call to action, Commentary, community history, education, Heartbreak, justice, opinion, organizing, politics, race, Social Justice, Uncategorized

Police shootings, mob violence and the comfort of strangers: A Dispatch from Milwaukee

While Sweetheart and I were somewhere loud and happy Saturday night (a wedding),  loud and not-so-happy things were happening close to us.

In the morning, my friend Walter, a Baptist minister, posted this selfie on his way to his church. He invoked Nehmiah 1.

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By then, we’d heard the news. Riots had broken out hours after a police officer shot and killed a 23-year-old who’d refused to put down the gun he was carrying. Mobs of people gathered, shooting in the air, burning businesses and, according to one video on Facebook that I did not watch, looking for white people to beat up.

There were photos of the businesses that had been burned. A gas station. A bank. A beauty supply store. Before it burned, looters were carrying out bags of weaves.

My house is a mess. We got written up by the city for “weeds” (we have a  prairie in our front yard). I do not spend enough time with my mother or my grandson. But it could be worse. I didn’t lose my business, and I still have a job to go Monday.

It would be great if the world got better by burning things down, but it doesn’t. It just makes more heartbreak and fear which, last I heard, isn’t high on the list of building blocks for neighborhood stability.

I had to go over there and see if I could help clean up something. I’ve driven by that gas station a gatrillion times, and when I go downtown after work, I drive past the bank and the auto supply and beauty supply stores that were burned.

I wasn’t sure what I’d find when I got to the intersection a few hours after Walter had left. He’s black and big, and I am white and not. It didn’t matter. Being afraid isn’t enough of a reason not to do something that matters, and for some reason I couldn’t articulate, this mattered.

What I found were groups of people in the park across from the gas station. I instantly recognized my neighbors, Michael & Carolina. On the grass just off the sidewalk, three people were sitting alongside a pallet-sized stack of bottled water. There were bags of gloves and cartons of garbage bags.

“People are just going out and cleaning up,” Michael said. He and Carolina had been there long enough to fill a couple of bags, and were taking off.

I got a pair of gloves and a bag from a woman, who told me that the effort wasn’t really being organized by anyone. People were just showing up. (Click here for a photo, courtesy of Neighborhood News Service.)

“Kind of like last night, only not” I said. She knew exactly what I meant. I headed out with my garbage bag and a pair of yellow gloves, the kind you use to wash dishes.

I hadn’t taken more than a few steps when a young black man asked me something about where the organizers were. I told him what I knew and pointed to the water stack. Then I asked if he wanted to pair up.

Which is how I met Chad, an electrician who recently bought his first house, some 20 blocks away from where we were (roughly the same distance away as Sweetheart and me, but in a different direction). We headed east toward the beauty supply store. There wasn’t a whole lot to clean up, but we picked up some trash, and some glass. And then I saw the bullet casing outside a storefront. I photographed it, then picked it up and showed it to Chad.

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“Whoa, a slug!” he said.

We chatted between his cell phone ringing intermittently as he told people where he was and what we were seeing, and as we got to the beauty supply store, his phone rang. His cousin had come to help out. He went to meet her. The street had been cleared of glass and the windows were boarded up, but the ground between the board-up and sidewalk was a mass of piled glass. I dug huge chunks out of the dirt, filling up my bag.

Chad returned and introduced me to Tiffany, who’s working on her master’s degree in public health and works in the field already. We walked and talked as we made our way along the street, surveying the damage and talking about upcoming community events we knew about and were involved in. When we got back to my car, I gave Tiffany my gloves, and asked if they’d be willing to be in a picture. We got another passerby to take it.

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I took quiet comfort in the presence like-minded strangers who care as much as I do about the city I love and call home.

The mom and daughter from Whitefish Bay who were picking up garbage, the woman in traffic who called out from her car window to ask where she could drop off donations, and all the other people we saw along the way. Some were cleaning up. Some were just walking along. The front-seat passenger in carload of girls in an SUV announced (with a dash of salt in her tone) that they’d been there the night before.  In the park, groups of people were gathered in prayer circles, including a shirtless guy with a huge snake hanging from his shoulder.

There was a lot of work to be done before last night, and a lot of good people already doing it.

I hope it’s enough.

