The struggling city has a superpower: the potential to determine the winner of the next election.
In the early hours of April 3, 2019, in a tableau that many Americans will recognize, the darkness of my family’s New York apartment was ruptured by the contemptible light of a laptop. An election result in another time zone had kept me up. In the race for a Wisconsin Supreme Court seat, Brian Hagedorn, a man so extreme in his views that he’d alienated reliable conservative donors, had beaten his moderate-liberal opponent, the chief judge of the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, Lisa Neubauer. This wasn’t just bad—this was worrying.
Our polarized national politics means that the Presidential election is exceptionally transparent. If the Democrat flips Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, he or she will almost certainly win. If Donald Trump holds just one of these states, he will very likely scrape together an Electoral College majority. In the 2018 midterms, which came to be known as the Blue Wave, Democratic gubernatorial candidates won in Pennsylvania and Michigan by about seven points. In Wisconsin, the Democrat Tony Evers defeated Scott Walker, the incumbent governor, by a point—fewer than thirty thousand votes. If the upcoming Presidential race goes down to the wire, it very much looks like the wire will be in Wisconsin.
How had Hagedorn won? Trump had carried the state by only twenty-three thousand votes. Neubauer’s supporters had spent a fortune on her campaign. Elections around the country were trending against the G.O.P. How had Wisconsin Republicans overcome all of that? As Butch Cassidy might have asked: Who are those guys?
They’re wow voters, I learned online. The suburbs of Milwaukee in Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington counties are heavily white and legendary in political circles for delivering victories to the G.O.P. While suburbs elsewhere in the country have turned away from the Republican Party, wow came through for Hagedorn. His win confirmed my worst nocturnal fears: Wisconsin conservatives know how to win elections.
Most Democrats in Wisconsin are concentrated in two cities: Madison and Milwaukee. Voter turnout in Madison has been consistently very high; in Milwaukee, it has been up and down. In the 2012 Presidential election, Milwaukee city’s turnout was measured at sixty-six percent, but in 2016 it fell to fifty-six percent. The difference comes to forty-one thousand votes—almost double Trump’s margin of victory.
This is not the whole story, of course. But even I, who had never set foot in the state, could figure out this much: if Milwaukee voters turn out in numbers, Trump will be in trouble. Who are those guys?
Here we come to one of the great historical ironies of the 2020 election. Milwaukee has been rated the worst city in the country to be an African-American resident, yet nearly forty percent of its population is African-American. What may be the most downtrodden urban community in the United States has a superpower: the potential to decide who will be the country’s next President.
On a cold, gray, intermittently sleety afternoon in December, I accompanied three young women as they knocked on doors on West Galena Street in Milwaukee. The women, who wore name tags identifying them as Tamer, Amari, and Brittany, literally knocked: doorbells were not put to use. Some of the doorknobs had tags on them, hung by other visitors, stating “Fight for $15 and a Union.” The women visited some thirty homes and were answered five times, not counting numerous barking dogs. They delivered pamphlets and engaged three residents in meaningful conversation. They got two signatures for a petition—for Unlock the Vote WI, a campaign to restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated Wisconsinites. Tamer Malone, Amari Rucker, and Brittany Ezell were civic ambassadors for a group named bloc—Black Leaders Organizing for Communities.
This part of West Galena Street is on Milwaukee’s North Side. The North Side has connotations that are as much racial as geographic. Milwaukee is perhaps the most segregated metro area in the United States. The North Side is where almost all of its African-Americans live.
If you drive through the North Side’s extensive neighborhoods, you’ll be struck by its green and tranquil appearance. There are parks and grassy spaces, and buildings designed as single-family homes, often sizable and handsome, dominate the housing stock. The portion of West Galena Street where the bloc ambassadors were canvassing is not atypical. Between the Ultra Food Mart convenience store (“We don’t go in those,” Malone told me, “for our own safety.”) on the block’s southeast corner and the white clapboard Good Way Church, on the northwest corner, were sizable old houses separated by large, grassy yards. Apart from a few people milling around the convenience store, the street was quiet. You’ll see some boarded-up or fallen-down properties in north Milwaukee and notice a distinct lack of retail activity. Sometimes a car drives by that hasn’t been fixed up since its last crash. But unlike, say, parts of Detroit or Baltimore, Milwaukee does not offer a spectacle of urban ruin.
