Milwaukee unrest was not caused by the 1960s

By Bill Kaplan

Wisconsin GOP Sen. Ron Johnson has joined Trump and Gov. Scott Walker in recycling worn-out clichés to explain the Sherman Park unrest in Milwaukee. Johnson said: "(The unrest has been) literally decades in the making. It's the fact that well-intentioned programs didn't work. The 'War on Poverty' didn't work....We didn't alleviate poverty. We've exacerbated it." And, Trump and Walker reached back to Nixon, calling for "law and order" and castigating Democrats. In the past, other politicians and their henchmen made similar nonsensical and unfounded claims.

In 1992, the Bush administration blamed the "War on Poverty" for creating the conditions leading to the Los Angeles riot that year. White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater opined: "We believe that many of the root problems that have resulted in inner-city difficulties were started in the 60s and 70s and that they have failed (anti-poverty programs)...." Nothing said about the pervasive and well-documented police abuse in Los Angeles. The furor was swift at the clumsy attempt by the Bush administration to politicize and trivialize the causes of the Los Angeles conflagration (more than 50 dead, thousands injured and over $ one billion in property damage). All during a presidential election.

Milwaukee and Los Angeles both have dire economic-social conditions for racial minorities, police abuse and politicization of social problems. However, it is inaccurate and misleading to characterize recent events in Sherman Park as a riot. This was not the "hot summer" of the 1960s, with catastrophic and murderous riots across urban America. However, it was an urgent wake-up call. The "War on Poverty" and civil rights laws reduced poverty and brought more Americans into the middle class. But the economic-political cost of the Vietnam War eviscerated anti-poverty programs. Moreover, for over a generation, neither political party has had much of an urban program (President Obama could have done more if not hamstrung by a GOP-led Congress). But inaction from the federal government has been the norm, compounded by overt hostility to cities from GOP governors like Walker.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett has been dealt a bad hand. The city's racial economic-social disparities have been severely exacerbated by deindustrialization, automation and capital flight leading to loss of well-paying manufacturing jobs. Nonetheless, Barrett has actively led efforts resulting in a booming and revitalized downtown, with a forthcoming light rail system. But Walker has made the mayor's job much tougher by cutting state aid to Milwaukee and obstructing local laws.

Like all American cities, there are two Milwaukee's: downtown and the inner city. The latter is plagued by Great Depression-like unemployment and poverty. Hopelessness is understandably widespread. To move forward, Mayor Barrett, like all big-city mayors, needs a federal-state partnership to rebuild the inner city. Serious infrastructure spending - roads, bridges, schools, sewers and water works - would be a start. And, more is needed to address policing problems. As Barrett said: "We have a collective responsibility to find solutions. Government is an important participant...."

-- Kaplan wrote a guest column from Washington, D.C. for the Wisconsin State Journal from 1995 - 2009

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