Tuesday, September 27, 2022

2821 N. 33rd Street: The story of a home, a neighborhood, a city.

The following was published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022. 

On a summer’s day in 2021, I was driving home after taking photos at the former Briggs & Stratton manufacturing complex on Center Street in Milwaukee’s central city. Once a major manufacturing site, the complex had become an example of urban abandonment, its windows covered with plywood and “for sale or rent” signs. It was also an era when COVID and protests over police brutality dominated our lives. Tensions were high.

So I was curious when, driving past an abandoned home at 2821 N. 33rd St., I saw a message of hope painted on the porch steps: “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” —Martin Luther King Jr. Who, and why, I wondered, had painted the message on a home that, like the Briggs factory, was more fitting as a symbol of disorder and despair?

The months went on and other priorities consumed my life. But I couldn’t shake my interest in that abandoned home and its message. After visits to dingy, COVID-restricted offices of Milwaukee County and the City of Milwaukee, I slowly learned more of the home’s past. I came to realize that, in many ways, 2821 N. ¬¬33rd Street tells the history not only of a home, but of a community and a city. 

In particular, the home reflects an essential contemporary story — the rise and fall of industrial union jobs in Milwaukee, and the particularly devastating effect of deindustrialization on Milwaukee’s African-American community. 

People often wonder why Milwaukee fell from one of the best to one of the worst cities in the country to raise an African-American family. Much of that answer can be found in the neighborhood surrounding 2821 N. 33rd Street. 


Like all of Milwaukee, the home rests on once-indigenous lands sold-to-stolen-by the federal government in the 1830s, opening the area to real estate speculators and white settlers. In 

those early decades of the 19th Century, it remained a far-away outpost of the city. By the end of the 19th Century, that had changed. Plots were bought and sold, and then subdivided for home-building. In 1906, the home at 2821 N. 33rd St., was built and, like many Milwaukee homes, it was a spacious duplex. That same year, 1906, the manufacturing powerhouse Briggs & Stratton built a seven-acre, six-building complex a few blocks away. (Two years earlier, in 1904, A.O. Smith had incorporated in Milwaukee. At their peak, in the 1960s and 1970s, the nearby A.O. Smith factories employed 10,000 people.)

 

After the 33rd Street home was built, owners came and went until Louis Hirsch bought the duplex in 1912. There were lean years in the 1930s, and city taxes went unpaid. But by the time Hirsch died in 1945, at that point living on Milwaukee’s east side, he owned the 33rd Street home and four others. 

 

From 1949 to 1976, the home was its most stable. In that period, it was owned and lived in by Albert and Agatha Praniewicz who, like many in Milwaukee, were of Polish descent. In a pattern that persists to this day, the couple had moved west and north (in their case, from 19th and Clybourn Street) in search of a more desirable neighborhood. Like many of that era, Albert Praniewicz was a blue-collar worker, and he ended his career as an assembly inspector at American Motors. The City of Milwaukee directories do not list Agatha’s occupation, although most likely she would have been called a “housewife.”

 

The years 1949-1976 were also ­the economic apex of 20th Century Milwaukee. The city emerged from World War 2 to become a manufacturing powerhouse and gained a reputation as an up-and-coming city with a strong middle class and an abundance of family-supporting, unionized jobs. As a result, Milwaukee became a beacon for African-Americans who were part of the Great Migration from the south to the north.

 

In 1976, the Praniewicz’s sold the duplex to Alvin Jones, described as “a single man.” In subsequent years the Praniewicz’s were no longer listed in the city directory, and they apparently became part of that era’s great white migration out of Milwaukee to the suburbs or rural areas. (Anceestry.com notes that an Albert A Praniewicz, born in Milwaukee in 1923, died in 1999 in Neshkoro, Wisconsin, which is about 50 miles west of Oshkosh.) In coming decades, that white-flight migration was followed by the industrial abandonment of Milwaukee, as once powerful companies such as A.O Smith, Briggs & Stratton, and Allis Chalmers shipped jobs to non-union strongholds in the south and, later, overseas.

 

Jones, listed in the city directory as a custodial worker for Milwaukee County Buildings and Grounds, lived at the 33rd Street home for several decades as what was once a neighborhood dominated by European immigrants became home to the city’s African-American population. Around the turn of the century, Alvin moved north and west, and was listed as living near 59th and Wright Steet, although he still owned the home on 33rd Street.

 

The 21st Century has been cruel to Milwaukee’s central city, including the 33rd Street home. Not only had jobs disappeared, but the city’s low-income neighborhoods bore the brunt of the sub-prime mortgage and foreclosure crisis that dominated the U.S. economic system from 2007-2010. Jones received a notice of foreclosure in 2010, based on a 2007 mortgage, and the following year the Sheriff’s Department foreclosed on the home.

