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


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


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.



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


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?”



Thursday, August 6, 2020

The Fight For Our Lives: COVID-19 in MKE

A mural by Mauricio Ramirez at 6th and Lincoln Ave.

Following are five profiles of people and organizations at the center of the COVID-19 pandemic in Milwaukee in its early months in the spring of 2020. The profiles were originally published in the June/July issue of Milwaukee Magazine.


A Man, and a Symbol


Milwaukee changed forever at 6:05 p.m. on March 19. 

Lawrence Riley, 66, was pronounced dead at Froedtert Hospital, becoming the first person in Milwaukee County to die from COVID-19. Well-loved in life, in death Riley became Milwaukee’s ground zero, solemnly representing that moment when our world split in two: before coronavirus and after coronavirus. 

It didn’t take long for authorities to realize that Riley’s death heralded another disturbing reality: The virus was tracking the region’s racial disparities. Beginning with Riley, the first 11 deaths in the county were of African Americans, and people of color would dominate COVID-19 deaths for weeks to come.

If one were to look for a figure to represent Mr. Everyman Milwaukee, Riley would fit the bill. A graduate of Rufus King High School, Navy veteran and retired firefighter, Riley was a long-standing resident of Sherman Park. Father of six children and grandfather to eight, he was married to his wife, Linda, for 29 years.

In early March, Riley seemed well. Whitley, his 20-year-old daughter, had come home from spring break at Prairie View A&M University, a historically black university in Texas. “He looked fine to me,” she recalls. “The same old dad.” 

Whitney Riley with her favorite picture of her father, Lawrence.

By Friday, March 12, “he was feeling really sick,” she said. “We thought it was a cold, or the flu.” 

By Monday, his condition had deteriorated, and family members convinced him go to the hospital. Struggling to breathe, weak and unable to drive, his wife and 25-year-old son, Langston, drove him to Froedhert. “While they were riding to the hospital, my dad was asking, ‘What’s wrong with me?’” Whitley recalls. “And my mom didn’t have an answer.”

Riley was admitted, scans taken, and he had severe pneumonia. Although Riley had pre-existing health problems, the doctors suspected COVID-19. The next day, the official diagnosis was made. Family members were sent home for fear they could become infected.

Riley was put into a medically induced coma and on a ventilator. He died Thursday night. 

Riley’s wife and children never had the chance to say goodbye. To a person, family members credit the nurses for easing that pain. “They nurses were amazing, and called my mom almost every hour,” says Riley’s 28-year-old son, Elvaughn. “Eventually, when he passed, they pre-warned her and she was able to tell the nurse to say something in his ear.” 

The family remains mystified how Riley caught the virus. “He was a homebody,” Elvaughn said, and left the house only for grocery shopping or to drive their mom to work as a state social services worker.

Just as Riley’s death highlighted the region’s racial disparities, it exposed the inadequacies in what public health officials agree are two key components of controlling the coronavirus pandemic: testing and contact tracing.

More than a month after Riley’s death, family members had yet to be called for the “contact tracing” that identifies and notifies people who may have come into contact with Riley. Nor were any family members tested for COVID-19. The only advice they were given was at the hospital, when Riley’s wife was told that she and the two children living with her, Langston and Whitley, should quarantine. “It’s kind of odd,” Whitley said. “It makes you wonder.”



Undocumented and unemployed


Ten years ago, Marta Beatriz lived in Fort Collins, Colorado, and came to Milwaukee on vacation. She enjoyed the pace and sense of community on the South Side, so even though she did not have family here, she moved.

“I like Milwaukee a lot,” she says in Spanish during a late April interview. “It almost feels like I am in Mexico.” 


Marta, 42, was born in Durango, Mexico, a city roughly the size of Milwaukee, but left there as a teenager in search of a better life. She found it here in Milwaukee. She married, had two children (a girl, now 1, and a boy, now 6) and enjoyed her job waitressing at a Mexican restaurant. 


Today, that life is falling apart. 


