Guests include: Dr. Rob Smith, Marquette University professor and historian, Thomas Mitchell, editor of the Milwaukee Community Journal, and James Causey, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist
ERIK BILSTAD: How would you describe what we’re seeing in Milwaukee and across the nation? Is it comparable to anything that we’ve seen before throughout history?
THOMAS MITCHELL: No. We’ve had protests on Black police-involved killings in the past. The last big one here was Ernest Lacy, that was about 40 years ago. And there’s been some protests, smaller protests, as it relates to other officer-involved killings of African Americans, but nothing like this. I mean, I think the reason why you’re seeing the impact its having is because it was caught on someone’s cell phone and then it went viral. And just the fact that you have a policeman blatantly looking into the woman’s camera while he is — with his knee, choking the life out of a human being, George Floyd, I think — it has really opened the eyes of many people, particularly white people in this country and in the City of Milwaukee, as to the viciousness of this type of lynching. I mean, this definitely fits the definition of a high-tech lynching. I know Clarence Thomas used that years ago with the Anita Hill hearings, on his response to her allegations, but this was definitely a high-tech lynching in the case of George Floyd at the hands of this police officer. And I think it has especially outraged white individuals in this country. I think they have seen it up close and realized what we as Black people have been saying of Black lives mattering. And I think they are taking it to heart, and I think you will be seeing definite change. We have had three weeks’ worth of protests now, and it’s not letting up at all. And even during those protests, you saw police misconduct. I mean, in New York, a squad car ran over people. And you saw other uses of teargas. Even media people have even been teargassed, hit with rubber bullets, or arrested for just doing their job. And even within the industry, we saw censorship of two black journalists in Pittsburgh. One of the reporters had posted on her — I think it was her Twitter account, and she was taken off of covering the issues that deal with her people. And a lot of stuff is happening in the media: miscues, misfirings as it relates to covering this as well as overall treatment of Black journalists in newsrooms. I think there’s definitely going to be changes.
ERIK BILSTAD: You know, you bring up an interesting point there. I think there is a realization, at least from some CEOs across the country and here locally, that even though they thought they may have had a diversified staff or a diversified newsroom or whatever industry it might be, they really don’t. There aren’t many people of color in leadership positions or in some of these positions that can make a difference.
THOMAS MITCHELL: Yeah, and in LA — the LA Times, the Black journalists that they have, the few that they have, have been revoked because of the problems its made to diversify staff and do a number of other things and it hadn’t happened. And it took a tragedy for the media to wake up and realize and look around and see that they’re not doing a great job as it relates to diversity, as it relates to listening to community and its needs, its issues. But now the media is, and they can’t just give out platitudes and then go back to business as usual; they have to deliver.
ERIK BILSTAD: So let’s talk locally here. What are you finding your consumers need right now? Outside of the pandemic, which is a whole other issue, what have you found your consumers are looking for?
THOMAS MITCHELL: I think what they’re looking for is the positive aspects of the protests, of the demonstrations that have been peaceful and that have been all inclusive of different ethnic groups, men, women, even children. We have a couple photos of what looks like a family during the demonstration walking with other protesters. It’s really brought different ethnic groups in the city together and has galvanized them into one cause, and that is to let the people in power know, and not just in government but in business as well, that Black lives matter particularly with law enforcement.
I found it kind of unusual that Police Chief Alfonso Morales who himself is a minority: Hispanic, Latino, was going against the — speaking against the protesters saying that they were just being copycats because of what happened in Minneapolis, but if you looked around, it’s not just here in Milwaukee, it’s other cities, and it’s having an impact. But it just goes to show that regardless of your ethnicity, if you have that police mentality of “us against them” that you see is so prevalent within police departments, particularly in their unions.
ERIK BILSTAD: I’m amazed at how quickly this is moving, and we’ve seen demonstrations take place throughout history and sometimes they elicit change; sometimes they don’t. In this case, how quickly it’s moving here locally in Milwaukee. The Common Council is now considering cutting some of the budget for Milwaukee police, and this is happening across the country. The initiative is evolving before our eyes a lot quicker than I thought it would.
THOMAS MITCHELL: I think because the politicans realize the people are serious, that they’re just not out here for show but they want to see systemic — systemic change in the city and the way it delivers services and where those services are targeted, especially as it relates to the law enforcement and what they’re doing and what they should be doing. I know that Cavalier Johnson, the Common Council president, noted that a good portion of the — I think it was the property tax goes towards the police department, about 45 percent, and that the Milwaukee Central Library only gets 4 percent of that budget, of those monies. So there definitely has to be a change and the money should have to go to social service programs that I think will make the job of police officers easier. I mean, if you can solve the problem of homelessness, of affordable housing, of better education, of jobs, you know, jobs that, you know, come about because the monies are going towards infrastructure and fixing bridges and roads, which you and I know really need to be fixed, that is going to make life easier for people in this city and thus will make life easier for police officers. Don’t be surprised if, you know, those things come true that you’ll see a drop in the number of calls for, say, domestic violence or for assault or robbery, whatever. You know, if people have those things, basic things that they need for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, you won’t see crime.
ERIK BILSTAD: Wouldn’t cynics say that we already have money in some of these programs, and in some cases, we have multiple programs in place that already may be missing the mark or may not be seeing the success?
THOMAS MITCHELL: I don’t think you need another program. I think you have enough adequate programs in place, it’s just a matter of money. A lot of programs have been cut or have been reduced. The pandemic hasn’t helped them either. But if you put more money into programs that help deal with the basics of life and those monies go to those individuals who need the help, I think you’ll see a great change, a change for the better.
ERIK BILSTAD: One of the things that I’ve been thinking about: I assume with the pandemic there’s going to be a lot of issues with the budget going forward just because the amount of money that has been spent dealing with COVID-19, so we may see slashes across the board in years to come.
THOMAS MITCHELL: Yeah, we could but, you know, that would be a mistake not to take advantage of this opportunity, for the city fathers to allocate money on programs that are really needed. Because that’s what the people are demanding now because of what happened with George Floyd. Floyd opened up the floodgates of real change to occur in this country, and particularly in Milwaukee. And the priority has to be improving the lives of individuals. You can deal with COVID-19 and improve their lives at the same time. It would be a mistake — if you think you have protests now, just think of the protests if they don’t spend it; if they use the excuse of “well, we gotta put this money towards this pandemic.”