 

After the foreclosure, the home spiraled downward as a shifting group of finance companies and absentee landlords took ownership. By 2017, the city deemed the home “dangerous, unsafe, unsanitary, unfit for human habitation and unreasonable to repair.” It was ordered to be razed and removed. In the summer of 2022, the home — and its graffiti message of peace and love — was still standing.

 

The home’s future, or, more accurately, the future of the land, is unclear. 

 

Two blocks away, the once-deserted Briggs complex is being refurbished as the “Community Within the Corridor” development of apartments and commercial and community space, including a gym and daycare facilities. Rentals began in the summer of 2022.


I’ve lived in Milwaukee long enough, however, to know that a single real estate development rarely transforms a community. Tellingly, the nearby and much-larger A.O. Smith complex remains a symbol of abandonment and joblessness, and many homes and businesses throughout the neighborhood are unoccupied and/or in disrepair. Clearly, the future is yet to be written. 

 

This essay is based on a project for a class on Artists’ Books at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Peck School of the Arts. Click here for a digital version of the book.




 

My mother's raisin bread: COVID lessons from the 1950s.

 Following is the transcript from an audio essay on WUWM, the NPR affiliate in Milwaukee, WI, on Oct. 5, 2020. 

It wasn’t until late-September that I realized why, back in March, I was obsessed with making my mother’s oatmeal-raisin bread. It wasn’t the actual bread I craved. Rather, the bread was an attempt to create a safe, 1950s bubble. Just like my mother tried, more than half a century ago.

 

My mother's raisen bread recipe
I have spent much of my life rejecting the 1950s. But in this era of COVID-19, I am trying to understand that decade.

 

After I graduated from high school in 1969, I ran away as far and as fast as I could from all that the 1950s demanded of me: Behave. Conform. Strive no higher as a woman than nurse or teacher. Criticize but learn to co-exist with Jim Crow racism. And of course, don’t become one of those hippies protesting the Vietnam War. 

 

But COVID-19 has given me a fresh perspective on the 1950s — no, not the decade’s cultural, political and racial straightjackets, but its attempt to bury a painful past.

 

In the early weeks of COVID-19, I succumbed to the consumer frenzy that took hold across the country. I bought way too much toilet paper, Lysol, and hand-sanitizer. But when I tried to buy flour at Metro Market, the shelves were empty. I was in a near panic, saved only by over-priced, organic flour at another store.

 

I look back on those early weeks and laugh at my hoarding. But I don’t laugh when I think about the future. It is still too uncertain.

 

Mostly, I worry for my children, especially since they live more than a thousand miles away, and I don’t know when I will see them again. I want to magically conjure up a perfect world for them, just like my mother tried, more than half a century ago.

 

COVID-19 has given me a new admiration for my parents. They were both born in 1918, the year of the Spanish flu. At an age when they should have been planning their future, the country was in the grip of the Great Depression, followed by six years of a World War. They grew up surrounded by uncertainty, poverty, and death.


My parents rarely talked of those difficult years. Their focus was on the future. When that World War ended, and when it was clear the Great Depression would stay in the 1930s, all they wanted to do was create a wonderful bubble, a vaccine of sorts. They wanted a home, financial security, good schools for their children.

 

Looking back, it’s clear that the Civil Rights Movement was not only long overdue, but inevitable. African Americans, having fought and died for their country during World War 2, rightfully demanded their place in the American Dream.

 

In the initial months of COVID-19, I focused on getting through the summer. I now fantasize about a post-COVID future. And my dreams are not that different from those of my parents in the 1950s. I want my children and grandchildren to be healthy, to be safe, to have a future. And I want to make them oatmeal-raisin bread.

 

Looking at my mother’s recipe, I am struck by its simplicity. It has eight simple ingredients, with equally simple final instructions: “When lukewarm, combine all ingredients. Shape into three loaves.” There’s nothing about letting the bread rise, or how long it should bake. My mother knew that, give or take a bit, 375 degrees and 45 minutes was about right. 

 

Whenever I make my mother’s oatmeal-raisin bread, at some point I am transported back to my childhood. I can all but smell and see the warm bread, waiting on the kitchen table as I come home from school. My mom, knowing children pretty well—she had six—made sure we each had a small, individual loaf, baked in a used chicken-pot-pie tin.


I don’t know when the era of COVID-19 will end, any more than my mother knew when World War Two would end. But I long for the day when I can make oatmeal-raisin bread for my children and grandchildren, served fresh out of the oven. Like my mother did, in the 1950s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thursday, September 16, 2021

George Washington's Dentures: Teeth from Enslaved People?


