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On Citizen Action’s Decision in the Milwaukee Mayoral Election

On Citizen Action’s Decision in the Milwaukee Mayoral Election

By Robert Kraig, Executive Director

Overview

Some context is needed to understand why our Board of Directors made the decision to not endorse in the Milwaukee Mayoral race. Unlike conventional political organizations, social justice groups like Citizen Action see elections not as ends in themselves but as means to higher purposes. Citizen Action does not endorse in every race, and only does so when we have achieved an internal consensus, among a broad range of stakeholders, that it will advance our long term strategies to build social movement power.

Myself and our staff, led by our BIPOC managers and organizers, strongly oppose endorsing any candidate in this race who runs on increasing the size of the police force rather than re-balancing our public safety response away from the overemphasis on policing. As honest progressives searching for a path forward, we need to take seriously the views of BIPOC organizers in Milwaukee doing the heavy lifting of building the movement on the ground.

It is undeniable that electing the first Black mayor in Milwaukee is a major milestone. We also have reason to believe, based on past experience and our interview process, that Cavalier Johnson could become an ally on our campaign to get Milwaukee to embrace a bold climate agenda which also dramatically increases racial economic equity in a city with the worst racial disparities in the U.S. However, we needed to weigh whether taking no position in the race was a better strategy for building the power for transforming a criminal justice system that is one of the main pillars of racial subordination.

I am proud of the decision the Citizen Action Board of Directors made by a large majority, not because we are necessarily right, but because we all thought about the decision through the framework of building power for social transformation rather than politics as usual. In this sense, it reflects not idealism but radical pragmatism.

I hope you will read our full statement below, which provides more insight and context into this important decision.

Citizen Action’s Evolving View of Politics

Some context is needed to understand why our Board of Directors made the decision it did. Unlike conventional political organizations, social justice groups like Citizen Action see elections not as ends in themselves but as means to higher purposes. Citizen Action does not endorse in every race, and only does so when we have achieved an internal consensus, among a broad range of stakeholders, that it will advance our long term strategies to build social movement power. When we lack a strong consensus, no endorsement is made. For us, electoral involvement is not about “playing politics,” it is a means to aspirational ends such as shifting our profit-centered health system to guaranteed care for all, a sustainable society that averts the looming climate genocide, restoring unions to rebuild a new multiracial middle class, and addressing America’s original sin, our racial cast system.

Citizen Action strives not for impractical idealism but higher realism. What we call “movement politics” is what we do together to transcend the limits of the present, and effectively build towards a new society. Candidates, and campaign professionals, think in the now, while we think in both the now and what ought to be if we have the discipline and courage to build it together. Candidates are often advised by political professionals to reinforce the most destructive tendencies of public opinion for short term political gain. This is to be expected given their objective is to win a contested election in the world as it is today. While candidates tend to play to public attitudes as they are now, social justice groups seek to build and inspire a more enlightened public opinion.

Since 2012, the Black Lives Matter movement has radically redrawn the line on what policies and campaign themes are acceptable to the rising generation of social justice leaders at the vanguard of Black liberation, their many allies and supporters, and our multiracial organizing staff at Citizen Action.

It has also transformed me, shifting the books I read from predominantly white progressive writers to penetrating Black antiracist thought leaders such as Michelle Alexander, Derrick Bell, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ibram X. Kendi, Heather McGhee, and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. These other writers and movement colleagues, along with the rising generation of young Black and Brown organizers driving the movement, have profoundly changed the way I lead. The new direction of the racial justice movement has also changed Citizen Action, now in our 39th year. The boards of our 2 related organizations engaged in a joint process in 2021 to develop a more deeply antiracist criminal justice platform, and a more profound focus on structural racism in all of our issue campaigns, which would have been unthinkable a few short years ago.

A Changing Culture of Politics in Milwaukee

The rapid evolution of anti-racist consciousness over the last few years has created a divide between the racial justice movement and many more conventional political leaders which is very evident in the Milwaukee Mayor’s race and in the reaction in some circles to Citizen Action’s endorsement decision.

