Milwaukee’s Sewer Socialists were for defunding the police

November 5, 2021 6:30 am
Black Lives Matter protesters gather and march to the Milwaukee City Hall. Many called for the removal of Milwaukee police Chief Alfonso Morales. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

Black Lives Matter protesters gather and march to the Milwaukee City Hall. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

One of the paramount demands from last year’s Black Lives Matter protests is that local government move money from policing to programs that support communities. This demand aims to reduce the harm to communities — especially communities of color — caused by over-policing as well as targeting the root causes of crime. In Milwaukee that demand has been raised strongly by the African American Roundtable through the LiberateMKE campaign.

With the Common Council scheduled to consider the City of Milwaukee’s 2022 budget on Friday, and the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors intending to adopt the county’s budget on Monday, now is the time to  discuss local budget priorities and our moral priorities. Collectively, we need to acknowledge that policing is not the key to reducing crime, and that people of color and other groups are being targeted, harassed, and even murdered by police. The Milwaukee Common Council should significantly cut the budget of the Milwaukee Police Department and the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors should do the same for the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office. The savings created by those police cuts should be spent on community investment—such as the demands on the city budget put out by LiberateMKE and the demands on the county budget by Milwaukee Democratic Socialists of America and others.

Interestingly, this demand is not novel at all.  Almost a century ago, Milwaukee’s Sewer Socialists — socialist politicians who fought for improved infrastructure and city services in Milwaukee from the early 20th century to 1960 — worked to accomplish their own version of police defunding. As a socialist leader and advocate for defunding the police, I have researched the Sewer Socialists and found that some of them have a message for today.

In 1912, Socialist City Treasurer Charles B. Whitnall, who would later become Milwaukee County Parks Commissioner and help develop the network of county parks we enjoy today, advocated for defunding the police and funding community programs instead. Whitnall won office along with Milwaukee’s first socialist mayor Emil Seidel in the socialist electoral landslide of 1910.  When discussing how to solve the city’s problems, Whitnall wrote, “. . . there is no use in passing prohibitory ordinances unless we have provided a means for doing right.” To provide citizens with a means for “right,” he argues, we must establish “. . . the requisite number of neighborhood centers for public recreation and education . . .[t]his is the only means of lessening of vice . . .“  He directly identifies where the money for “lessening of vice” should be drawn—the police.  He says, “[t]he money we spend for police sheriffs, probation officers, truant officers, courts, etc., if properly invested, would prevent much of our crime.”  


Later, Socialist Mayor Daniel Hoan also fought for wise investment of tax dollars by choosing to spend money on crime prevention instead of policing. In Hoan’s book City Government: The Record of the Milwaukee Experiment, published in 1936 on the 20th anniversary of Hoan serving as Milwaukee’s mayor,  he recounts a political fight over the Milwaukee Police Department’s request for more officers.  

In chapter 20 of the book Hoan recalled that “[s]ome years ago, following the inauguration of our comprehensive recreation program, our chief of police approached me with a demand for one hundred and fifty additional patrolmen.”  The chief of police argued to Hoan that Milwaukee had statistically less police officers than comparable cities. While Hoan did support 50 additional officers to counter growing traffic hazards, he fought back on budgeting for more than that just because it was requested or because of a potential crime wave. Hoan said “if he [the police chief] did not get his way and a crime wave hit the city then the Mayor would be solely to blame.

In other words, it was not popular politics to resist this demand, but it proved to be good sense.”  When the Common Council did not heed “good sense” and allotted for more police officers, Hoan vetoed the amendment, standing up to the police. Hoan said, “[w]hat was the result? The year rolled around. The alleged crime wave that troubled other cities did not materialize here.”

Not only did the “good sense” of cutting the police funding request work, it staved off a crime wave because of how he invested the city’s money in programs other than policing. In the same chapter, Hoan goes on to describe how the recreation and community programs in Milwaukee started by the Socialists created a better city with less crime. When proudly speaking of Milwaukee’s smaller per capita police budget compared to other cities, Hoan said “[t]hese figures speak for themselves. They answer in part the question of whether it pays to provide wholesome recreation for children and adults.”  This investment in the community “not only pays in dollars and cents, but it yields greater dividends in the development of character, uprightness, and good citizenship.”

My message to the Common Council and County Board of today: listen to the “good sense” of the Sewer Socialists and cut the budgets of the police department and sheriff’s office. History will show you did the right thing.

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Alex Brower
Alex Brower

Alex Brower is a Milwaukee labor leader, socialist organizer, and the chapter treasurer of the Milwaukee Democratic Socialists of America.