“George Washington's Dentures: Teeth From Enslaved People?” is an 8x.11 photo on fine art paper. The background is taken from a 1784 Mount Vernon ledger noting payments of cash for 9 teeth of unidentified "Negroes." The teeth are a photo of one of the surviving sets of our first President’s dentures. 


The Mount Vernon transaction is unclear whether the teeth from the enslaved people were for Washington himself, or whether his dentist wanted the teeth for other patients What is certain is that George Washington’s dentures were not wooden, as is the common belief.  “They were made from a variety of materials, including human teeth,” according to Kathryn Gehred, a research specialist with “The Washington Papers” at the University of Virginia. 


It was not uncommon in the 18th century for rich people to pay for teeth to be pulled from poor men, women and children. Enslaved people, needless to say, had little control over how their bodies were treated. 


Gehred’s argues that without further documentation, it is impossible to state with certainty that Washington’s dentures include teeth from enslaved people. But, she continues, as a slaveholder, Washington followed “the standards of his time. He condoned and even encouraged violence as a way to keep enslaved people subservient.” And, as the Mount Vernon ledger notes, he did sell teeth from 9 unidentified enslaved people to his dentist.

 

Other historians are less unequivocable in their interpretations. Henry Wiencek, in his 2003 book “An Imperfect God: George Washington,” writes: “It has long been known to specialists that some of Washington’s false teeth came from the mouths of his slaves, but this inherently invidious tidbit of fact has not been widely circulated…because it is impossible to rationalize it completely. Better not to know.”


 



Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Buying the Glock Was Easy. Getting Rid of It is the Hard Part.

 Following is the transcript from an audio essay on WUWM, the NPR affiliate in Milwaukee, WI. 

I’m sitting at my desk, staring at my Glock semi-automatic 9 mm handgun. I am scared of the gun. But it also mesmerizes me. I admire its beauty, its sleek design. I want to pick it up, feel its heft, enjoy the authority it bestows.

And then I remember. There’s no reason to own a Glock unless you intend to shoot people.

My 9 mm semi-automatic Glock.
I bought the gun in May 2007, shortly after a Glock was used during the murder of 32 people at Virginia Tech. At the time, it was the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

I struggled to understand the Virginia Tech shootings, and I wondered. How easy is it to get a Glock in Milwaukee? It seemed a possible opinion piece, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel was interested.

I found out, unfortunately, that it is absurdly easy to buy a Glock, easier than buying penicillin at Walgreen’s. The more difficult question, is how to get rid of it.

When I bought my Glock at a local gun shop, I brought along a friend to help ease my nerves. The sales rep mentioned that if I had children in the home, I should keep the Glock’s clip separate from the gun. Other than that, he didn’t say much about safety precautions. Nor did he ask me why I wanted a Glock. The background check was instantaneous and, it seemed to me, almost a joke.

Before we left, my friend and I shot at few rounds at the firing range in the back of the store. I loaded the bullets into the clip, put in earplugs, and shot 13 rounds at a mock human being. Unexpectedly, I hit the chest or head on all but a couple of shots. I was immediately smitten by the excitement of owning and shooting a gun.

When I got home, my husband brought me back to reality. I showed him the bullet-riddled target and he responded, “Oh great. You killed somebody.”

For the last 14 years, the Glock has been in a locked box, hidden deep in my closet. But the time has come to make a decision.

In a few weeks, our two grandchildren are visiting. The oldest is now 4 — both curious and smart enough to get into unexpected trouble. My daughter has made it clear: get that Glock out of the house.

But how does one get rid of a Glock? It’s not like I can throw the gun into a Goodwill box, next to old dishes and outdated sports equipment.

And I don’t want to sell the Glock and then have it used in a violent crime.

I could turn it in to the police. But I’ve watched too many Law and Order episodes where guns and drugs mysteriously disappear.

I think back to when I bought the gun, when the Virginia Tech shootings shocked the entire world. Today, that mass shooting is almost forgotten. It’s been overtaken by the 49 people killed at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in 2016 and, in what remains the worst mass shooting, 58 people killed in 2017 at a concert in Nevada.

Then, as now, there were calls to end America’s love affair with guns. But not much has happened. In fact, there are more guns and more gun deaths in Milwaukee than ever before. And with Wisconsin’s passage of concealed carry in 2011, gun control is even-more elusive.

In 2007, when I bought my Glock, there were 105 homicides in Milwaukee, the overwhelming majority by guns. In 2020, here were 193 homicides, making it the deadliest year in Milwaukee’s history. This year, we are on target to surpass that number.

Once again, I am confronted with my dilemma. What to do with my Glock?

