Plans for a proposed slaughterhouse in Milwaukee, owned by Franklin-based Strauss Brands, have been withdrawn by the company. Animal rights activists and community members who opposed the project declared a victory, saying the city has moved a step closer to bringing quality jobs to a blighted neighborhood.
Balaji Venkatesan, a lead organizer with Direct Action Everywhere (DAE), went door-to-door near where the Strauss Brands slaughterhouse would have been constructed, and asked community leaders and locals how they felt about the proposal. “The majority said they don’t like it, outright,” Venkatesan said.
Neighborhood residents organized against the proposal to convert Milwaukee’s vacant Century City industrial area into an animal processing facility. Strauss Brands sought to move its headquarters into the new facility, and said it would bring 250 jobs to the area, with hourly wages ranging from $13-$17. Century City is located near an intersection between W. North Avenue and W. Capitol Drive, in the 30th Street Industrial Corridor.
The mostly African American neighborhoods within District 7 have been economically depressed for years. Gun violence, drugs and human trafficking are often times common problems. It’s a big reason why Ald. Khalif Rainey, who represents the district, pushed back against animal rights activists from Slaughter Free Milwaukee and Direct Action Everywhere during a Common Council meeting on the project. “Do black lives matter?” Rainey asked the organizers, whom he said came from outside his district and were disconnected with the real issues it faces.
Since that meeting, however, Rainey has had a change of heart. “As representative of the 7th Aldermanic District, my number one priority is to always reflect on the interests and desires of those I serve,” Rainey stated said in a press release. “When the administration initially brought the Strauss meat processing plant proposal forward, I considered the prospect of bringing 250 jobs to Century City, with more to follow. However, in the 72-hour period since the Common Council considered the proposal, I have received an overwhelming response from neighbors in opposition to the project.”
Amy Zingengo, an organizer with Slaughter Free Milwaukee, said, “We are incredibly pleased to hear Strauss withdraw its plans for a slaughterhouse in our city. This is a victory, most importantly for the residents of District 7. This is grassroots activism at it’s finest—never doubt what can be accomplished when the community comes together.”
Nevertheless, the deal’s cancellation drew criticism from some within the African-American community. They took to social media to point out the optics of a collective of non-minority activists achieving a grassroots victory so quickly in an African-American neighborhood. In contrast, organizers within that community struggle to get action from city officials on key issues.
“The folks who stopped this thing aren’t better organizers, they’re just white,” wrote Jarrett English, a local organizer and community builder, on Facebook. “Don’t just organize to stop something, make sure you have a better alternative to replace it.” English notes that Black and Latino organizers with Liberate MKE have pushed the city to invest in community development and youth employment for the past year. In comparison, the push against the Strauss Brands slaughterhouse was concluded within a couple of weeks.
As a person of color himself, Venkatesan says he can empathize with these feelings from the community. “I have experienced racial bias and everything, lived in this country for 20 years. So I know exactly why they would feel that way,” Venkastesan says. But he notes that the entire Strauss Brands deal was crafted without public input.
That point was also raised by Ald. Robert Bauman during the first meeting on the proposal. In a recent press release Bauman said, “the original redevelopment plan was correct in prohibiting slaughter houses at a site surrounded by dense residential neighborhoods. The plan was also correct in prohibiting businesses that have a history of locating in low-income African American neighborhoods because such neighborhoods have historically lacked the political clout to keep them out.” Bauman also noted that “the error in this decision is magnified” because the final call is left up to the unelected Board of Zoning Appeal (BOZA). “This is blatantly anti-democratic and effectively disenfranchises the 40,000 citizens we each represent from being heard on such important issues.”
“Like Ald. Bauman said, these kinds of industries that are not good for the environment and not good for the neighborhood seem to be adopted in under-privileged neighborhoods, predominantly neighborhoods with people of color,” said Venkastesen. He also notes that organizers in DAE and Slaughter Free Milwaukee often double in other movements, including immigration rights and Black Lives Matter. “The notion that we don’t care about that is just not true,” Venkastesan told Wisconsin Examiner.
Rather than a slaughterhouse or other environmentally risky project, Venkastesan advocates for Century City to be used to bring in green jobs and manufacturing. Green jobs have become a growing issue for Democrats in the debates leading up to the 2020 election. Sen. Elizabeth Warren is pushing a green manufacturing bill to produce sustainable products and build an internationally viable market. Sen. Bernie Sanders is promoting a “Green New Deal,” which seeks to produce 20 million jobs while creating industries and products to address the climate crisis.
“We do think that there needs to be some sort of sustainable green energy type jobs in that area,” says Venkastesan. “People in the community deserve those kinds of jobs that are sustainable and long-term.”
Rainey said in his statement, “We will remain diligent and patient when it comes to creating a Century City that reflects the vision we as a community hope to achieve with this opportunity.”