– Joanne Sabir, Co-developer of the Sherman Phoenix, with Melissa Barclay
– Dr. Rob Smith, Director of the Center of Urban Resource, Teaching and Outreach at Marquette University and resident historian at America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee, with Melissa Barclay
– Ray Nitti, Milwaukee hip-hop artist, with Mike Spaulding
MELISSA BARCLAY: First off, what was your initial reaction when you saw that video that we all saw of the murder of Floyd? What were the thoughts going through your mind at that moment?
JOANNE SABIR: One, I decided not to watch the video. It just reinforces this live trauma, right. So I made a conscious decision not to watch the video, but hearing the news was heartbreaking. You know, we’re constantly pressing against a system that does not see us — us as the African American community — as human.
So really, we’re looking at a system that is really saying we’re not willing to change, we’re not compromising. And so really thinking about what does that mean for us as a community and all of our allies, how do we show our collective strength? We’ve already gotten into the space of solving, right. How do we solve while — where, yes, voting is appropriate, how do we think about these infrastructures, a bureaucracy as a bigger system, but really even just looking at the riots and some of the — there’s power in that. How do we use that power to become stronger as a collective, where some of the thoughts that came to me after first learning of what was happening or what had happened, another lost life? And that’s where I am, yeah.
MELISSA BARCLAY: So this seems to be a rhetoric that we’re having to go through over and over again in American history, throughout the world, too. What makes this one different? Is it different? Is the death of George Floyd different than ones in the past?
JOANNE SABIR: There is this — a very — a renowned — called tipping point. I think we’ve reached this point. And this embedded understanding that we have to be relentless. We can’t turn this into a moment of a hashtag or a moment of sharing where there is — everyone has advice and everyone has opinions, but we’re really now at the precipice of in community, formulating a strategy that lands us someplace different, that doesn’t land us down the road in another hashtag.
So this affords us the unfortunate opportunity — it’s unfortunate because it was inspired by a loss of life — to really consider that it’s time for all of us, and not just people of color, but all of those folks that are willing to be allies to understand this systemic, right. We’re dealing with hundreds of years, in my mind, of oppression and we’re seeing what that oppression and how it folded into systems, the impact on people and people’s lives. And I think we’ve gotten to a point of being beyond tired, but ready to do something that leads us in a different position.
MELISSA BARCLAY: Joanne, many of us are reminded of the Sherman Park uprising in 2016 here in Milwaukee. Do these demonstrations now feel the same to you or are they different?
JOANNE SABIR: I think they’re different in the sense that, you know, people understand that if change doesn’t happen, we’ll be continuing this same journey of anger, riot, revolt another 20 years, another 10 years down the line. So it’s different in the sense of the conversations and the ally-ship. So when you think about people that are really speaking up and understanding that this is a problem that — that goes beyond the state or a city, a problem that rests within the fabric, the fabric of America, that now there is a significant rally cry. I think there’s a desire to be more strategic moving forward as it relates to how we heal as a community, as it relates to how this impacts not just people of color but all of us, right. It’s speaking to — it’s calling for the greatest parts of humanity in a lot of ways to say it’s time for us all to share in this, a time for us all to rally and to think about how, while we wait for the system to respond and to see if it’s human, how a community — on a community level, can we rally around each other and affect change in a different way? And for m,e the Phoenix has embodied that possibility, right? It’s not something that required a huge systemic change, but it was really a change that was inspired, supported, and advanced based on the will of our neighbors and communities and investors. So my hope is that we dig deep to really come together around “how do we solve this?”
And so I can’t speak — there’s many opinions around, you know, the riots, but there’s many of — it’s time to put people first. And so my hope is that all of this leads us back to each other and to an actual solution in community while we wait for our government, while we wait for our police systems to catch up that we also have strengths. We also are a people with great assets and wisdom and it’s time for us to put that wisdom to work for each other.