Most recently, I’ve thought about throwing the gun into the middle of Lake Michigan. Or finding a welder who can turn the Glock into an anti-gun art project. For now, however, I am taking the easy way out. Tomorrow, the Glock goes off to my friend’s house for safe storage, my final decision delayed.

Clearly, it would have been best if I had never bought the gun. Or if someone, somewhere, had made it even a little bit difficult.

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Free Speech, Hate Speech, Outright Lies: Definitions, resources and credits

Credits:

Design: Barbara J. Miner

P. 1. Photo and prints by Barbara J. Miner.

P. 2. Top: Chang W. Lee/New York Times. Center left: Josh Galemore/Arizona Daily Star, via Associated Press. Center right: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images 

p. 3. Mark Zuckerberg collage by Barbara Miner

p. 4. Photo by Barbara J. Miner


DEFINITIONS

Free SpeechThe First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedoms concerning religion, expression, assembly, and the right to petition. It states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The First Amendment is not absolute, however. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the government may ban fighting words or threats. Punishments may be enhanced for violent crimes prompted by race hate. And private institutions including universities and employers are not subject to the First Amendment, which restricts only government activities. 

 

Hate Speech: Much of what would qualify as hate speech in other Western countries might legally be considered free speech under the First Amendment. The European Court of Human Rights, for instance, has ruled that as a matter of principle it may be necessary in certain democratic societies to sanction or even prevent all forms of expression which spread, incite, promote or justify hatred based on intolerance “provided that any ‘formalities’, ‘conditions’, ‘restrictions’ or ‘penalties’ imposed are proportionate to the legitimate aim purposed.” More than 30 European countries place restrictions on racist speech. 

 

In the United States, speech can be punished as workplace harassment if it is “severe or pervasive” enough to create a “hostile or abusive work environment” based on race, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, veteran status or in some jurisdictions, sexual orientation, political affiliation, citizenship status, marital status or personal appearance for the plaintiff and or a reasonable person. 

 

In addition, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and related legislation prohibit discrimination, including in housing, employment and education, on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex [including sexual orientation or gender identity] and religion.

 

Outright Lies: Statements that present a false or misleading impression, or are made with the intent to deceive. Closely related to “outright lies” are disinformation campaigns, often spread via social media by people unaware that the information is part of a concerted campaign. Research has shown that lies go viral more quickly than true statements.

 

RESOURCES FOR FURTHER INFORMATION


Free Speech:

The American Civil Liberties Union has a range of resources on free speech.

In addition, the ACLU has a fact sheet on the rights of protesters

 

The Student Press Law Center provides information focusing on issues often faced by high school student journalists.


In a victory for free speech rights of students, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 on June 23, 2021 that a Pennsylvania school district violated the First Amendment for punishing a high school student who posted “vulgar” messages on Snapchat when she did not make the cheerleading squad. It was the first time in more than 50 years that a high school student won a free-speech case before the court, with the justices skeptical of efforts to constrain speech off school grounds. In a precedent-setting decision in 1969, in what is known as the “Tinker” decision, the Court ruled that students were allowed to wear black armbands to protest the Vietnam war. The justices noted that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of 

speech of expression at the school  hours gate.” 


Several articles in the summer of 2021 have noted the tension within the ACLU and similar organizations over issues of free speech versus hate speech. See: “Once a Bastion of Free Speech, the ACLU Faces an Identity Crisis,” in The New York Times June 6, 2021

Letters in response, June 19, 2021.

 

Several other articles take up this theme of Free Speech versus Hate Speech:  

Washington Post Opinion: “Why America needs a hate speech law.”

• Critical Race Theory, Hate Speech and Free Speech, article in “The First Amendment Encyclopedia.”

• NBC News Opinion, “Is the First Amendment Too Broad?”  



Hate Speech:

The Southern Poverty Law Center has developed a “Hatewatch” program that includes blogs, podcasts and information sheets.

Workplace Harassment:

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission outlines the right to work free of discrimination and harassment.

 

School-based harassment:

The organization Stop Bullying has a range of resources on federal laws prohibiting discriminatory harassment. Schools are also subject to federal civil rights law such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, and various laws protecting the rights of students with disabilities.

 

In addition to federal protections, the Wisconsin Pupil Nondiscrimination Laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, race, religion, national origin, ancestry, creed, pregnancy, parental status, marital status, sexual orientation, physical, mental, emotional or learning disability.



Outright Lies:

The Columbia Journalism Review has a number of articles investigating the growing problem of “disinformation.” 


“The First Amendment in the age of disinformation,” New York Times Magazine, Oct. 13, 2020.



 


Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Waiting.

The following is a transcript of an audio essay aired on WUWM March 3, 2021.To listen to the audio essay, click here

I have spent much of the last year waiting. But I didn’t realize how profoundly COVID had shaped my sense of time until, during the dark days of the fall, I picked up Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” Perhaps, I thought, the play might offer some perspective.