Yet the median income for an African-American household in Milwaukee is about thirty thousand dollars, less than half that of the median white household. Other socioeconomic outcomes—pertaining to life expectancy, employment, health care, home ownership, voting rights—are likewise dismal and racially asymmetrical. Wisconsin’s incarceration rate for African-American men is the highest in the nation. North Siders struggle with gun violence, with educational attainment (Milwaukee is last in the nation for the percentage of black college graduates among those between twenty-five and thirty-four years old), and with lead poisoning.
There is something lurid about data of this sort. In the hope of some contrary illumination, I spoke with the state senator Lena Taylor, whose district includes a chunk of the North Side, about the dystopian reports. She told me, “I wish that I could say that the statistics are not true, that the stories are wrong: the worst place to raise a black child, and so forth. But when you consider the outcomes…”
The North Side was built between the eighteen-eighties and nineteen-thirties, Milwaukee’s boom times, when the city had a pronounced German identity. It was viewed as a sophisticated, successful, and progressive place. (The American left still takes nostalgic inspiration from the socialist mayors who ran Milwaukee for most of the first half of the twentieth century.) During and after the Second World War, large numbers of African-Americans from the South moved to Milwaukee to work in factories. The migrants were segregated into older neighborhoods where redlining—racial discrimination in mortgage-lending, personal finance, schooling, and other civic amenities—drastically restricted their economic and residential mobility. When, in the nineteen-seventies, the tidal withdrawal of Milwaukee manufacturing jobs began, North Siders were stranded in poverty. Among U.S. cities, only Philadelphia suffered a larger drop in the proportion of families living in middle-class neighborhoods. The communal fabric began to disintegrate. Infant mortality among Milwaukee’s black babies is comparable to Gaza’s. The children who survive, Taylor told me, “are growing up through the cracks in the concrete.”
Malone, Rucker, and Ezell grew up through those cracks. Watching them at work—cheerful working-class women, barely past adolescence and without college degrees, engaging a handful of people in brief conversations—it’s hard to see what they’re up to and why it matters.
Bloc civic ambassadors—there are currently about thirty—work in twosomes or threesomes. Each group is assigned a “turf” of about a hundred and twenty blocks. This turf is systematically canvassed, usually for three to four hours a day, five days a week, year-round—nonstop, essentially. Records are kept of the interactions with the residents, and, gradually, mutual recognition and trust and knowledge is built. In 2018, bloc knocked on just over a quarter of a million doors and spoke with 20,336 people. The value of the group’s work lies in its persistence. It’s what people in the political business refer to as organizing, as distinguished from mobilizing. Mobilizing is rousing people to vote in a specific election or to join a specific protest. Organizing is making people aware of, and habitually participate in, the political process. When I asked Malone to describe the bit of her turf that I was seeing, I expected a reply that touched on the predicament of the residents. She replied, “I would call this area ‘organized.’
Increasingly, if belatedly, Democratic strategists are grasping that Republicans beat Democrats, especially in midterm elections, in part because they’re better at organizing. Books such as “We Are Indivisible: A Blueprint for Democracy after Trump,” by Leah Greenberg and Ezra Levin, and “All Politics Is Local: Why Progressives Must Fight for the States,” by Meaghan Winter, argue persuasively that long-term grassroots engagement, rather than top-down, short-term electoral mobilizing, is the key to winning elections consistently. wow voters are the model: a social-ideological community that is aware of its power and committed to exercising it. But the Republican base is increasingly homogenous and has for years been continuously organized by a handful of central news sources, notably Fox News. The Democratic base is more diverse, in terms of race and class, and is a lot more ideologically fragmented. In north Milwaukee, people have had a peculiarly bad civic experience, and they are not easily persuaded—or even reached—by generic political messaging. For Democrats, there is no alternative to slow, painstaking, face-to-face work.