MELISSA BARCLAY: The protests, I have seen them, they’re very peaceful during the day here in Milwaukee, but then at night things kind of get out of — out of order. What — what’s the message or the response you’re hearing from your community in the Sherman Park area? Are you hearing some different things or — I’m not sure.
JOANNE SABIR: You know, I’ve been talking to young folks and it’s really around — you know, we think about riots and we think — you know, I’ve seen a lot of folks chime in on, you know, the Boston Tea Party, and that often times out of chaos there’s something that wonderful that brews, but I really do think that there’s time for leadership to come in and support. You know, often times we have this — a lot of charismatic leadership without infrastructure. So there’s children in community, there’s young folks in community that need us to provide an outlet and a next step, but what can that outlet be when you don’t feel like you’re seen as a human being?
So I think it’s time to really galvanize leaders to support this energy because they’re great power, we see this, but how do we redirect it?
And so I can’t really speak to what changes in the evening or what happens, but I do know that there is a great deal of possibility that we can garner from the energy that our young folks are showing in the night hours of just being — they’re relentlessly angry and hurt.
So my call to action is while the easy — the easy thing for us to do is to kind of shame the riots and give attention to, you know, how some of the capitalists infrastructure may be affected, the target is affected.
They had — this media had a really great article that we need to put people before profit, but really thinking about how we channel this power that now is being destructing property, but it’s still power. So how do we take that power and put it towards the greater good in a way that our young folks will see benefit? So we have young folks that haven’t had the equity or the access to all of, you know, education. So there’s so many different factors that are — that are laddering up to what we’re seeing happen in the evening. It’s kind of — it reminds me of Katrina, right, when we saw nothing new in terms of the poverty, but the water and the floods really unearthed what was happening.
So, again, the tragedy is unearthing this disconnect that our youth has felt this gap in access, this lack of equity in, you know, all of the socioeconomic determinates of health. We see it, right, we’re seeing this, and this is how it’s being displayed. And now is a significant opportunity for leadership to rise and provide direction and outlet for that imaging. What’s next, you know, what happens after we, you know, march down the street and we sing songs and hold hands, how do we really use this moment in time when the world is watching to really affect some positive change?
So my greatest hope is that we leverage our strengths and come together around creating an in-community infrastructure that shares our voice and lifts our power, because voting is important, being connected to policy as it relates to our police officials and how do we have a lens of humanity, but really we have work to do on the ground level and we think about how these — some of the repressive systems aren’t needing us, but we do have power and wisdom in community that can affect a change. So my hope is that we begin to lean into that, but right now people are really, really angry. This is really, really hard and it’s exhausting, because it’s not facting. So we’re seeing young folks that historically Black colleges and universities being attacked, they’re driving down the — you know, the news footage of the — of — is relentless. So it’s time for us to really, really think about the systems in a deep way while moving in community and doing what we can with what we have.
MELISSA BARCLAY: Joanne, is there anything else that I didn’t ask you that you’d like to say?
JOANNE SABIR: I think as always to get to the heart of the matter. And really my call to action is beyond marching really as a community with our allies to really say, you know, people, Black folks, we are human beings, we live, we breathe, we love, and it’s time that our humaness is honored. And so my hope is that all of the allies and all of the leaders really do rise to the occasion and we continue to work to the greater good.
DR. ROB SMITH: Given the critical and difficult times we are in — and it’s important for me to state that I’m speaking on my own accord. I’m — I’m not representing America’s Black Holocaust Museum directly or Marquette University directly; although, I am certainly intimately involved with both institutions. I am speaking from my expertise as a historian, particularly one who studies civil rights and rights-based movements. And I just want to make sure that my comments are attached to me directly.
MELISSA BARCLAY: It’s been over a week since the murder of George Floyd at that hands of a Minneapolis Police Officer. There have been protests, we’ve seen demonstrations taking place all over the country and world since then. Do you believe the death of George Floyd is the tipping point for some real change in this country?