Waiting has defined my life in this era of COVID. The first time was when my husband and I watched the news as COVID spread from China to Seattle and the cruise ships. What did it mean? Only time would tell, it seemed. We waited.

And then Gov. Tony Evers issued his stay-at-home order on March 25. The question that had dominated our thoughts – would COVID disrupt our lives in Wisconsin – was answered. Then we waited to answer a new question: would the horrors we were reading about in New York spread to the Midwest?

Every morning, we scoured the newspaper and the internet, searching for the latest news on COVID. Was it safe to go to a grocery store? How long should you wait before you unpacked those groceries? Were Wisconsin’s positivity rates up or down?

In September, we foolishly thought it might be safe to visit our children in New York during the Christmas holidays. By the end of October, that dream had ended. Without a doubt, the fall was the worst. We didn’t wait for much of anything except time to pass. The days grew short. Our patience frayed. Painful numbers of the dead and dying kept escalating.

That’s when I decided to read “Waiting for Godot.” But, it turned out, it was a bad idea. In the first scene, the character Estragon notes: “And is it Saturday? Is it not rather Sunday? Or Monday? Or Friday.” The play’s absurdity hit too close to home. I stopped reading.

By mid-January, things were looking up. Joe Biden was president, Dr. Fauci was once again on television, and every week, more people in Wisconsin were getting vaccinated.

Once a vaccine seemed a reality, we waited for an appointment, but we didn’t mind. After almost a year of waiting, what was another week or two or three?

And now, having received that magical second dose, we are planning what we have wanted to do more than anything else in the last year – visit our children.

Perhaps because it is spring, or perhaps because we will soon have survived what was once unthinkable, a year of COVID, I am no longer waiting to be hopeful. I am hopeful.

In January, I asked on Facebook what people have missed most during COVID. Some said they were waiting to travel, others to eat at restaurants. Young mothers, not surprisingly, were waiting for schools to return to full-time, in-person teaching.

But more than anything, people were waiting to once again experience that most fundamental of human needs – to touch. They wanted to dance with friends, kiss their one-year-old grandchild, visit their 90-year-old uncle. Or, as one person put it, “I am waiting to hug mom. Or anyone.”

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Milwaukee's Trail of Tears

An audio essay, which aired on Milwaukee's public radio, WUWM, on Nov. 25, 2020. Click here for the audio file. Following is the transcript. 


In recent years, there has been a growing awareness that Thanksgiving is a time to not only celebrate family, but to acknowledge the debt we owe this country’s Indigenous peoples. Yet we still have a long way to go, especially here in Milwaukee, a city that acknowledges the Indigenous roots of its name, but not too much else. I like to think of myself as an informed person with a decent understanding of Milwaukee’s history. I grew up here, raised my children here and, at the age of 69, I am pretty sure I will live my final years in the city.

So when I recently learned of Milwaukee’s forced removal of Indigenous people in the 1830s —Milwaukee’s own Trail of Tears — I was taken aback. How has such an essential chapter been all but erased from Milwaukee’s history? I learned of Milwaukee’s Trail of Tears in John Gurda’s classic book, The Making of Milwaukee. I was writing about Alice’s Garden in the central city, and wanted to find out more about the history of that plot of land. Which, of course, meant going back to the days before European settlement.

Like most histories, details get very complicated very quickly. For the Milwaukee area, essential dates are 1831 and 1833, when Indigenous peoples ceded millions of acres of land to the federal government. Sandwiched in between is another essential date — the 1832 conclusion of the Black Hawk War in what is now western Wisconsin, and which marked the end of Indigenous armed resistance in the region.
 

Indigenous women and children flee across the Mississippi  River after Black Hawk's defeat.


At long last, Milwaukee was considered ripe for white settlers and within a few years, Milwaukee was all the rage. The Green Bay Intelligence, Wisconsin’s first newspaper, reported in 1835 that “land speculators are circumambulating [the city.].” Another chronicler described the city as “an unenclosed lunatic asylum,” with some lots of land changing hands twice or three times in a day, the price rising with each sale.  

After they ceded their lands, many of the Potawatomie left for the forests to the north. Those that stayed in Milwaukee were given a grace period, but in 1838, their time was up. As Gurda notes, “At the beginning of the corn-planting season, federal contractors gathered the natives at Indian Fields, the ancient burial ground on the South Side, and began the long, arduous trek to lands west of the Mississippi. It was Milwaukee’s own Trail of Tears.” 

Gurda provides the bare outlines of the narrative — that the Potawatomie were marched west for more than a month, and that “there were undoubtedly deaths along the way.” But details are few. I found it impossible to get past the sentence, “there were undoubtedly deaths along the way.” 

