By Barbara J. Miner
Dark days are ahead in Wisconsin politics. The Republican legislative majority has made clear it plans to ram through backward legislation in any number of areas, from the environment to education to democratic fundamentals such as the right to vote.
One of the many recent embarrassments (there are so many, it’s difficult to choose): On Tuesday, arch-Republican and Wisconsin Assembly Speaker-elect Robin Vos named Rep. Don Pridemore as head of the urban education committee.
Yes, this is the same Pridemore who, in announcing his candidacy last month for the job of state superintendent of education, mis-spelled the word “superintendent.” The same Pridemore who has said that single parents are a leading cause of child abuse by the mere fact they are single parents. The same Pridemore who has praised Arizona’s anti-immigration, anti-Latino legislation as a model for Wisconsin. The same Pridemore who hails from anything-but-urban Hartford, which has a population of about 15,000 people, about 90% of whom are white.
It’s easy to get discouraged. But it’s also easy to look at the past through rose-colored glasses. Remember: Wisconsin survived Joe McCarthy.
It’s also easy to forget that Wisconsin has a number of young, energetic and committed progressive leaders who are getting well-deserved attention nationally.
Thus it was refreshing news when Huffington Post recently named Christine Neumann-Ortiz of Milwaukee as one of “50 young progressive activists who are changing America.” As the article notes:
Born in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, these 50 people inherited an America that seems to be holding its breath, trying to decide what kind of country it wants to be. ...
The 50 individuals listed here represent a new generation of activists, artists, thinkers, and politicians who have already become leaders of exciting movements for social justice. They offer hope that the 21st century will witness dramatic changes toward greater equality and democracy.
The Dec. 2 article was written by Peter Dreier, a professor of politics at Occidental College and the author of The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame.
For more than a decade, Neumann-Ortiz has been the leading force in Milwaukee’s Voces de la Frontera, nationally recognized as a grass-roots voice for immigrant and workers’ rights. Most recently, the organization was in the news for its support of workers trying to unionize Palermo’s Pizza.
Both Neumann-Ortiz and Voces have long been vilified by the right wing. Mark Belling recently went after the United Way of Racine County because —horror of horrors!—it gave Voces money to help organize a Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebration at the Racine public schools. Former Republican state Sen. Cathy Stepp, meanwhile, once called Neumann-Ortiz a terrorist after she tried to talk to Stepp at her home about immigrant rights.
Georgia Pabst, who does an admirable job covering the Latino community despite the Journal Company’s tendency to ignore low-income communities except when there are issues of crime or dysfunctionality, did a good feature on Neumann-Ortiz on in 2010. Quoting both critics and supporters of Neumann-Ortiz, Pabst’s article was a welcome counterpoint to right-wing radio’s one-sided punditry.
Some people have likened Neumann-Ortiz to Father Groppi, the white priest who led the open housing marches of the 1960s and who is now recognized as one of Milwaukee’s seminal leaders of the 20th Century. Both believed in the power of grass-roots organizing and took up an issue based on its merits, not whether it would be controversial.
Watching the right’s denigration of Neumann-Ortiz and the call to boycott Palermo’s pizza reminds me of a comment by Frank A. Aukofer, a Milwaukee Journal reporter in the 1960s who later wrote a book on Milwaukee’s civil rights movement.
In his book, Aukofer describes how the city’s media and power elite repeatedly decried a 1964 school boycott designed to highlight segregation in the city’s schools. They labeled the boycott illegal, or mere truancy, or a “goofy stunt.” The criticisms, Aukofer writes, were typical of the white majority’s response “to every civil rights protest before and since. Instead of focusing on the issue the boycott was intended to dramatize, the boycott itself became the issue.”
Think of establishment reactions to the boycott of Palermo’s Pizza. Sound familiar?
At a time when arch-conservative Republicans are poised to attack on any number of fronts, we need one, two, many Voces. The Huffington Post article is a welcome acknowledgement that progressive activism matters.
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This article is cross-posted at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project.