At the height of the historic protests sparked by the police murder of George Floyd, the wake up call was finally heard by many political leaders who embraced bold reforms for transforming policing and unwinding our system of mass incarceration. Many even joined the marchers in daily mass demonstrations. This sudden opening of possibility was paralleled in the Reconstruction era after the Civil War and the Civil Rights era in the 1960s. But following the progress-backlash cycle of American racial history, in 2021-2022 the pendulum swung violently back so far that most candidates for Mayor, including all three Black candidates, ran on expanding the Milwaukee police force. This includes a certain winner of the general election, Acting-Mayor Cavalier Johnson

This is why there is a wedge between many leading politicians who respond to immediate changes in public opinion, and the rising generation of Black social justice leaders who are rightly focused on winning the structural reforms that will unwind America’s oppressive system of mass incarceration. That is why the leading Black-led racial justice groups in Milwaukee did not endorse in the Mayor’s race. It is also why some other white-led allies in Milwaukee also chose not to endorse.

The Board’s Decision

A similar dynamic took place within Citizen Action. Myself and our staff, led by our BIPOC managers and organizers, strongly oppose endorsing any candidate in this race who runs on increasing the size of the police force rather than rebalancing our public safety response away from the overemphasis on policing. As honest progressives searching for a path forward, we need to take their views seriously. It is offensive to deride our organizers from the limited perspective of the conventional politics that has reproduced racial inequality for generations.

All of these factors created a much more complicated set of considerations for our Board of Directors to balance in making their decision not to endorse in the race.

On the one hand, it is undeniable that electing the first Black mayor in Milwaukee is a major milestone. We also have reason to believe, based on past experience and our interview process, that Cavalier Johnson could become an ally on our campaign to get Milwaukee to embrace a bold climate agenda which also dramatically increases racial economic equity in a city with the worst racial disparities in the U.S.

On the other hand, we needed to weigh whether taking no position in the race was a better strategy for building the power transforming a criminal justice system that is one of the main pillars of racial subordination. To this calculus, we needed to weigh the damage of perpetuating the myth that more police leads to more public safety, broadcast to the public through six figure TV ad buys. Speaking for myself, I believe this is critical work because the backsliding of the last 40 years from the aspirations of the 1960s, think of the crime bill, so-called Welfare reform, and the failure to defend unions, reflects the triumph of conventional politics over movement politics. Each strategic political retreat further strengthened a system grounded in racial oppression.

Another key factor in the calculus was that no matter what careful political professionals may say, the outcome of the race is not in doubt. Cavalier Johnson will be the next Milwaukee Mayor. Given the partisan and the demographic makeup of Milwaukee, it is pure fantasy to assert that Johnson’s ultra right opponent has a realistic path to victory.

I am proud of the decision the Citizen Action Board of Directors made by a large majority, not because we are necessarily right, but because we all thought about the decision through the framework of building power for social transformation rather than politics as usual. In this sense, it reflects not idealism but radical pragmatism.

Responding to the Facebook Statement

It is also entirely reasonable for other equally committed people to come to a different conclusion, that is what pluralism in a healthy democracy is all about. The Facebook post that prompted this statement has created the corrosive impression that there is one morally right position, and that anyone who disagrees deserves public condemnation. We will never build the social solidarity to actually overcome structural racism if too many people take this self-righteous stance.

There is one strong difference of opinion with the Facebook poster that I want to address directly. Some take the position that diversity of representation is a sufficient objective to justify endorsements. In sharp contrast, the main current of antiracist thought holds that this is  crucially important, but is not sufficient without Black and Brown elected officials firmly committed to the structural reforms required to actually unwind racial oppression. Robin DiAngelo in her most recent book Nice Racism warns us that the tools of opposing racism can be misused to reinforce the current racial order. In this vein, we have to ask ourselves if diversifying electoral leadership without enacting antiracist policies may be further legitimating our racial caste system. For more detailed discussion from leading Black thought thinkers, I recommend two books that influenced me: Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, and James Forman, Jr’s Locking Up or Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.

Finally, the Facebook poster has created the false impression that we at Citizen Action are making final judgements on Cavalier Johnson, or the possibility of developing a partnership. Our decision to stay out of the race does no such thing. In our movement governing work we seek willing partners in elected office, whether we originally endorsed their candidacy or not. I do not know Cavalier Johnson well, but based on the interactions I have had over the past months I do believe he may well prove to be the kind of political leader who also wants to bridge the gaps between us and find a way to reinvent our criminal justice system and the other major systems that hold racial subordination and other forms of inequality in place. If so, we look forward to working with him to find common ground and to forming a durable alliance to build a new Milwaukee.

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