How many deaths, I wondered? Were Indigenous people shot? Did they drown crossing rivers? Was it a case of slow starvation? An infected wound? Is this a story, albeit on a smaller scale, as horrific as the Cherokee Trail of Tears, when some 3,000 Native people died? 

As much as anything, I asked myself how come, in all my years of schooling, in all my years of reporting about the city, I never learned of Milwaukee’s Trail of Tears? Which, of course, led to other questions: What else don’t I know? What other debts — as yet untallied —do we owe the area’s Indigenous peoples?

Monday, August 24, 2020

School Vouchers, Black Lives Matter and Democracy

Originally published in the Wisconsin Examiner, Aug. 17, 2020.

 

When a Milwaukee voucher school recently posted its opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement’s support of LGBTQ rights, the ensuing controversy lifted the curtain — albeit ever-so-slightly— on a long-standing problem:

Under Wisconsin’s voucher programs, billions of taxpayer dollars have been funneled into private schools that do not have to abide by basic antidiscrimination measures governing all Wisconsin public schools. To put it bluntly, Wisconsin taxpayers are being forced to financially support discrimination, and in the process undermine our democracy.


BLM/LGBTQ protest in Milwaukee June 7. Photo by Barbara Miner

The recent controversy centers on Milwaukee Lutheran High School and its Aug. 4 Facebook post that the Black Lives Matter organization’s support for LGBTQ rights “do not align with biblical views.” Venice Williams, a prominent African-American activist and minister whose son had just graduated from the school, responded on her Facebook feed, “Shame on You, Milwaukee Lutheran High School.” 

Williams went on to denounce institutions that “make their living off Black folks, as they, simultaneously, mock our existence and disregard our humanity,” and called on Black families to boycott the school. The student body is majority Black at Milwaukee Lutheran, and about 90 percent of all students received a voucher to attend last year.

Milwaukee Lutheran is affiliated with the Missouri Synod, a conservative Lutheran denomination that teaches not only that homosexuality is a sin, but also that the ordination of women is contrary to scripture. Like other voucher schools, Milwaukee Lutheran is allowed to sidestep Wisconsin’s pupil nondiscrimination law.

The law prohibits public schools from discriminating against a student in a range of areas, from sex to pregnancy, marital or parental status, sexual orientation, race, religion, creed, ancestry and disabilities (whether mental, emotional or physical). Private voucher schools, however, can chose when and if they will follow the law. The only requirement is that the voucher schools follow federal prohibitions against discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin. 

 

But that’s just the beginning. For instance:

 

• Unlike public schools, private schools do not have to honor basic constitutional rights such as due process when a student is expelled or suspended, or rights of free speech and association.

 

• Unlike public schools, private schools can circumvent federally mandated protections for students with special needs, and are only obligated to provide services that require minor adjustments. (The state has begun a special needs scholarship program, but most voucher schools do not participate.)

 

• Unlike public schools, private schools do not have to adhere to the state’s open meetings and records laws. As a result, the public does not have any reliable way to find out if a voucher school may be teaching that women are inferior to men, that homosexuality is a sin, that abortion is murder, that climate change is a lie, or that the Bible must be interpreted literally. 

 

This surreal, Twilight-zone reality stems from a fundamental problem with the state’s voucher programs: a school can define itself as private even if 100% of its students receive a public voucher. And, once defined as private, it can circumvent most state laws governing public schools.

 

In essence, Wisconsin has set up two inherently unequal systems, one public and one private, yet both funded by public tax dollars. And the amount of taxpayer dollars to voucher schools is staggering.

 

In 2019-20 alone, more than $350 million in taxpayer dollars went to more than 300 voucher schools in Wisconsin. The oldest program, in Milwaukee, received more than $2.6 billion between 1990 and 2019, according to state financial figures. In about half the Milwaukee schools, 90 percent of more of the students received a voucher — meaning that the school would not exist if it weren’t for the voucher program because it doesn’t have enough private-paying students to survive. Yet it can still define itself as “private.”

 

The overwhelming majority of Wisconsin’s voucher schools are religious, which further complicates the problem.

 

Under the First Amendment’s separation of church and state, government is not to “entangle” itself in the oversight of a religious institution. The amendment is integral to our democracy, recognizing that religion is a highly personal matter and must be beyond government control. But the voucher program has distorted this all-important concept of religious freedom and is asking taxpayers to subsidize religious beliefs that are at odds with public policy — and not just regarding students. 