 

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call to action, Commentary, community history, justice, kindness, neighborhood, opinion, organizing, politics, Social Justice, Uncategorized

“We the People” attend a Listening Session: Polite Rage in Action

Two days ago, I got a call from a number I didn’t recognize. The woman on the other end had a story idea for a paper for which I’ve done a lot of work. Her son, a local orthodontist, was recently back from a medical trip to Guatemala, where he and several other dentists had spent 10 days treating anyone who needed care, at no charge.

We had a pleasant chat before ringing off.

Afterward, I thought about the numbers of people here who need and can’t afford medical and dental care. And I wondered what a medical trip from Milwaukee’s nicer, stable neighborhoods to the ones where boarded-up houses, absentee landlords and gunplay are rampant would look like.

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People lined up to speak at the Community Listening Session about the Milwaukee Police Department (Photo Credit: Martha Pincus)

Part of the reason could be where I’d been the previous Thursday. I went to a Community Town Hall Listening Session hosted by the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), a branch of the US Justice Department. The session was part of its Collaborative Reform Initiative for Technical Assistance with the Milwaukee Police Department. It’s basically a giant audit. A group of outside professionals examines every component of your operation and does focus groups with your customers. Then, they ride off into the sunset and come back with a report that includes a naughty & nice list –what you’re doing right, and what you might want to do differently.

More than 700 people packed the public auditorium. Demographically speaking, it was a very heterogeneous house. At least two different groups were dressed in matching T-shirts with printed messages.

There were political types,  incumbents and candidates both, mostly schmoozing with each other and the occasional constituent/voter. The exception was a guy I think of as Alderman Rage-a-holic, because every time he’s on TV – which is pretty often compared to other alderpeople – he’s spitting mad about something. He sure didn’t look approachable, sitting in a seat surrounded by empty seats toward the back of the room. His eyes were narrowed, and he looked as if he had just finished sucking the juice out of every lemon in the city.

Speaking truth

The program began. A sign language interpreter stood to the side of the stage, translating the speaker’s words into ASL. After lining up in front of two microphones posted at the edges of the aisles, everyone would have two minutes to speak. There was also a portable mic for people with mobility issues, and a Spanish-language interpreter. Note-takers were posted throughout the room to capture the information. The moderator invited people to approach the microphones.

A polite stampede ensued. People rose up from everywhere and aimed themselves at the aisles bordering the center section. In less than a minute, two orderly lines stretched back past the doors at the entrance.

I did what I always do when I’m not sure what to do and I have a computer in front of me. I took notes. Nine pages of notes, from 33 people. To a one, the speakers were respectful, even when they were angry, and many had a right to be angry. There were some terrible stories.

There was the woman who’d moved to Milwaukee at 18, and while visiting friends in a different neighborhood, was arrested for prostitution. When it kept happening, she asked one of the officers why, and he told her that then-chief Harold Breier said that if they saw a woman in a neighborhood more than twice, she was a prostitute. She had been ticketed 16 times.

Craig Stingley’s son, Corey, 16, died at a convenience store when three customers and a store clerk restrained him after seeing him shoplift. His death was ruled a homicide. Corey was black. The customers and clerk were white. No one was charged with a crime.

“My son was murdered by four individuals – choked to death … My son made an initial act that was out of order, but four adult individuals took it upon themselves to be the judge, the jury and the executioner.”

The mother of a six-year-old described how police had chased her son down, hit and arrested him after someone attacked him and his friends while they were playing basketball. Her son had begun running when he saw the officers. “He was scared,” she said, adding that “I speak for all the African-American boys who are stereotyped.”

The white woman who began by sharing that she’d “lived in a black neighborhood for 30 years,” elicited a collective gasp, followed by rumbles of disapproval. Someone shouted, “What’s a black neighborhood?”

Craig Stingley, who hadn’t yet spoken but was in front of the other mic, hushed the crowd.

“I have seen terrible, terrible things. Terrible things have been done to my neighbors. A man was kicked in the head by three black women. People have been dragged out of their cars. My tenant, a black doctor, was made to lie on the street in November while his car was carjacked. Our city has been overcome by violent black youth.”

The crowd was roaring, booing, shouting over her. She stood there.

