 1995, the union says; organizers fear that shift means fewer teachers have deep roots in and passion for the communities where they work.”

The American Prospect, meanwhile, notes the strong parental support for the teachers strike in its first week, especially among parents of color. “Fully 66 percent of parents with children in the public schools, and 55.5 percent of Chicagoans overall ‘approve the Chicago Teachers Union decision to go on strike,’” it noted. “Among African Americans, strike support stood at 63 percent; among Latinos, 65 percent. (Roughly 80 percent of Chicago’s schoolchildren are minority.)

“So, who disapproved of the strike? A majority (52 percent) of parents with children in private schools, and a majority of whites (also 52 percent).”
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This blog is cross-posted at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project. 

Monday, September 3, 2012

The world remembers: Archbishop Tutu calls for Bush and Blair to stand trial over Iraq

By Barbara J. Miner
Although foreign policy is getting scant attention in this year’s presidential election, the world remains acutely attentive to the U.S. role in world affairs.
A potent reminder came this weekend via Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, long-standing defender of human rights, and the 2009 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Explaining why he pulled out of a seminar that former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was to attend, Tutu minced no words. “The immorality of the United States and Great Britain's decision to invade Iraq in 2003, premised on the lie that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, has destabilized and polarized the world to a greater extent than any other conflict in history,” he wrote in the Observer
Tutu then called for George W. Bush and Blair to be prosecuted before the International Criminal Court at The Hague. He noted that some 115,000 people have died in the Iraq war, and that the conflict has destabilized the region and “driven us to the edge of a precipice where we now stand — with the specter of Syria and Iran before us.”
The South African prelate, who first came to world attention during the anti-apartheid movement, also pointedly referred to what he deems the hypocrisy in who faces prosecution at The Hague. The world’s first such court, the International Criminal Court at the Hague opened in 2002 to try crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. 
“On what grounds," Tutu asked, "do we decide that Robert Mugabe should go the International Criminal Court, Tony Blair should join the international speakers' circuit, bin Laden should be assassinated, but Iraq should be invaded, not because it possesses weapons of mass destruction, as Mr. Bush's chief supporter, Mr. Blair, confessed last week, but in order to get rid of Saddam Hussein?”
Referring to Bush’s and Blair’s false claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Tutu asked a question that disturbingly resonates with commentaries on the recent Republican Party convention:
“If leaders may lie,” Tutu asked, “then who should tell the truth?”
The United States: World’s Top Weapons Merchant
Tutu’s reminder of the importance of foreign developments came a week after little-noticed news about the U.S. role in the proliferation of military weapons, especially in developing countries.
A congressional report found that U.S. weapons sales abroad tripled last year, reaching a record high of $66.3 billion and accounting for 78 percent of the global arms market. Russia ran a distant second, accounting for only 5.6 percent of sales. 

Information on the sales was released in a report Aug. 24 by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. The report detailed what it called an “extraordinary increase,” with U.S. sales tripling from the year before.
Most of the sales were to developing countries, especially in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman secured weapons agreements with the United States at record levels. Sales ranged from high-end items — Apache and Black hawk helicopters, advanced anti-missile shields, tanks, missiles and F-16 fighter aircraft — to self-propelled assault guns, rocket launchers and artillery.
The report specifically noted that its record-breaking figures take into account only sales and agreements between the U.S. government and foreign government. It does not include U.S. commercially licensed arms arrangements, which would significant increase the numbers.
“Data maintained on U.S. commercial sales, agreements and deliveries are incomplete, and are not collected or revised on an ongoing basis …,” the report said. “By excluding U.S. commercial licensed arms deliveries data, the U.S. arms delivery totals will be understated.”
Arms sales is not the only area where the United States rules the world. We are also the world’s top military power — with no close rival in sight.
Overall, the U.S. accounted for just under half (41 percent) of the world’s military spending in 2011. The No. 2 military spender, China, accounted for 8.2 percent, with Russia a distant third at 4.1 percent. 
U.S. dominance of global military spending mirrors domestic realities; the United has more small firearms than any other country in the world.
The U.S public — excluding the U.S. military or law enforcement — holds at least one out of every three guns in the world, according to the Small Arms Survey based in Geneva, Switzerland. 
Overall, there is nearly one gun per person in the United States.
Why no discussion?

Clearly, weapons both large and small are integral to our American culture, our federal spending, and our global agreements. But if the Republican convention is any indication, don’t expect significant discussion of such issues during the upcoming presidential election.
The Republican Party may be the party of hawks and NRA aficionados. But the Democratic Party has been shamefully silent on these issues. Meanwhile, Washington policymakers let stand, unexamined, our country’s dominant role in the proliferation of weapons of mass and individual destruction, both here and abroad.

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