Two middle-aged women sitting in a car parked on West Galena Street, across from the convenience store, called the ambassadors over. The women turned out to be veterans of health-care activism. They were curious about the young women with clipboards, and they listened carefully to what the ambassadors had to say and shared some thoughts about their own experiences. They were impressed—they hadn’t been aware of bloc—and said that they might drop by bloc’s upcoming Christmas-toy giveaway.
As the conversation wrapped up, the women in the car mentioned that, a few blocks away, there was an Underground Railroad memorial. They suggested that the young women might want to take a look. The suggestion was accepted. A plaque stood on a pole at an open and windy intersection. Malone took a picture. The text read:
STOP ON THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD
Across Fond du Lac Avenue from this point was the Samuel Brown farm, part of the local Underground Railroad, a network of hiding places for escaping slaves. In July 1842, 16-year-old Caroline Quarlies, a runaway slave from St. Louis, was hidden on the Brown farm to avoid pursuing slave catchers. Milwaukee abolitionists then took her to Prairieville (now Waukesha) and from there she went to freedom in Ontario, Canada.
During the afternoon of November 8, 2016, it dawned on a young political activist named Angela Lang that the voting activity she was seeing in Milwaukee was less than what she’d hoped for. Lang, who is from Milwaukee, was the political director of For Our Future Wisconsin, a super pac that supported Hillary Clinton. She went home to watch the election results come in. She told me, “I remember being wrapped in my blanket with a bottle of tequila. My boss, John Grabel, called me at one in the morning, thanking me for my work. It was very sombre. I thought I was out of a job, too.”
Lang is now thirty years old and the executive director of bloc. I spoke with her at bloc’s offices, which are on the second floor of a modern red brick building owned by the Greater Spring Hill Missionary Baptist Church. Lang wore pants with blue checks, knee-high black boots, and a black top. Sometimes she wore glasses, sometimes she didn’t. She moved between a neutrally professional speech register, for our interview, and a more colloquial way of talking, for her colleagues.
After the election, Lang was upset by “the narrative that, if black and brown people had turned out, we wouldn’t be in this mess. I complained about it to my boss”—Grabel—“who knew of my love for Milwaukee. ‘What do we do?’ we asked ourselves. In May 2017, we—John and I and other folks, including folks from For Our Future and the Center for Popular Democracy—locked ourselves into a room with butcher paper. We came out with bloc.” Much to Lang’s surprise, Grabel suggested that she run it. Lang took the job but made it clear that bloc, rather than its funders at F.O.F. and the C.P.D., would control the organization’s vision and mission.
The mission, Lang explained to me, “is to increase the quality of life for black people in Wisconsin by expanding their idea of civic engagement. Civic engagement isn’t just voting—we have folks on staff that can’t vote in 2020. It’s also learning about the difference between city and county government, about how to talk to your alderperson or county executive. We ask people what issues they have—say they want speed bumps—and we identify the process to get that issue resolved. People feel they don’t have the power to make a change, because they don’t understand where they fit. We help them understand their power.”
Bloc knocked on its first door in November 2017. The knocker, Lang told me, was probably the program director, Keisha Robinson, who is forty-two, with a bob of purple curly hair, and is the mother of nine children (one girl followed by eight boys). Lang calls Robinson “a superwoman with an out-of-this-world work ethic.” bloc’s ambassadors do most of the community outreach. They are recruited locally and then trained in administrative skills—how to use Google Docs and spreadsheets, in some cases how to use e-mail—and in advanced civics: what a sheriff does, what’s on the ballot in a local election. Ambassadors have firsthand experience of prison, poverty, and other bad outcomes. “We’re rough around the edges, in the most beautiful way” is how Lang puts it. “People were skeptical—but they saw us again and again. Our ambassadors have authenticity. The things people are talking about, we know.”