Again, Craig Stingley intervened.

“It’s her truth,” Stingley said. “We’ve all got to get our shit together. Let her talk.”

When it was Maria Hamilton’s turn, she didn’t mince words.

“My truth is that of all these moms across the US whose kids have been taken from us through senseless violence by police departments.”

Her son, Dontre, was 31 when he was shot and killed by a police officer in a nearby park. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, he was homeless, and not on medication. His family cared about him and was struggling to advocate effectively for him. The officer was fired, but not charged.

Now, their advocacy work is focused on social and racial justice, with a focus on supporting mothers whose children were shot by police or vigilantes.

Some speakers had specific recommendations.

“We in Milwaukee need a good police department, and we have some good officers but also we have some bad ones. There are always a couple of rotten apples in any barrel, but when these apples have been able to survive, thrive and grow in numbers, there’s something wrong with the barrel,” said a 70-year-old Milwaukee lifer.

“We need to look at use of force as to how we train, how we weaponize and how we humanize.

Chris Ahmuty, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, asked that the review not disappoint the people who live here.

“Don’t just look at what the police want to talk about. It’s an affront to human dignity when people treat people in a third-class fashion.”

At 8 p.m., the session was supposed to end. At least 30 people were still in line. The moderator asked that no one else line up. Then he said the session would continue until those people spoke.

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My Write-in Candidate is Dead and Reductive Disrespecters Want Your Brain: An Election Season Guide for the Perplexed

There are a lot of reasons I miss having a dog. Election season is one. Tuki used to come with me when I voted.

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She was also my candidate of choice on more than one occasion. I voted for Tuki when it was clear that, compared to the humans on a ballot, she would represent my interests more competently.

I wrote in Tuki for County Supervisor the whole time Lee Holloway was in office. The only time I ever saw him at my door was after a pension scandal (he and his fellow supervisors voted themselves and county employees fat pensions at the expense of the county’s well-being). When I asked him about it, he got owly. His opponent had no political experience and misspellings on her campaign literature. Tuki was the clear winner.

Even before she died in November, I knew there was a viable human candidate for County Supervisor this coming April. When my friend Mike found out I’d been laid off last July, he told me he was running and asked if I’d be willing to help with his campaign.

Lke me, Mike is a progressive communitarian. Of course I’d be willing to help!

Also, I quite adore him. I also adore his wife Trudy, their kids Jon and Carolyn and their special needs dog, Turbo. (Turbo is an epileptic – but courtly – German Shepherd.)

I asked about specific things he could affect as Supervisor.

“Three things,” he answered. “Transportation, parks and jobs.”

“Four,” I said. “Mental health services.”

“Absolutely!” he said.

So, since fall, Mike’s been walking the district, knocking on doors and introducing himself to voters. By the time it was time to collect the 200 signatures he needed to get on the ballot, he’d gotten a lot of exercise. He’d also gotten a lot of information from his prospective constituents.

It used to be that simple. Candidates declared their intentions by going directly to We the People to talk about who they were and what they’d do, and We the People listened, used our brains to make an informed decision, and voted.

But most people are busy. Or lazy. Some are so turned off by having seen nothing change for so long that they’ve abandoned the process entirely and don’t even bother with elections or voting any more.

All that is a big mistake. Because people – on the left and the right – have figured out how to turn that cynicism and laziness to their advantage, and they’re doing just that. They’ve given up on changing the system. They’re just trying to milk it in order to get more for themselves or keep what they have by maintaining the status quo. And they’re using your brain – with your cooperation – to get the job done.

You can see it working right now in the run-up to next year’s presidential election. Who will Hispanics want? What about women? How do we get the Black vote? What about the Jews? How do we reach White Men?

Local party/organization bosses are exactly the same. They go out and find people they think the Hispanics/Women/Blacks/Jews/White Men will vote for and recruit them to run. Then, they pour money and publicity into their campaigns and send out press releases touting their credentials “S/He went to a rally for {insert cause here} and is an activist in his/her {insert demographic-catnip-sounding group name here}!”

It’s all designed to appeal to your emotions.

Which is reductive and disrespectful. Almost as disrespectful as the fact that these decisions are, by and large, made by people who don’t even live in the districts they’re working to influence.