 

Wisconsin law, for instance, bars discrimination in employment in a variety of areas, from age to disability, marital status, and sexual orientation. However, exceptions are made for religious institutions. And in 2009, the Wisconsin Supreme Court dismissed the case of a first-grade teacher who claimed age discrimination when she was fired from a Catholic school in La Crosse. The Court said the complaint unconstitutionally restricted the school’s religious freedom. 

 

More recently, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in July that federal employment discrimination laws do not apply to teachers at church-run schools, in a case involving two teachers whose contracts were not renewed at Catholic schools in California. One teacher learned she had breast cancer and her contract was not renewed. The other teacher had sued for age discrimination.

 

When the Milwaukee voucher program began in 1990 and was expanded a few years later to include religious schools, there was little outcry over diverting tax dollars away from public schools and into private schools. At the time, our democracy seemed strong enough to survive a few nicks and dents. Besides, at that time the program only involved Milwaukee and most state legislators and voters didn’t pay much attention. With the statewide expansion of vouchers in 2013, however, matters changed.

 

There is also growing awareness of the importance of our public institutions, from the right to vote to our public schools and our local Post Office. 

 

As the Trump era has made clear, abandoning public institutions not only undermines the common good, it also threatens our democracy. 

 


Friday, August 7, 2020

Milwaukee's Alleys

 

An audio essay, which aired on Milwaukee's public radio, WUWM,on Aug 3, 2020. 

 

Click here for the audio file. Following is the transcript.

 

 

I remember the first time I was fascinated by an alley, I was about 7 or 8 years old, and it was the alley at my Aunt Dorothy’s house on Van Buren Street. My family lived in Wauwatosa, with nice big yards but none of the urban grit of homes near downtown Milwaukee.

 

There was something forbidden, and therefore enticing, about that alley. I remember my Aunt Dorothy sending my brother and me into the yard to play, but making it clear to stay away from the alley. Which, of course, made me want to climb over the fence and run down that alley. Instead, I usually settled for a quick jump up and a glance, knowing that before long my Aunt Dorothy would yell out from the kitchen window and tell me to stop.

 

For several years, I lived along an alley in the Riverwest neighborhood. I fell in love with the sheer practicality of my alley — the garage, the garbage cans, the electrical transformers and telephone poles — all conveniently placed out of sight.

A Black Resistance/Black Lives Matter mural in the alley off Holton and Locust.

 

For the last 25 years, I have lived without an alley or a garage, but with the benefit that our yard is unusually big for Riverwest. I spend much of the winter waiting for the warmer weather so I can sit outside, coffee in hand, and read my newspaper.

 

Until recently, I didn’t think too much about my neighborhood’s alleys — I had become used to walking along the sidewalk. But then COVID-19 struck.

 

My morning walks with my husband became a lifeline to sanity. And as much as I love my neighborhood, it got a bit boring to walk up and down the same streets.

 

One day, on a whim, we decided to walk down the alley instead of the sidewalk. A neighborhood I thought I knew like the back of my hand took on fascinating and unexpected complexities. Among other things, I had forgotten how many smaller, second homes were built on the alley-end of a lot.

And who knew there were so many types of fences separating backyards and alleys — chain-link fences, wooden fences five feet high, wooden fences three feet high, lannon stone fences, cinder block fences.

 

The occasional basketball hoop or elaborate garden, meanwhile, spoke to the long tradition of alleys as a second back yard.

 

And yes, there were lots of electric and gas meters, garbage and recycling cans. My husband and I even took to counting the meters in order to figure out how many units there might be in an exceptionally large rental property. It was the early days of the COVID-19 shutdown, and we were bored.

 

More recently, as part of the outrage following the killing of George Floyd, alleys have become home to socially conscious public art. Just off Locust and Holton streets, for instance, a once drab alleyway has been transformed into a multi-colored homage to Black resistance and freedom fighters.

 

Alleys, it turns out, have been a long-standing feature of cities, dating back to the middle ages. In the United States, they are mostly found in older cities. With the growth of the car culture, suburban developments opted for so-called “front-loaded” garages as a way to proudly display that one could afford a beautiful building merely for one’s car.

 

In Milwaukee, alleys have been a part of the city since its founding charter in 1846, when alleys were used for barns for horses and carriages and, in commercial areas, for deliveries. According to the Encyclopedia of Milwaukee, to this day the city maintains about 400 miles of alleys.

Next time your sense of adventure is thwarted by COVID-19, don’t worry. You don’t need to travel far away to explore a new world: just find a Milwaukee alley.

 

Death of democracy? It could happen he

 

Rumbles of Chile’s 1973 coup in today’s United States

 


The following opinion appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, July 29, 2020, and was also distributed via the Common Dreams news network.

 

On Sept. 11, 1973, I was living in a shantytown on the outskirts of Santiago, Chile. That morning, one of my roommates, a Chilean journalist, unexpectedly returned home. “The military just bombed my radio station,” she said. “There’s a military coup.”