Milwaukee’s Latinx community, like the city’s African Americans, has been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. The disparities are complicated by language and cultural barriers and, for undocumented people like Marta, the lack of legal immigration papers


Marta has always paid taxes, but because she does not have a Social Security number, she cannot get unemployment benefits or a stimulus check. Nor can she get a driver’s license, which might open up farther-flung jobs. Even if she spoke perfect English, fear of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would make her think twice before going to a hospital. Marta’s husband, meanwhile, was detained for driving violations last year, which spiraled into problems with ICE and possible deportation. 

Marta Beatriz

Without legal papers, it is unlikely Marta will find a new job except at small, family-owned Latinx businesses, whether a restaurant, a grocery store, in child care or home cleaning. But those are precisely the businesses that have had trouble accessing federal stimulus funds. Many are in danger of going under. 


Nelson Soler, president of the Latino Chamber of Commerce of Southeastern Wisconsin, says that as of late April he did not know a single restaurant that had gotten any federal small-business assistance. Home remodeling and child care businesses were also hit hard. “People called my office, crying,” he said. 


The irony is that for the last 20 years, the growing Latinx population stabilized the city and region. Milwaukee’s population, for instance, would have significantly declined if not for the Latinx community. Roughly 114,000 Latinx people live in the city, and it is estimated that 20%-30% are undocumented. 


Marta, like many undocumented, relies on the solidarity and support of the Latinx community. She is particularly thankful to Voces de la Frontera, an immigrant rights group that provided her a $250 grant through its COVID-19 relief fund.


After keeping food on the table, Marta’s biggest concern is not having a place to live. She couldn’t pay her rent in April, but the property’s owner, a Mexican, was understanding. “He told me that I once I begin working again, I could pay,” she said.


Luckily, neither Marta nor her children have gotten COVID-19. And if you want to see Marta’s face light up, ask about her kids. The 10-month-old is starting to walk, and the 6-year-old makes her laugh: “Sometimes,” she says, “my son will go the window and he’ll say, ‘We’re in quarantine, right?’”


“He’ll talk about COVID-19 and coronavirus, in English and Spanish,” she says proudly.


Marta wants a future not just for herself, but her children. The lack of a job haunts her most. “I try to move ahead with the little I have,” Marta says. “But I need to find work.”


Marta Beatriz did not want to provide her last name, for fear of repercussions from ICE. 




Working in the Shadow of Fear


Alicia Smith does not consider herself overly religious and, having grown up on the streets of Chicago, doesn’t frighten easily. But she’s often scared these days. And she prays a lot.


Smith is one of about 50 housekeepers who clean the patient rooms at Ascension St. Francis Hospital on Milwaukee’s South Side. The housekeepers get a fancy title – environmental service workers – but not much else. Starting pay is a tad over $11 an hour, and there is no hazard pay. In the hospital hierarchy, their status is low. 


But as much as doctors and nurses, housekeepers are front-line workers in the battle against COVID-19. 


Smith prays before she cleans a room that had a COVID-19 patient. “God, please wash me with your blood and watch over me as I clean,” the prayer goes. “Protect me and my family and my friends and my enemies from the corona.” 


The prayer does not keep away the fear.

Alicia Smith

 Smith was used to cleaning rooms with blood, feces and infection. She can’t remember the exact day but it was sometime in March when, seemingly without warning, normally upbeat nurses “had this scared look, and my heart started pounding.”


She has worked at St. Francis for six years, and had learned that when the nurses are scared, you should worry.


At least four housekeepers quit in March saying they were not given proper protective gear. TouchPoint, the subcontractor that runs housekeeping, said in response that “We adhere to the highest standards and protocols in infection prevention to keep our team members safe.” 


Just over half of the cleaners at St. Francis are people of color, and about three-quarters are women. 


Smith and her husband, both 50 years old and sweethearts since their teens, have been unable to have children. She often takes extra shifts to help out co-workers, and it’s not uncommon for her to work from 3 p.m. until 6 the next morning.