So, yeah. Qualifications aside, I’m a little cranky that Mike, who is in his 50s and white, is being told by the people who don’t live here that they have to support the black woman in her 20s because she’s a black woman in her 20s.

Anyway, all this to say that during this election season, don’t take anyone’s word for what the person who wants to represent you stands for. When those glossy things start showing up in your mailbox, or if candidates show up on your doorstep, find out how long they’ve lived in your district, what drove them to run, what they want to accomplish in office and how they plan to do it.

Then, stick it to the reductive disrespecters. Use your pre-frontal cortex  instead of your limbic system when you decide who’s getting your vote.

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call to action, Central Wisconisn, community history, education, Family story, Judaism, justice, kindness, love, Media, opinion, personal history, race, religion, Social Justice, Society, Uncategorized

Up from the grave to denounce a naked emperor

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Helen and me. I was so happy to get to see her, and I think she was happy to see me, too. Maybe even happier than she would have been to see Donald Trump. (Actually, I’m pretty sure she was happier to see me.)

Donald J. Trump is a man his supporters would avoid like gay pride parades if he were saying the things he says while unshaven and pushing all his worldly possessions in a shopping cart.

But he wears bespoke suits and lives and works in buildings with his name on them. So instead of being called out for what he is – the emperor with no clothes  – his rants are miraculously elevated to the level of worthy discourse. It would be lovely to live in a world where his call to bar Muslims from entering the US would signify the beginning of his being exiled from public life. Sadly, I know better.

I don’t often put words in the mouths of dead people. But I’m pretty sure that Helen Sperling, who died last week at the age of 95, would have excoriated Mr. Naked Emperor.

Helen was the first Holocaust survivor I ever met. I don’t remember not knowing her. But until a Sunday School morning when I was 12 and 60 or so of us sat on the floor in the Edelstein Room at our synagogue while Helen sat on a chair and told us her story, I only knew her as Paul and Franny’s mother.

Helen was the mother with the musical laugh and long hair worn in a braid down her back. My mother had short hair and a short fuse. I wanted the mother with the musical laugh and long hair. I loved being at the Sperlings’ house. I spent a lot of time there because Paul was one of my best friends until we turned 5. His sister Franny was two years older. She was beautiful and way too sophisticated to hang out with four-year-olds.

One day, which I only can tell you about because it became the stuff of legend for the mothers involved, Helen served a lunch that consisted of pretty much none of my preferred menu items. (In Helen’s defense, I was a pretty strange eater. I didn’t like peanut butter. I didn’t like jelly. I didn’t like tomato sauce. I didn’t like sweet things.)

But I had been taught to be polite, and to be a good guest. Good guests did not ask for food that wasn’t already on the table. Good guests did not say “I don’t like that!”

So, when Helen called Paul and me into the kitchen for lunch and sat us down, I evidently surveyed the repast and looked up at Helen.

“These,” I said, eyeing up the contents of one of the serving plates, “are the friendliest cucumbers I’ve ever seen.”

I know that Helen must have laughed and laughed in that moment, because she and my mother both laughed every time one (or both) of them recalled it – right up to last year, when I was in Utica for my Aunt Bessie’s funeral and had time either to go to the cemetery and see my dad or go hang out with Helen, who was 94.

I called Franny to make sure Helen was up for visitors. Sadly, Paul and I never re-established our pre-kindergarten bond (there’s always hope, and we do have our memories), but when I was 15 and Franny 17, we got close. Ten years ago, we reconnected. Aside from being a generally fabulous human being, she is is also an amazing aerialist, and my hero and inspiration in all things flying.

Helen was as full of life and as feisty as ever. That she needed oxygen to breathe and wasn’t so good at getting out of a chair did absolutely nothing to diminish her vivacity and power.

She exclaimed over the cream puff I had brought for her (“My favorite! How did you know?” What I didn’t say: “Because Franny told me when I called her to see if you’d be up for a visit.”) and lamented that she didn’t have anything to serve. I’d bought frozen fish sticks; Helen was thrilled to let me use her oven.

