Milwaukee has the president’s ear

Voices from across Wisconsin bring urgent concerns to Biden’s town hall meeting

President Joe Biden walks along the Colonnade Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021, to the Oval Office of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)
President Joe Biden walks along the Colonnade Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021, to the Oval Office of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

As President Joe Biden arrives in Milwaukee for his first town hall visit, community organizers and elected officials don’t want a merely symbolic event. They plan to take the opportunity to bring their concerns to the new president’s attention. They want their voices to be heard, and to know what meaningful changes the administration is willing to make.

Recent years have seen various attempts to silence those voices. From vote suppression at the ballot box, to battles over COVID relief, to protesting in the streets, residents in Milwaukee have struggled to be heard. Nevertheless, their calls for reform have only grown louder and more urgent.

President Joe Biden signing executive orders in the Oval Office
President Joe Biden signs one of the 17 Executive Orders he signed on Inauguration Day Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021, in the Oval Office of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

Markasa Tucker, an activist and executive director of the African American Roundtable, submitted a question to Biden’s team for the “CNN Presidential Town Hall with Joe Biden,” which will broadcast live from the Pabst Theater tonight at 8 p.m.

Tucker speaks not only as a community leader, but also as a long-time resident who grew up in Milwaukee.

“I’ve seen firsthand the impacts of investing in criminalizing our communities instead of caring for our communities,” Tucker wrote. “Even though the crime bill was 26 years old, the Milwaukee Police Department got funding this year through the COPS Program it created. In a pandemic, when people are suffering we are still prioritizing money and police over people.”

After some back and forth, the Milwaukee Common Council accepted the federal Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) grant in January. The nearly $10 million fund will provide MPD with 30 new officers, while helping support joint task force operations, despite calls from the community to reallocate funds away from police and toward other much-needed community services.

Tucker and other community organizers noted that the city of Milwaukee spends nearly half of its budget on the police department. Tucker’s question to Biden reads: “Will you acknowledge that your vote for the Crime Bill was a mistake and commit to working with the community to invest in true public safety?”

Vaun Mayes speaks during the Community Task Force meeting. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Vaun Mayes speaks during the Community Task Force meeting. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

Vaun Mayes, an activist and founder of several community organizations in Milwaukee, echoed Tucker’s concern about policing. “Police reform is needed here, and we need him to help push for it,” Mayes tells Wisconsin Examiner. “That legalization and decriminalization of marijuana is needed as well. We need investments and support to do our plans to address youth crime.”

One of Mayes’ organizations, Community Task Force (COM FORCE), called for a $75 million divestment from the Milwaukee Police Department. After officers used tear gas and rubber bullets against protesters during the summer of 2020, COM FORCE called for a $50 million divestment, which would be allocated toward public health, while the remaining $25 million dedicated to housing initiatives.

Angela Lang, executive director of Black Leaders Organizing Change (BLOC), says the president’s town hall brings her hope. “I’m encouraged that President Biden’s first official stop as president is to Milwaukee,” Lange tells Wisconsin Examiner. “I’ll be watching closely to see how he acknowledges the issues of Milwaukee, and specifically the 53206 zip code.”

Angela Lang (Photo by: Isiah Holmes)
Angela Lang (Photo by: Isiah Holmes)

Desperately seeking relief

Rep. David Bowen (D-Milwaukee) says he hopes Biden “highlights some of the calls for change that are on the local level. That includes calls for justice and law enforcement reform.” Bowen also emphasizes the state’s growing need for COVID-related relief, both on the health care and economic fronts.

“We have stimulus checks that have not gone out, and we have folks who are still waiting for unemployment,” Bowen says, adding that large corporations have received government support while people suffer.

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“I would want to know his plan for getting the vaccine distributed to more front-line workers,” Fort Atkinson City Council member and former State Assembly candidate Mason Becker tells Wisconsin Examiner. “Throughout the pandemic, we heard how grocery, restaurant and other employees throughout industries are essential to our local and national economies. However, many still may be weeks or even months away from having access to the vaccine. I’d like to know what the president will do, if anything, to get the vaccine into the arms of essential workers, who have been at some of the highest risk for contracting COVID, more quickly.”

More than 3 million people in Wisconsin have tested positive for COVID-19 since last year. Although infection rates have been going down over recent days, more than 3,200 new cases were detected on Feb. 16.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS), some 6,204 people have died of COVID-related causes in Wisconsin, and a half a million people have recovered from the disease. Economic costs have been devastating, with Milwaukee losing out revenues from the Democratic National Convention and Summerfest, in addition to the closure of many small businesses.

Essential immigrant workers

Immigrant rights groups such as Voces de la Frontera in Milwaukee also hope to get through to Biden. At a Feb. 16 press conference, the group called on the new administration to support and protect essential workers as the pandemic continues.

Access to personal protective equipment and economic stimulus, as well as high rates of infection, have had a devastating impact on immigrant and Latinx communities. Voces has also joined others in calling for the administration to reverse the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement and family separation policies.

Voces de la Frontera Executive Director Christine Neumann-Ortiz (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Voces de la Frontera Executive Director Christine Neumann-Ortiz (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

While Bowen commends the Biden administration for picking Wisconsin for its first town hall, he is looking for substance, not rhetoric. “I really do hope that he joins those calls for change, that he lends his platform to highlight the calls for change that people are really striving for, are really calling for,” says Bowen.

As many activists have pointed out, both Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have checkered legacies in the arena of criminal justice policy. Whether in Milwaukee, Madison or Kenosha, activist communities in Wisconsin see Biden as a doorway, not a destination.

The People’s Revolution (TPR), a Wisconsin protest group that emerged from Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, isn’t letting Biden off the hook. The organization released a statement on Feb. 16, reading, ”For over 260 days, The People’s Revolution has worked relentlessly to demand transparency and accountability surrounding many matters — one being police brutality. Here in the Milwaukee area, we have lost Alvin Cole, Joel Acevedo, Dontre Hamilton, Jay Anderson Jr., Antonio Gonzalez, and many more loved ones due to police violence against Black and brown lives.”

The group produced several demands for the Biden administration, including reinvesting in the community, demilitarizing law enforcement, allowing for community oversight of police, holding officers accountable and requiring applicable undergraduate education for officers.

“How will you instruct the Department of Justice and other law enforcement agencies to end engaging in further militarizing communities and the targeting of Black Lives Matter protests and/or protesters?” the statement reads. “We look forward to President Biden’s visit and his answers regarding these very critical matters that affect us locally and nationally.”

Bowen, who has attended many Black Lives Matters protests, says Biden needs to respond quickly to enact criminal justice reforms: “We can’t afford to waste any time. We have police departments that need to have that oversight.”