A former ambassador, a thirty-one-year-old named Steven, told me, “A lot of the black community don’t believe in change: ‘Why would Caucasian people change things for us?’ People don’t understand that, by not voting, they’re voting for sameness. I think we’re having a big effect on the community. People are starting to really know us and open up on their issues. Fully engaging with us. It has been a successful year.”
“I like to think about what success is,” Lang said to me. “Does it mean electoral wins? Yes. But also engaging people that haven’t been engaged. We’re reaching new people typically left out of political power.” This includes her own colleagues: “Success means our ambassadors posting links off C-span. To see their growth, to see them stand in their power and knowledge, is beautiful to watch.”
There are other grassroots groups in Milwaukee—for example, Voces de la Frontera and lit (Leaders Igniting Transformation), which are focussed, respectively, on immigrant rights and organizing youth of color. But no other organization in Milwaukee is doing the work bloc is doing. It aims, Lang said, “one, to turn a nonvoter into a voter; two, educate them about the process; and, three, get them to vote for candidates we support.”
A measure of bloc’s influence is that stopping by its offices has become an important ritual for local politicians running for office. On the day I met with Lang, she led a morning staff meeting at which the recent visit of the state representative David Crowley came up. Crowley is running for Milwaukee County executive. Someone said, “We’re all going to vote for David. I almost cried.” Lang smiled. “Yeah, he’s good,” she said, then added, “David and I go back ten years; I knew him before he was elected. I like David, I like Chris Larson”—another candidate—“and I don’t know who I’m voting for.” Lang’s role at bloc has a pronounced teacherly component. She went on, “I don’t want y’all to be too easily persuaded, to take everything at face value. It’s y’all’s job not to take everything at face value. I encourage you all to do the research and not be mystified.” One of the women mentioned a third candidate, Theodore Lipscomb. “His wife is black—he ain’t the typical white boy,” she said. Lang responded, “He’s got a cute family.” One of the men said, “I grew up with Theo. Played basketball.”
Later that day, Lena Taylor, who is running for mayor of Milwaukee, dropped by to say a few words and then go on a “silent canvass,” in which a politician accompanies civic ambassadors on the strict condition that he or she says nothing, takes no pictures, and listens to what Milwaukeeans have to say. (It isn’t only local politicians who do this: Julian Castro, Beto O’Rourke, and Cory Booker took part in bloc silent canvasses last year.) Before Taylor’s visit, Lang again encouraged her staff to listen critically to a speech that would be, she said, designed to appeal to them. Taylor arrived and duly gave a funny and compelling presentation that dwelt on the successful frustration of a proposal to build a meat-processing plant nearby. Afterward, her audience had two questions. First, what would she do differently than the current mayor, who is also a Democrat? Second, regarding her proposal to encourage local hemp production, would the THC in hemp—its psychoactive ingredient—show up in a urine sample?
The day’s main event, however, wasn’t political. bloc’s Christmas-toy giveaway was taking place the next day, and bloc staff had been preparing for a while: in the corner of the room rose a small mountain of name-tagged plastic bags filled with toys for three hundred and thirty-one children. A hundred adults were also expected, and all had to be fed brunch. “How much can people put on their plate?” somebody asked. The giveaway had a social purpose—to raise awareness of bloc—and a humanitarian one. bloc’S zip code, 53206, is notoriously of interest to sociologists of racial injustice and socioeconomic deprivation: in the 2010 census, ninety-five percent of its residents were black, two-thirds of its children lived in poverty, a third of its men were incarcerated. Lang went over every detail. “Santa, we good? Elves?” She continued, “Arts and crafts, we good? We got popsicle sticks?”