We yakked like girlfriends. I told her about my experiences as a reporter in Central Wisconsin, where a Holocaust denier had taken possession of a good deal of Public Square real estate. The denier used local media to broadcast her message, got herself invited to an eighth grade classroom to talk to students, and even arranged for a public talk at the local two-year university center. I spent three years there, I told Helen, and was most proud of two things I’d done. One was connecting a local coffee shop to Colectivo, a Milwaukee-based coffee roasting company, making it possible to get a great cup of coffee in the (relative) middle of nowhere. The other was getting a Holocaust survivor to come to talk to those eighth graders, and to give a public talk at the university center.

We talked about getting old and dying. She was ready, but as long as she could, she said, she would tell her story. I asked her if she’d recorded it.

“Yes,” she said, “I spoke with the Spielberg Foundation. (The disc is) in a vault, because until I’m dead, I want people to hear it directly from me.”

She told me about the bracelets she gave every attendee at the end of every talk. Blue, and engraved with the words, “Thou Shalt Not Be A Bystander.”

“I don’t have any here,” she said. Then, she remembered that she was wearing one. She took it off and gave it to me.

Helen was a staunch supporter of Israel. She also loved the United States, and the best of what both countries aim to be and represent.

There is no way she would have stood by while a well-dressed, charismatic political wannabe spouted religious hatred. She knew exactly where that led. Which is why she spent her life doing everything in her power to make sure no one would ever have to go there again.

Note: Even though Helen didn’t want any video of her telling her story while she was alive, I did find one – on one of her many visits to Union College, her talk was videotaped. Click here to see it. 

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arts education, community history, education, entertainment, high school reunion, personal history

Exporting the ‘Revolution’ reunion (1): Remarkable cluelessness and how to be in two places at once

Welcome to the first of several postings about the most amazing reunion in the history of reunions. Given that it involved the event itself (a two-parter that included an afternoon and evening/dinner segment), a 1,500 mile sister road trip in which no eyeballs were scratched out, and many stops along the way (about which more when it is time, which it is not yet), it is worthy of more than a single post.

Revolution Reunion Post 1

Back in January, I wrote about co-chairing an upcoming summer reunion of my high school performing arts department. We were getting together to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the original theater piece we wrote – from scratch – to commemorate the US Bicentennial.

We were dumb high school kids who had no clue we were doing anything remarkable. And we were way too dumb to understand or appreciate that the teachers who’d decided a bunch of dumb high school kids could write and perform an original theater piece were several notches above remarkable.

Unusual, yes. That much we knew.

Returning to school after dinner on a weekly basis to hang around in the orchestra room wasn’t something friends in other high schools were doing. But it felt perfectly normal, once we got there on Wednesday nights, to noodle around inventing songs and grabbing classmates, or Mr. Hebert, when we hit on something we thought was interesting enough to share.

Meanwhile, over in the choir room, other students were singing melodies to Mr. Hanosh, who’d write them down and send them over to Mr. Hebert. Downstairs in the theater, they were writing narrative pieces with Mr. Barone, who taught English and ran the theater program. Once there were actual songs, Mrs. Schmidt, the dance teacher, began collaborating with her students on choreography.

The final result was this:

The cover for the program for our first performances. Brace yourself. There are a lot of pages here.

The cover for the program for our first performances. Brace yourself. There are a lot of pages here.

Program - page 2

Program – page 2

Program - Page 3. It might be a good idea for some of the the policymakers who think arts education is a

Program – Page 3. It might be a good idea for some of the the policymakers who think arts education is a “frill” to read this. Trust me, there is at least one future post on this topic.

Act 1

Act 1

Act 2

Act 2

The soloists and dancers

The soloists and dancers

The orchestra roster

The orchestra (I’m in here)

The choral roster - it goes on forever!!!! (Turns out there were five choirs at our high school. Who knew?!) Also, there were too many names to fit on one page.

The choral roster goes on forever!!!! (Turns out there were five choirs at our high school. Who knew?!) Also, there were too many names to fit on one page.

The rest of the choristers' names, and the acknowledgements. We had no idea we were doing anything remarkable. But when you look at this, it makes you think.....

The rest of the choristers’ names, and the acknowledgements. We had no idea we were doing anything remarkable. But when you look at this, it makes you think…..

Fast forward 39 years. “Revolution” might have seemed too far back to be visible in anyone’s rear-view mirror. But that line about objects being closer than they appear? Turns out, at least in this case, to have been spot-on.