 

What we had feared, yet hoped would never happen, was now reality. TheChilean military, backed by the U.S. government and led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet, had overthrown the democratically elected, socialist government of Salvador Allende. 

 

Independent and progressive media were shut down; the media that remained were subject to military censorship. A curfew was in effect, enforced by military troops, and night-time gunshots were common. Flickers of hope in the beginning days — that there would be a countercoup, or the international community might step in — soon faded away.

 

In the coming months, the government and its paramilitary enforcerskilled or “disappeared” thousands of people. It would be 17 years before Pinochet’s dictatorship ended. 

 

The people, united, are sometimes defeated

I and two friends had traveled to Chile in the spring of 1973 to learn more of an experiment that had garnered world attention. For the first time in Latin America, Marxist socialism would arrive via the ballot box. 

 

We were astounded by the vibrant political discussions in Chile, and Santiago alone had 10 daily newspapers. Millions of people marched in the streets to support Allende and we enthusiastically joined the demonstrations. “The people, united, will never be defeated,” we chanted.

 

Throughout the summer of 1973 there were warning signs that corporate powerbrokers in Chile and abroad wanted to end this experiment in socialism. Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia and so much of Latin America had borne the brunt of military coups but, the argument went, Chile was different. Chile had a long history of democracy and political stability, and the military could never go against the constitution. “It won’t happen here,” was a common refrain. We wanted so desperately to believe that we mistook our beliefs for reality.

 

Echoes of Chile in Portland

Although the events in Chile profoundly influenced my life, over time they receded in my consciousness. Until the recent events in Portland. The videos of unidentified paramilitary forces kidnapping citizens into unmarked vans were like a punch to the gut, and images of the coup in Chile flashed in my mind. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, hardly an antifa activist, called these federal agents what they were: “storm troopers.”

 

Do I think there will be a military coup in the United States? No. But there is more than one way to stifle democracy, from demonizing the media to mocking the rule of law, pardoning political cronies, defunding public institutions, suppressing the vote, tear-gassing peaceful protesters, packing the courts with like-minded ideologues and eroding the separation of church and state. As authoritarian leaders around the world have shown, from Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil to Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, if democratic institutions are sufficiently weakened, authoritarianism easily co-exists with nominal democracy. 

Given the widespread condemnation of the federal offensive in Portland, Trump has pulled back — sort of — and there are promises to end the kidnappings and use of unmarked vans. At the same time, Trump is expanding his offensive and sending federal forces to at least five cities, including Milwaukee. 

 

There is a new name to the initiative, Operation Legend rather than Portland’s Operation Diligent Valor, and the federal forces will be focused on violent crime rather than protecting federal property. But can we be certain that once in a city, these federal law enforcement personnel will obey the niceties of law? They certainly didn’t in Portland. 

 

More disturbing, all it takes is an executive order by Trump to completely up-end any existing understandings. The Department of Homeland Security forces in Portland, for instance, were not there as a matter of routine protocol. They were specifically sent after a Trump executive order in late June. 

 

Who knows what other executive orders Trump has in mind?

 

In a July 24 opinion in the New York Times, former senator and presidential candidate Gary Hart notes there are at least 100 documents “authorizing extraordinary presidential powers in the case of a national emergency, virtually dictatorial powers without congressional or judicial checks and balances.”

 

Little is known about these secret powers; they are classified and approved by the National Security Council, not Congress. But, Hart writes, “we believe they may include suspension of habeas corpus, surveillance, home intrusion, arrest without a judicial warrant, collective if not mass arrests and more; some could violate constitutional protections.”

 

Trump obliquely referred to these powers last March when he said, “I have the right to do a lot of things that people don’t even know about.” At the time it seemed just another of Trump’s many boasts. 

 

What will November bring?

Looming over these developments are the November elections.

 

Trump lies so easily and consistently that we sometimes forget to take him seriously. So perhaps it is understandable that his statements during his Fox News interview with Chris Wallace on July 19 did not lead to the outcry they deserved. 

 

In the interview, Trump suggested he may not accept the results in November if he lost. “You don’t know until you see,” Trump said. “It depends. I think mail-in voting is going to rig the election. I really do.”

 

There are ample reasons to worry about the November elections, from voter suppression to warnings of foreign interference. Add in the COVID-19 pandemic and it’s clear we are in uncharted waters. 

 

I find myself increasingly thinking about the events in Chile in 1973, and the belief that Chile’s socialist experiment would be protected by the country’s history of democracy. Pinochet proved us wrong.

 

When looking at the possible death of democracy in the United States, for me the question is no longer, “Can it happen here?” The question is, “What are we going to do to about it?”