DR. ROB SMITH: Well, it certainly has to be. And I say that it has to be because our nation is under, no uncertain terms, in the droves of civil war. That civil war does not necessarily have to look like the 1860’s, but we are at a moment where the lines are drawn, and the lines are drawn very clearly. And those lines — that line represents those of us who believe in basic justice and basic humanity and basic human dignity. And the assumption is those that are on the other side of that line are not in favor of those. And that — that means that the killing of Black people in particular, the killing of other folks at the hands of law enforcement, the extrajudicial killings long before folks have faced trial, long before folks have even, in many cases, been charged with a crime. These killings have put our nation squarely in the middle of a fight that is really based on what our nation stands for and who we are going to be as a nation. If we’re going to be the nation we proclaim to be, domestically and internationally, we have to make changes. And those changes have to be broad, they have to be sweeping, and they have to be swift. And we — we are calling upon our elected officials, law enforcement, and folks who are oftentimes painted as being on the other side to come over to the side of justice. Now is the time. If we don’t do so now, we will continue to watch our nation fall us under.
MELISSA BARCLAY: As an African American leader in the Milwaukee community, what are your feelings right now of where we are at this point in the city and in the country?
DR. ROB SMITH: Well, I think both in the city and the country, what we are seeing is a wide and diverse body of Americans who fundamentally believe that the changes that we spoke about just recently have to occur, and they have to occur not only in terms of massive changes to our criminal justice apparatus, meaning police are going to have to be held accountable, those who are the leaders and supervisors and directors of police departments and police forces have to stand tall and demand that those who are supposed to protect our society indeed do that. And that the very racialized nature of policing and the racialized nations — nature of our criminal justice apparatus, it cannot continue in the way they have progressed over now several hundred years. We’re at a tipping point, and all of these young people, young and old, who are in the streets calling for change cannot be met with brute force and intimidation environments, because these are American citizens who are simply demanding that our nation make good on its promises. And that is — that is not a tall order. We have seen several police departments from around the country understand that clearly that they too have to become a part of that change. And those are models that hopefully will catch fire with police departments across the country, so that others emulate it.
And this is not only about policing, this is also about the failure of political leadership, both at the local, state, and national levels. Your party affiliations cannot dictate your response. Your longstanding racial prejudice — prejudices cannot dictate your response. The only response that we can address effectively to move forward is a response that values human lives.
And, you know, as journalists — we need journalists to stop talking about buildings and — that are being burned or the destruction of property. Property rights cannot be weighed more heavily than human rights. The human cause has to be at the forefront of this conversation, you know, and we see it time and time again in our public discourse. Before we’ve even effectively addressed the human loss, we start talking about property, and that’s just completely unacceptable. Because we know that property destruction, if it occurs, is at the hands at a very small number of people compared to the thousands upon thousands of people who have been demonstrating peacefully. The numbers of folks who are behaving in ways we may not appreciate are minimal compared to those who are standing up peacefully for justice.
MELISSA BARCLAY: Dr. Smith, as a historian, can you kind of give us, I guess, a brief history lesson? Help us shed some light and perspective on what’s going on today by looking at our past. How can we understand each other better by looking at the past on what we need to change today and what’s happening today?
DR. ROB SMITH: Well, you know, I think that there are so many historical answers leading to this moment. We have seen over and over throughout history, particularly our more contemporary history. Whenever our cities erupt as they have with demonstrations and rebellion, almost consistently, maybe in all of them, police violence is one of the key indicators to those upsurges. And so we have to be honest about that and we have to be very clear about that.
If we were to think even more broadly, we have a longstanding pattern of racial injustices in our country, and we have to address those. In this moment of a pandemic where we have millions upon millions of Americans out of work, we have to also think about economic justice and what that means. You know, there are folks that are not only pissed off about the extrajudicial killings of Black people, but there are also folks who are pissed off about economic inequality that have been exacerbated in this particular moment. We have a whole range of policies and legislations that were intended to correct some of these injustices and disparities. Those mechanisms have to be emboldened and supported and advanced in ways that operationalize justice in its purest and clearest form.