As a Facebook newbie in 2014, Bob (formerly known as Mr. Barone) posted the idea of an event where we could come together, drink some wine and listen to the music together. Another classmate started a reunion group and within a day, membership exceeded 200. Bob’s reunion idea had sprouted legs, and the race was on.

The core planning committee (John and Jeannie and I) came together in August of 2014, and followed a process that closely mirrored the one used to create the original piece (minus the teacher-written Project Search Grant that funded the 1975 production). We all lived in different time zones, so we met over Skype and JoinMe.

This is a remarkably unflattering photo of all of us, but this is an actually committee meeting shot from January. And yes, I was in bed.

This is a remarkably unflattering photo of all of us, but it was taken during an actual committee meeting in January. And yes, that is me in bed (bottom).

This is, in part, what I wrote back in January when I thought (and wrote) that the best part of the reunion had already happened.

“I don’t remember when I last spent more time laughing with other people while getting real work accomplished. The three of us haven’t interacted in any meaningful way since high school. So it has been a joy to discover how much we still like each other, how compatible we are as a work team and how closely aligned our ideas and expectations are for the reunion.”

It turned out that that best part was the preamble to a whole lot more best parts.

By the time my sister and I arrived at Player’s Theater, other Committee members (we expanded our planning group based on evolving needs, at which point we’d reach out to other classmates based on their skill sets and proximity – and I’d also done my best to drag my sister into the planning process early on – she attended a couple of meetings and was a setup star) were hard at work. Jessica, who designed the reunion T-shirt based on Michael’s original logo design, was putting tape on the back of posters decorated with the reunion logo. Jeannie was setting up the screen and projector she’d borrowed from the library where she works, and John was setting up small round tables.

The T-shirts Jessica designed, riffing off of the one Michael designed (gulp) 40 years ago.

The T-shirts Jessica designed, riffing off of the one Michael designed (gulp) 40 years ago. You can see the original design on the program cover above.

I plopped myself down at one end of a table and continued working on the reunion playlist after having emptied the portfolio of memorabilia I’d hauled along – newspaper articles, two two-album cast recordings – one of the original production and one of the piece we’d done the year before (“Truth of Truths”), both signed on the inside, of course, by castmates and teachers.

Debby (my sister, who graduated a year behind me and played violin in the orchestra) still had her T-shirts from both performances. Everyone else had their memorabilia, but Debby was the only one with two T-shirts. She took Jessica’s posters and the loose news stories and pictures and started setting up displays around the room.

One of the loose news stories Debby placed around the room. The guy on the left, Gene, and Michelle were both at the Reunion. The others were missed!

One of the loose news stories Debby placed around the room. The guy on the left, Gene, and Michelle were both at the Reunion. The others were missed!

Bob showed up with a box. He began hanging banners and posters from other high school productions, and the drama group banner.

He hauled in a display board with newspaper clippings.

Bob and his wife Audrey, with the drama group banner in back of them and the display boards to their left.

Bob and his wife Audrey, with the drama group banner in back of them and the display boards to their left.

Before it was all over, Suzi had stopped by to say hello, (she’d done all the heavy lifting for the Saturday dinner that followed the afternoon event) and two Michaels – one the original logo designer and the other a sax player who’d become a high school music teacher. We’d tapped the latter Mike to co-emcee the formal part of the Saturday program along with Patty, because they both became high school music educators. But his band was playing a wedding they’d booked more than a year prior, so Patty was doing a solo act.

Revolution Setup Crew

The Revolution Reunion Setup Crew! (Photo credit: Audrey Pavone)

Mike was so crushed about having to miss the Saturday event that he made the four-hour round-trip drive from Binghamton to help out with setting up. It was so amazing to see him, and to catch up on everything we’d been doing since we last saw each other….sometime in, oooh….the mid 1970s.

As we were leaving Player’s to head over to Gerber’s for what turned out to be a fabulous dinner, he walked over to his car, lifted the tailgate, reached in and grabbed something. Then he walked over and started handing us each copies of his jazz combo’s recent CD.

“You just made the playlist!” I said, “Which means you’ll be here tomorrow!”

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