That afternoon, while the toy-giveaway preparations were being finalized, the Ozaukee County Circuit judge, Paul V. Malloy, ordered the immediate deactivation from the Wisconsin voting rolls of more than two hundred thousand Wisconsinites who had not responded to a letter requesting confirmation of their residential status. Fifty-five percent of the voters were located in cities won by Hillary Clinton, notably Milwaukee.
Angela Lang’s earliest memory of a political feeling is her puzzlement about the boys who attended a private school across the street from her home. Why couldn’t her friends go to the school? Who were these kids who got dropped off in the mornings?
Lang’s father is, or was, an African-American from Milwaukee, she believes. She has never had a relationship with him. Her mother, Ann Lang, who was white, was the daughter of a truck driver. When Angela was twelve, her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and told that she had between twelve days and twelve months left to live. She survived for another eight and a half years, all the while working a series of jobs (including receptionist, librarian, hotel manager, and, finally, Walgreens employee). “She went to chemo on Tuesday and to work on Wednesday,” Lang said. “She pushed herself really hard.”
Lang was “a good kid, honor roll and all that.” At the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, she became involved in student government, but it was not until 2011, when the Republican governor, Scott Walker, signed a budget that cut roughly a billion dollars from state education and pushed anti-collective-bargaining measures, that she discovered a political vocation. About two years of student protests ensued, during which she learned a lot about organizing—from making transportation arrangements to using Twitter. After college, in 2013, she got hired by the Service Employees International Union (S.E.I.U.), working in the field for eight to ten hours a day with the aim of unionizing nursing homes. “It was very tough, very emotional,” she said. “Nine out of ten of the workers are black. I’m in women’s homes in Milwaukee as they make dinner, fold laundry. They’re telling me how they need a raise but are scared to go against management.” Lang then worked as a coördinator, on behalf of the S.E.I.U., on the Fight for $15 campaign, for a higher minimum wage, which proved a crash course in managing strikes and rallies. In her third and last year at the S.E.I.U., she was put into political work, specifically operations and endorsements. “For the first time,” she told me, with a faint smile, “I had power in relation to elected officials.”
In August 2016, Lang moved to For Our Future—and three months later found herself reckoning with Trump’s Wisconsin victory and the fall in the Milwaukee turnout.
In retrospect, two factors are salient. First, a new voter-I.D. law required Wisconsinites to show a current driver’s license, passport, or state or military I.D.—even if they were already registered to vote. As a consequence, thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of previously eligible voters were deterred or prevented from casting a vote. Again, voters in Milwaukee were disproportionately affected. Second, Clinton’s campaign made a serious miscalculation. “Hillary didn’t visit Milwaukee,” Senator Taylor told me. “As a result, Hillary didn’t win Wisconsin.”
Promoting voter registration is a basic component of bloc’s agenda. It also intends to make the community’s electoral turnout more contingent on voters’ knowledge of their power to make change and less contingent on the charisma of political celebrities who may or may not drop by during a campaign.
The world’s most celebrated liberal politician is an African-American community organizer. When I asked Lang what the effect might be if Barack or Michelle Obama—or both—were to spend a month in North Milwaukee doing grassroots work, she smiled broadly and said, “It would change a lot.” Senator Taylor, in response to the same question, said, “People will go wherever the Obamas say. Especially if they’re talking about issues in their lives.” Reportedly, Barack Obama won’t get involved in the Presidential race until after the Democratic National Convention, in July—even though he potentially has the ability, between now and then, to do much to secure Democratic turnout in Milwaukee. He is planning, in other words, to focus on mobilizing voters, rather than organizing them.
bloc, meanwhile, has a 2020 plan of action: “to ramp up to about one hundred ambassadors and hire extra staff, like a data person,” Lang told me. There are also plans to start an operation in Racine, which has its own embattled African-American community, and to embrace digital outreach. (Lang is “really concerned” about Republican social-media operations aimed at “demoralizing” her community.) I asked her what the message in the field would be. “Our message?” she said. “ ‘We have the power.’ ”
Date Posted: Wednesday, February 19th, 2020 , Total Page Views: 925
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