You know, historically, we have seen any number of social movements and protest movements emerge and bring very clear awareness to these longstanding problems and injustices, and we’re just seeing another version of that. Unfortunately, we have the weight of accumulative set of problems that helped to exacerbate where we are today. And I know that we have all this great technology, we got smart phones and everything else, but — but all of that technology, all of those developments in technology need to also be aligned with developments in the human spirit and the human consciousness. You know, we have to think far more compassionately. We have to think far more directly about what it means to be a human being who lives with dignity. And we — we have to approach these moments, this moment right now, with those kinds of ideas at the forefront.
And, you know, just recently our president has called upon a hyper-militarized response to our own citizens. Now, several months ago, we could not get a coordinated response to a pandemic, and we still have yet to receive that coordinated response, but we’re being asked to welcome a coordinated militarized response to our own citizens, and that is just completely unacceptable. And we have to begin to place blame, and we know that blame can be placed on the failures of our justice system to bring people to justice who have committed these killings. We have to blame the folks who are supposed to be leading our cities and states and our nation as politically for their shortcomings, and they’re going to have to listen. Because if they don’t listen and make changes, our streets will stay in this moment where they are — where they have erupted in such demonstrative ways. And it’s really, really critical. If we just look at the faces of the people who are out in the street, they represent, again, a wide and diverse body of American citizens who are demanding change, who far outnumber those who would prefer to maintain the current racial status quo in this current present — in its present state. We have to change.
MELISSA BARCLAY: Dr. Smith, what do you think Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., would say about the state of the country, what’s happening today in the world? What would he — what do you think he would say?
DR. ROB SMITH: He already told us. He told us over and over that we — we have to approach these — these inequities. We have to approach these racial injustices very directly. We have to confront them; otherwise, people will exercise their right to demonstrate over and over and over until we have a collective response.
What — what has been happening, which is very disturbing, is that you see folks that would otherwise resist the ideals that Dr. King helped our nation and our world come to understand. Now raising his name up as if they now are going to follow — they’re suggesting that others are to follow his model. Well, the folks who have been the perpetrators of these evils, they have to follow his model, too. You know, over and over we — we hear this fundamental statement that — where Dr. King wouldn’t approve of looting and all of that. Well, of course not. You know, but what Dr. King will tell us and has told us over and over is that if we don’t get our house together, our house will — will burn and — figuratively and in reality.
And so, if we’re going to raise the specter of Dr. King, then the folks who are raising the specter of Dr. King better also live and breathe in his teachings and in his efforts and his legacy.
MELISSA BARCLAY: What needs to happen next? What’s your hope for changes in the future?
DR. ROB SMITH: Well, the first thing that needs to happen is that we need all of the law enforcement, if there’s any National Guard, and the military, they need to put their guns down. That’s the first thing they need to do. Because we — we see violence directed at folks who are not being violent. We see violence being directed at folks who are asking for our nation to live and breathe as creed. And that comes with — in order for that to occur, it begins first and foremost with law enforcement and other militarized entities to put their guns down and hear the frustrations and hear the anger of our citizens. This is our country we’re talking about. These are — these are citizens of the United States. These are not outside agitators in the way that it gets framed, these are — these are our neighbors. These are our friends. These are our schoolmates. These are our colleagues, people we work with, you know. These are — these are friends and family members. And we should be able to have disagreement, certainly, but fundamentally we — we have a responsibility to demand that those who are supposed to protect our society and lead our society that they do so in the spirit that our constitution demands.
MELISSA BARCLAY: Dr. Smith, very important words. Is there anything else that I missed that you’d like to say?