Entire wings of the hospital are reserved for COVID-19 patients, Smith said, with three levels of rooms. The Level 3 rooms that had a seriously ill COVID-19 patient are the ones that many housekeepers are afraid to clean. 


The doors are closed at a Level 3 room, Smith said, with someone sitting outside to control who goes in. The cleaners enter after a patient is discharged – hopefully home, but not always. 


Before they go in, the cleaners are covered with special gear: a cap on the head, booties on the shoes, gloves, a white body suit, a mask, and a protective shield over the eyes. 

Once the sitter makes sure the gear is on properly, the cleaner opens the door, enters, and immediately closes the door. They strip down the room, everything from sheets and covers to hand lotion, and tie it up to be thrown out.


“Everything,” she emphasizes. “It’s infected, and it’s COVID.”


Smith then wipes down surfaces and mops the floor, sometimes even the walls. When done, she opens the door, takes out the bagged-up items, and the sitter helps her undress. The protective gear is also bagged and thrown out – except for the plastic shield over the eyes, Smith said. It’s wiped down and put in a paper bag for her to reuse.


Asked if she had a message for the general public, Smith paused before answering. “Stay positive,” she said. “We are going to pull through this all together. Just keep on doing what you’re supposed to do, like wash your hands and everything. Except drinking Lysol. Don’t do that.”


Alicia Smith is a pseudonym.



Building on Lessons of the Past 


On a recent Spring day, Mike Gifford, CEO, was at his nonprofit’s pantry packing food – mac ’n cheese, canned corn, baked beans, even spices donated by Penzeys. Fresh produce, milk and eggs would be added before the food was delivered to people’s homes.


Gifford heads what was the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin but is now Vivent Health, operating in four states with a $150 million annual budget. He has one main goal in life: keep alive people with HIV. That mission has been complicated by COVID-19, but the fundamentals are the same: Do anything and everything for your patients and clients. And don’t wait for government initiatives.


Perhaps more than any other group in Wisconsin, Vivent Health has experience with the suffering and death unleashed by a global pandemic. In the last four decades, more than 32 million people have died from AIDS. There is still no vaccine.


Realizing the seriousness of COVID-19, by March 10 Vivent Health had restructured and developed a “radical response.” At the time, many people in Milwaukee were still preparing St. Patrick’s Day parties, and it would be two weeks before Gov. Tony Evers’ safer-at-home order. 


“We remember the lack of government response in the early years of the AIDS epidemic,” says Gifford, who’s been with Vivent almost three decades. “We all remember that President Reagan didn’t say the word ‘AIDS’ until 1987, six years after the first cases were diagnosed.”


“That led to a very powerful community response,” Gifford continued, “and that really has become part of the culture, part of the DNA, of organizations such as Vivent.” 


As part of its “radical response,” Vivent’s wide-ranging services – the food pantry, medical clinics, needle exchange programs, mental health therapy, housing and legal assistance – went online or to a delivery model. And there was one overarching message to its clients: Stay at home. We will come to you. 


To safeguard employees, all but a handful would work from home. At the same time, Vivent’s roughly 200 employees in Milwaukee, from the CEO down, would take weekly shifts to help out, and not just in the food pantry. Vivent, for instance, did not want to wait for people to call for help. So every week, someone on staff makes a personal call to each of the roughly 1,000 patients and clients in Milwaukee. (Gifford estimates there are about 4,000 people in the Milwaukee area living with HIV, about half of them African American.)


Rather than having patients pick up their medicines, Vivent filled and arranged for the delivery of about 1,500 prescriptions a week in April. The food pantry ended its drop-in format and increased the number of people served, delivering 12 bags of food that month to about 1,000 people, enough food to last 10 days.


In line with its philosophy of self-reliance, Vivent also provides at-home HIV testing kits with online support, and COVID-19 testing through its medical clinics. A handful of patients had tested positive for COVID-19 by late April, but none had needed hospitalization. Gifford was keeping his fingers crossed.


