Activists and community members filled the Common Council chambers at Milwaukee’s City Hall Tuesday morning, voicing discontent at a proposed slaughterhouse in a predominantly African American district on the north side of Milwaukee in the Century City Business Park. Holding signs reading, “stop the slaughter,” organizers pressed the council to suspend a vote on the facility.
The $60 million dollar, 210,000-square-foot compound would be owned by Strauss Brands, a Franklin-based provider of farmed-raised meat. Strauss plans to relocate its headquarters from Franklin to the proposed Milwaukee facility at 3025 W. Hopkins St., and says it will provide 250 jobs, with wages ranging from $13-$17 an hour. A company representative said that some 500 animals would be processed at the compound daily, and their waste temporarily stored in a basement. Strauss Brands would purchase 20 acres of land from the city, which would sell the site to the company for $1.
Ald. Robert Bauman (Dist. 4) told Wisconsin Examiner that the Strauss project went unnoticed by many residents.
“There were a lot of euphemisms floating around about what exactly this was going to be,” said Bauman. “We first heard that it was Strauss Brands coming to town. Well, what do they do? Clothing, furniture, what exactly is it that they do? And, granted, if you read the story you gather that they’re in the meat business. But that’s not obvious at first. Then the word ‘slaughterhouse’ came up at the zoning committee meeting, and it did get on people’s radar.”
Bauman said he was surprised by the number of emails and messages from the public he received once the issue gained traction. “We seldom get a hundred communiques,” said Bauman. “I can count on one hand the number of times we’ve gotten a hundred comments on anything that we’ve ever done in my 16 years down here.” Bauman said that comments were sent to the mayor’s office and every council member.
Bauman said, “I think it’s fair to say that the majority of emails were not city residents. Definitely not residents of the 7th district.”
Ald. Khalif Rainey (Dist. 7, which encompasses Century City) voiced support for the plans, and condemned calls to scrap the deal. Looking at the collective of animal rights activists, Rainey accused the organizers of being “selective” in the issues that they care about.
“I didn’t receive an influx of emails when a mother was killed in her car. I didn’t receive emails about the slaughter then, when blood was spilling in the streets,” said Rainey. “I don’t see people gathering outside protesting when they hear of unemployment statistics for black men. I don’t see gatherings outside of city hall, my inbox is not filled by emails from none of y’all.”
Rainey accused the majority of the animal-rights organizers of being from outside the city, or even the state. “I understand your concerns,” he told the audience, saying that he also doesn’t eat meat. “But when you talk about trauma, when you talk about PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), these things exist in our community. And I don’t hear from y’all when it’s going on a daily basis.”
The alderman was referring to signs and rhetoric by animal rights activists who said that slaughter house work is correlated with PTSD, and high crime rates. Studies have been conducted on this topic supporting the statement, and the exact cause of these correlations is still being studied.
Rainey’s criticisms spurred very vocal, agitated responses from the audience. “You didn’t even return our calls,” yelled one protester. The exchange soon forced Common Council President Ashanti Hamilton to say, “This is what we’re going to do? We have a recognized person on the floor who has an opportunity to speak. Your presence is being felt—you don’t have to yell. Please allow the alderman to speak.”
Rainey posed two questions to the crowd, who were not formally permitted to speak due to the format of the meeting. “What about the person sitting on the porch wondering, ‘Should I join the local drug gang, opioid gang banging. Or do I go over here and attempt to get employment at the new factory in our neighborhood?’” The alderman accused the animal rights activists of caring more about livestock than the people of District 7, adding, “Do black lives matter?”
Wanda Terry is a lifelong resident of Rainey’s district (She lives a few blocks from the potential facility), and listened to the alderman’s rebuttal. “He doesn’t know anything about us,” she told Wisconsin Examiner. “He doesn’t go into his community, he doesn’t browse around. You call him, you can never get Rainey. I can never get him, and when [Ald. Willie] Wade was there, I had a relationship with him. I don’t know where Rainey is. We haven’t seen him since the day he got elected.”
Terry, who worked in an animal processing facility years ago, said she’s skeptical of the company’s promises to eliminate odor and waste. “I’ve worked in a factory before, it don’t work like that,” she said. “Maybe they got technology that can change the odors and change the health, all this kind of stuff. But if that’s the case, I would like to see it before they put it up.” She expressed concerns that the slaughterhouse would bring more semi-truck traffic, pollution, and industrial odors which have already become a local nuisance.
Terry’s son Keith told Wisconsin Examiner, “My mom and I have been in that community since I was a kid. And to see it transition from a thriving part of the city that created wealth for people and their families, to have it diminish into a blighted area that is desperate for any kind of redevelopment, I think that’s not good for us. I support my mom, and the neighborhood.”
Jay Kaith, who co-owns a daycare across the street from the proposed build-site, said he also wanted more information. “From my standpoint, it was something that we don’t have the information on. We definitely want more jobs in that community, but also you want to know what you’re getting. The job situation is important, but it might cause a lot of havoc environmentally.” Kaith told Wisconsin Examiner that he first heard of the project after a community member called to inform him of the hearing. “It came out of the blue,” said Kaith, who agrees with job development in his neighborhood, “but at what cost?”
The original redevelopment plan for the site made reference to its “known contamination problems.” One of the objectives for the project was to “mitigate environmental contamination in the soils and buildings that interfere with investment in and the use/reuse of land and buildings in the Project Area through state-of-the-art means.”
Animal rights protester Zachary Glembin said putting a slaughterhouse in an industrial area, which was once supposed to bring innovation into the area, is a failure on the part of the city. “I know that the Common Council and the mayor tout the number of jobs that it could bring into the community. But I think that they need to do a better job at including community input to know what are the potential negative implications of something like this.”
Rachel Golusinski, a lead organizer with Slaughter Free Milwaukee, said the city government has not acknowledged her group. “The aldermen have not spoken with us, returned our calls. They haven’t told anybody that we’re allowed to speak at the meeting, so we’ve just been shut down. And the community doesn’t know about this.”
Golusinski said she walked the neighborhood in the days leading up to the city meeting, and spoke with numerous people who didn’t know about the slaughterhouse project and “were appalled.” She says the plan has been pushed forward “in secret, using misleading language calling it a ‘meat packaging facility’ and not a ‘slaughterhouse.’” She also wonders how many District 7 residents will actually get jobs there, as slaughterhouses have been known to employ undocumented immigrants and other workers from outside the immediate neighborhood.
Ald. Bauman said, “I’m not sure that there was much knowledge in the community about what exactly was being proposed.” Bauman also noted that the city development plan, which dictates how the land of the site may be used, was amended when Strauss Brands came into the picture.
During his time speaking, Bauman noted the U.S. pattern of putting these kinds of projects in low-income, minority areas. The trend continues with Strauss Brands’ ambitions for a Cream City headquarters, he said. Balaji Venkatesan, a lead organizer with Direct Action Everywhere and a resident of Oak Creek, part of Milwaukee County, echoed the point: “Why are these kinds of industries being set up in underprivileged, or low-income communities?”
“If you really want to help these neighborhoods, we should try to bring quality jobs,” he added.
The Common Council ultimately decided to return the proposal to the zoning, neighborhoods and development committee, which next meets on Oct. 29. This means further review will be conducted and the public will be provided a forum for comment. It is not clear if the council will permit people from outside the city of Milwaukee to speak.