DR. ROB SMITH: The thing that I’d like to say is that we have to keep in mind that this is the accumulative effect of a number of factors. Obviously, racial injustice and racial oppression. You have to understand the accumulative effect of racial violence, particularly state-enacted violence. And when I say state, that — by that we mean not only law enforcement, but political violence that has undermined our education system, political violence that allows for folks to be evicted from their homes, political violence that encourages ongoing dissent, political violence that’s stripping away the right to vote, the cornerstone to democracy, as a means of maintaining some sort of political power. These are — there is any number of expressions of violence that we have to attend to and that we have to address and get rid of. Otherwise, we’re going to continue to have these challenges. This could very well end up being one of the long, hot summers. We have seen cities upon cities erupt across the nation, and whether it’s racial oppression, economic oppression, or political oppression, all of those are woven together as a means of embolden these folks who — who are just simply demanding that we do better as a nation
MIKE SPAULDING: As a musician, you have an opportunity to speak to people in your community and really any community, I think, that someone like the governor or the mayor wouldn’t have, whether it’s because they don’t go to that place or the people who live there don’t even know that the governor perhaps is in town, or something along those lines. How did you decide to kind of take this and make an activist as part of your persona?
RAY NITTI: I feel like I decided to get more involved when we decided to pursue a development project on 32nd and Wisconsin. And right now we have Wisconsin’s largest privately owned affordable housing development project. And for us, it’s huge for us to — to be able to, after four years, five years, pull something like this off and bring all of the creators and the talents that will be populating the creative corridor or the tech things that will be going in. It will be 197 residential units and it’s not just, like, one apartment building, it’s across two blocks. So it’s just like creating a whole different community, and we want to put all black businesses in it.
Like, Milwaukee is great at sharing. We need to keep our local talent here, right. I know we can’t fill a lot of jobs because our creators and our talent is going to these other places and making them better. Well, for us, this was our answer, and, like, this was us building an arena for our creatives to play.
Like, when Milwaukee felt like, okay, our economy was was going to be in a downward spiral if we lost the Milwaukee Bucks, we needed to rebuild a new stadium for them. And I feel like it’s a huge analogy, but our creatives, our local talent is our Milwaukee Bucks, that is our team. And we continue to lose them at alarming rates because we’ve yet to build a dope gym, a dope arena, for them to play in and grow in and actually get those championships that Milwaukee deserves.
MIKE SPAULDING: So as somebody who’s vested in the community that really has a stake in the community now, what do you tell your neighbors, your business colleagues when they are watching their businesses get destroyed by people who most likely and could be their neighbors?
RAY NITTI: I mourn for a lot of people that put their life into their businesses to see it vandalized and destroyed. And not to take anything away from that, but I also mourn for the people in Milwaukee that have to live through these conditions on a daily basis. When you think of Milwaukee being the No. 1 city for segregated in America, the No. 1 place where educational gap between whites and Blacks, the No. 1 place for pay deficit between whites and Blacks, those are the things that are more concerning to me. And, like, until we address those things we will always see moments like riots and things like this happening.
MIKE SPAULDING: From talking with a few people during these protests, while it might be eye opening for many, it doesn’t seem like it caught a ton of people by surprise. I guess, what went through your mind when you saw this start to bubble up last week?
RAY NITTI: I would ask what went through your mind when you heard about Mike Brown or what went through your mind when you heard about Rodney King? For anybody that is acting like this is a surprise is being extremely naive and just being deliberately blind. Like, this isn’t something like — it’s not new. It’s like oppression and then resistance of oppression. Like, it’s not new. So only thing it did, it’s evolved. Oppression has evolved and the resistance has evolved as well.
MIKE SPAULDING: Do you think change will come as a result of this?
RAY NITTI: I feel like I’m seeing more people being open and making statements, more corporations are making statements. But we’re beyond statements, we need legit action. And, like, it’s always “wait.” It’s always “it’s coming.” Like, nah, we’re taking it now. And we’re going to put new leaders in places of positions. We already started, we have a new county executive in David Crowley. Marcelia Nicholson is now the County Board of Supervisors president. And what you’re going to see is more minority people, we’re going to be putting them in these places of power. Because we have votes, and we have often been neglected and not counted or represented in the city. And now we’re just using our power and our influence and the connection that we have with our people to make the change needed. We’re no longer waiting. Okay, if you think we should wait, we’re going to put somebody in the seat that doesn’t feel like we need to wait and understand that change needs to happen.