A flurry of controversy has erupted over artwork that appeared on buses in Milwaukee County last week. The words, “Milwaukee is immigrant strong,” and, “celebrating over 160 years of Dreamers,” accompanied images of crying children being separated from their families by immigration officers.
The mural is a project of the Art Museum’s ArtXpress Milwaukee internship program, which features art by students each year. This newest addition also explained what people should do when approached by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). It advised not to open the door, remain silent, don’t sign any document, report raids, “fight back” with the help of an attorney and remain informed.
“I support these students’ right to create art that speaks to them and the issues that these young people find important,” Milwaukee County Supervisor Supreme Moore Omokunde told Wisconsin Examiner.
Many of the same points were also covered by attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union at the Rally For Sanctuary, held at Milwaukee’s city hall in early August. Moore Omokunde said at the rally that the demonstration, “reinvigorated the conversation that these people are us.”
Emilio De Torre, ACLU community engagement director, also attended the rally for sanctuary. He supports the bus art, and told Wisconsin Examiner, “The children’s artwork tells a powerful story of what is happening in our communities, in our names, funded by our tax dollars.” De Tore applauds the artists’ “courage and their honesty in telling this story of the fear and uncertainty facing our immigrant communities.”
Those sentiments, however, aren’t shared by all Milwaukee leaders. At least two Milwaukee County supervisors, Pattie Logsdon and Dan Sebring, condemned the artwork. “Current policy puts transportation officials in a difficult position of determining what may or may not be excessively politically controversial and offensive to many people,” Supv. Logsdon said in a statement.
Describing the buses as “many people’s primary contact with county government,” Logsdon said, “no one should feel our public transportation is subjecting them to a political ad.” She also fears, “this escalating into a back and forth of increasingly polarizing, politically motivated messages that are intended to offend rather than promote dialogue.”
When contacted by Wisconsin Examiner, Logsdon said, “I have had many people who have approached me regarding the subject.” Many of them, she says, “are very concerned that we are using Milwaukee County buses as political platforms and they have issues with this.”
Robert Hullum, Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors legislative assistant for Omokunde, and other supervisors, said in an email, “I can say that Supv. Moore Omokunde’s office has not received any constituent calls or emails for or against the murals. I do know that other offices have been contacted about it. Some more than others.”
Supv. Dan Sebring went a step further, calling the artwork, “an offensive abomination and a slap to law enforcement officers and officials at every level,” TMJ4 reported. Sebring didn’t respond to the Wisconsin Examiner’s multiple phone calls and emails.
Despite his comments regarding law enforcement, the Milwaukee Police Department and sheriff’s office have both backed off participating in immigration operations. “I reject the notion that the ad is a slap in the face to law enforcement,” Omokunde emailed Wisconsin Examiner. “We currently have a sheriff that has publicly stated that he is reluctant to have deputies participate in ICE raids.”
Local police depend on civilians reporting crimes, and sharing information. That doesn’t happen when people are afraid they or their loved ones might be deported. “I see the fear, the very real fear of our neighbors and the people that have been living in our communities, some of them almost their entire lives,” said Supv. Sylvia Ortiz Velez, TMJ4 reports. “But I also see the Constitution,” she said upon reflecting on the artwork.
Both the former Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn and the current chief Alfonso Morales have expressed fears that working with ICE harms their relationship with the community. That’s in stark contrast to former Sheriff David Clarke, who became a notorious right-wing figure over the last decade.
“MCTS approved the design of the paid advertising piece from the Milwaukee Art Museum,” Milwaukee County Transit System Matt Sliker told 1130 WISN. “We reviewed the content and it met our standard advertising guidelines.”
Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors Public Information Manager Brian Rothgery also sent Wisconsin Examiner the MCTS advertising guidelines. “The Milwaukee Art Museum is a paying customer,” reads Moore Omokunde’s email, “and should be afforded the same right to freedom of speech as anyone else.”
A loose argument could be made that the ad may have come close to violating some policies. For example, advertising that relates to “an illegal activity,” advertising that appears as graffiti—a stop sign in the artwork was modified to say “stop ICE” with spray paint, though the latter is largely up to the discretion of MCTS.
Immigration has become a hot issue under President Donald Trump because of Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and an uptick in ICE raids, as well as the detention of migrant children and families along the southern border. “The protection of residents and citizens,” Moore Omokunde says, “no matter how they look or what their background is—is paramount.”