Milwaukee Has a Lot to Teach Joe Biden and the Democrats

Milwaukee Has a Lot to Teach Joe Biden and the Democrats

Milwaukee Has a Lot to Teach Joe Biden and the Democrats

Representative Gwen Moore spoke of a “city where blood was shed for labor rights, where a fugitive slave was freed from prison, where women’s right to vote was first ratified.”

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Milwaukee, Wisc.—Representative Gwen Moore kicked off the Democratic National Convention’s primetime presentation Monday night with a rousing celebration of her hometown that spoke to its history and its hopes. “Oh, I sure wish you all were here in the city of Milwaukee, which takes its name from the languages of the First Peoples, interpreted as ‘good land’ and ‘gathering place by the waters,’” she declared. “This is a city where blood was shed for labor rights, where a fugitive slave was freed from prison, where women’s right to vote was first ratified.”

The reference to the city’s name stirred a Twitter frenzy, as fans of Milwaukee trivia wondered if she was paying homage to the scene in the movie Wayne’s World, where rock star Alice Cooper offers a pair of young fans a tutorial that includes references to how the name extends from a word “which is Algonquin for ‘the good land’” and explains, “I think one of the most interesting aspects of Milwaukee is the fact that it’s the only major American city to have ever elected three Socialist mayors.”

With due regard to Twitter, Moore knows her Milwaukee history. She has lived it, from the school integration battles of the 1960s to the present—as she so ably illustrated in an inspired 83-second speech that told of a virtual gathering “to reclaim the soul of America.” She also knows how to get a convention going on a high note, exclaiming, “What better way to gather than all across America to nominate my beloved friend Joe Biden to be the 46th president of the United States of America, with my VIP VP nominee sister Kamala Harris by his side?”

Unlike the other speakers Monday night, Moore delivered her address from a podium inside the mostly empty Wisconsin Center in downtown Milwaukee where the convention was supposed to take place. She was one of a number of Wisconsinites who will be featured at a convention that was sited in Milwaukee because the state is understood as the great battleground of the 2020 election. “If this is a close election, whoever wins Wisconsin will be the next president,” says Democratic Party of Wisconsin chair Ben Wikler. Even as Biden has opened something of a lead in the polls, there is a sense that this state will be contested all the way to November 3.

Donald Trump is certainly of that view. He jetted into Oshkosh, a city 88 miles north of Milwaukee, on Monday and delivered a rambling speech in which he claimed, “We’ve been good for each other.”

That’s a lie. Wisconsin’s relationship with Donald Trump has been a lousy one.

The state was good enough for Trump in 2016. After voting for Democratic presidential candidates in every election from 1988 to 2012, Wisconsin backed the Republican ticket of four years ago by the narrowest of margins—just 0.77 percent of the overall vote. But the reality-TV star never really won over the state. Most voters cast their ballots for someone else. Trump pulled ahead because, after a fall campaign in which Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton failed to visit Wisconsin, Democratic turnout was less than needed in Milwaukee, several other cities, and rural areas. So the Republican took the state’s Electoral College votes, and with them the presidency.

But Trump has never been good for Wisconsin. Much of the suffering he’s caused was initially in rural areas, where Trump’s chaotic trade wars hit farmers hard—to a point where, at one point in 2019, the state was losing three dairy farms a day. “We’re seeing more and more rural communities that are disappearing. They’re losing their banks, they’re losing their post offices, they’re even losing their grocery stores,” explained Darin Von Ruden, the president of the Wisconsin Farmers Union. “When there’s no money in the farming community it doesn’t stay in that local community. And so it [money] disappears and the local community disappears.”

Milwaukee has suffered, as well. The president’s promise to renew basic industries never really materialized and, once the coronavirus pandemic hit, unemployment in the city skyrocketed. It now hovers around 13 percent and it’s higher for Milwaukee’s Black community. In a city and surrounding country where racial wealth, education, and health care gaps have fostered severe inequities over too many generations—newly elected Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley says, “The truth is we face two pandemics: COVID-19 and racism.” That’s true in a lot of cities. But a new generation of local elected officials in Milwaukee is doing something about it. Milwaukee County Board chair Marcelia Nicholson used a pre-convention address to highlight the fact that Milwaukee County and the city of Milwaukee have led the nation in identifying racism as a public health crisis.

While the president has adopted a combative approach toward the #BlackLivesMatter movement, savvy Milwaukeeans understand all too well that the city, the state, and the nation must respond to police violence and systemic racism.

On the eve of the convention, downtown Milwaukee was uncrowded. Perhaps a hundred peace activists, including a number of delegates for both Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, gathered under a billboard that declared, “3% of U.S. Military Spending Could End Starvation on Earth.” They heard a message from Representative Barbara Lee, the California Democrat who has led the charge with Wisconsin Democrat Mark Pocan to cut the Pentagon budget. State Representative for Milwaukee David Bowen made the connection between calls for defunding the Pentagon and the police. Bowen noted that he and other activists have been demonstrating in Milwaukee and neighboring suburbs for more than 80 days, in one of the longest sustained protests in the country over killings of Black people by police officers. At the rally, he called for reinvesting federal and state dollars in social programs that actually make communities safer.

“Unfortunately, there are people who are much more tied to the status quo than we are,” he explained to me before the rally broke up and the area around the convention cleared out. Instead of the crowds for which the city had prepared—and the employment boost that would have come from hosting a national convention—the streets were more or less empty. Few people. Few cars. So quiet that a wild turkey wandered out from some bushes in a park near the Milwaukee Public Museum and crossed West Wells Street. I took a picture. Then I heard a bustle in the distance. There were energetic voices and music. Suddenly, downtown came alive—not for the convention but for the Black is Beautiful II bike ride, an event organized by Sam Ahmed, a local rapper known as Webster X, and other artists. Hundreds of riders raced through the streets, many with yellow banners featuring clenched fists waving off the backs of their bikes. They swept past the convention site and headed up Old World Third Street. Some of the bikes were outfitted with sound systems, a few riders used bullhorns to amplify the message. It was an inspired demonstration, all organized, Webster X told the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Post, to promote “love and solidarity” and to signal that racial justice activists were “still very much so out here and trying to make an impact by any means necessary.”

Too bad delegates and the national media didn’t get to see it. It made me think, like Gwen Moore, that I sure wish you all were here in the city of Milwaukee.

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