People who lived through the early years of AIDS learned to combine a sense of urgency with hopeful patience, according to Doug Nelson, who led the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin from 1988 to 2012. It’s a tricky balance.


“Back then, we had to look to science to lead us out of the darkness of AIDS,” Nelson said. “And we have to look to science today.”

That’s not the only lesson, Nelson added. At his home not far from the Urban Ecology Center, he decided to leave up the Christmas lights on the porch. But he re-arranged the lights to read “HOPE.”


“’Hope’ is a universal word that helps people overcome fear,” Nelson explained. “It inspires confidence that there will be better days.”



A New Look for Justice


In a post-coronavirus world, there will inevitably be more online learning, working and shopping, and “social distancing” will be the norm. But will our institutions fundamentally change? Will we address social inequalities that, while long acknowledged, became painfully clear during the pandemic?


When it comes to Milwaukee County’s criminal justice system, an unlikely trio is addressing that question – Milwaukee County Chief Judge Mary Triggiano, District Attorney John Chisholm and Tom Reed, head of the public defender’s office for the region. As fans of Law and Order know, you don’t usually get the prosecution, defense and judge together in a room to work out solutions. But it’s happening in Milwaukee County.


“Relationships matter,” Chief Judge Triggiano said during a joint Zoom interview in April. The three work together on a reform effort known as the Milwaukee Community Justice Council – an effort that purposefully substituted the word “community” for “criminal.”


With that learned trust in hand, they acted quickly when the threat of COVID-19 became clear. Beginning March 12, they reduced operations at the county courthouse by about 85%. Courtrooms were closed, replaced by virtual hearings where possible. Those arrested on misdemeanors were generally not booked at the jail. Nonviolent offenders, especially those with little time left on their sentence, were selectively released. Overall, the population at the Milwaukee County Jail and the House of Corrections was reduced by almost 25% from December through April. 


“We have probably done more to redesign the front end of the criminal justice system in the last three weeks than in years,” Reed said. “We’ve been forced to do it because we had to respond to the threat of COVID-19.”


But still, disaster struck. At the House of Corrections in Franklin, there were 94 confirmed cases of COVID-19 by April 30 and another 25 of the fcility’s roughly 800 inmates had recoveredAt the Downtown jail, only three of the 664 inmates had tested positive, with four results still pending.


Why the difference? One lesson is the importance of social distancing. At the jail, inmates were kept in individual cells. The House of Corrections (HOC), meanwhile, relies on dormitory-style living. 


Another lesson, learned too late at the HOC: non-symptomatic people can infect others, so any way forward must involve widespread testing and immediate isolation of those with COVID-19.(In late April, the National Guard helped test all inmates at the HOC. In May, Milwaukee County used federal money to help renovate a facility in Franklin to house both county and state prisoners with COVID-19.)


With health officials warning of a second wave of infections in the fall, what does the future hold? The issue goes beyond returning the criminal justice system to its pre-coronavirusstatus, because everyone knows the system was broken. “We have to go to a different model, a community justice model,” Reed said. 


Reed, Tiggiano and Chisholm all said that one positive effect of COVID-19 is the growing understanding that public health cannot be separated from public safety. As a result, medical professionals are increasingly involved in discussions that had been dominated by lawyers, judges and law enforcement. That input has bolstered perspectives that early intervention, treatment and community-based solutions, not just jails, are integral to any future justice system. 


The challenge, Chisholm said, is to maintain a focus on those who are truly a threat to society, and not have a lot of people incarcerated for lower-level offenses.


What this ultimately means is a work in progress. What is clear is that a public health/public safety approach leads to different policies than the “lock ’em up” mindset behind the era of mass incarceration and its devastating impact on Milwaukee’s African-American community. (Wisconsin, led by figures from Milwaukee, locks up blacks at a rate 10 times higher than whites, double the national average.)


Chisholm, an elected official in a strongly Democratic county, can speak openly about what else he believes is important. The November elections “are absolutely critical,” he said. “We cannot continue to reinforce policies that benefit the few and leave so many behind.”