a moose wearing a Green Bay Packers baseball cap eats snow

Foxconn and fish fries: Political life in small town and big city Wisconsin

This is a very late post, please forgive us! We were in Wisconsin October 5th through 8th.

Our first stop in Wisconsin was Milwaukee, a highly segregated city where black communities moved after black unionism was big in the Midwest, and therefore didn’t have a chance to build as much wealth. The city is surrounded by white, conservative suburbs, some of which are in Paul Ryan’s district, and its county was until recently represented by extremely conservative Sheriff David Clarke, who presided over incredibly abusive police and carceral systems. Milwaukee had a powerful Socialist party in the first half of the 20th century, which prioritized political integrity and boosted public systems in economically responsible ways, achieving both the best health outcomes of any American city – and zero debt. In 1936, Time magazine called it “perhaps the best-governed city in the US.”

In Milwaukee, we stayed with Katie’s friend and organizer with the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) local affiliate Common Ground, Allie Gardner. We caught up on the campaign for public safety that Allie is working on with three large Latino parishes on the South Side of the city. Common Ground is an inter-racial, multi-faith network of congregations and community groups in the city and some surrounding suburbs.

This year Allie has been working with leaders in the Latino community around issues of immigration and safety. Like everyone who is concerned about changes in federal immigration policy, the leaders in Common Ground are watching the changes closely  and crafting campaigns to address issues that their communities face on a daily basis that are exacerbated by the realities of being undocumented. One of their major questions is: what happens to issues of crime and safety on the local level? In the city of Milwaukee police have said they won’t collaborate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) when they work with someone who is a victim of a crime – but that doesn’t mean they don’t collaborate in other ways. This summer, core teams at the three Latino parishes collected more than 500 surveys from community members asking people to share their experiences with crime, safety, and the police. The majority of respondents had experienced, or knew someone who had experienced, a crime in their neighborhood, and at the same time did not feel comfortable asking the police for help.

Common Ground’s campaign now focuses on: the high incidences of crime around the church buildings and homes in their communities, how to close houses that are uses for selling drugs in a way that is restorative rather than punitive, and ensuring that the police are in communication with the community if they change how they work with ICE.

Interestingly, Milwaukee has one of the most independent bodies of civilians that oversee and direct police policy. But because the people who sit on that committee are appointed by the mayor, the committee is incredibly conservative and focuses heavily on punishment. One of Common Ground’s goals is to work with this committee to ensure that immigrant and undocumented community members and leaders are part of crafting police policy that affects their communities, and at the very least are informed as policing changes with regard to collaboration with ICE.

Recently this team of Common Ground leaders organized an action that was the first step in building a public relationship of accountability with the City Chief of Police – 375 people gathered at St. Adelbert’s, the largest Latino parish in Wisconsin. The team of new clergy and lay leaders flexed their muscles and began to learn how hard it is to demand accountability and step into the tensions inherent in public action.

For Friday night dinner in Milwaukee we went to a fish fry! It’s a delicious Wisconsin tradition that originated with Catholic immigrants (German, Polish and more) who couldn’t eat meat on Fridays. And of course it includes wonderful Wisconsin beer.

The next morning, we met with Angela Lang at the South Shore Farmer’s Market, a gorgeous site in a park next to Lake Michigan (the public park has a beer garden!). After many years in union organizing with SEIU, Angela is working to found a new organization, Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC). Angela was born and bred in Milwaukee and says the city raised her. She’s putting her extensive skills and experiences to work in building up a base of local black leaders who will lead campaigns on the issues that affect their communities and use their newly built power in election cycles to elect candidates who represent their community and will have accountable relationships with them.

We then headed out to Racine, WI where we got to stay with a friend of friends, Greta Neubauer. Like Kate Hess Pace who we met in Bloomington, Indiana, Greta is another organizer and great person with Midwest roots, who was inspired to move back to her hometown (Racine) after the election. She left New York City and the Fossil Fuel Divestment Student Network to work for state senator Cory Mason in Madison and help run his campaign for Mayor in her hometown of Racine.

We helped the campaign by knocking doors and talking to voters for a few hours. Sam had a good conversation with a middle aged black woman who wasn’t on the canvass list, but was sitting on her porch as he walked by. She spoke longingly of decades past, when people of all races sat down to lunch together at her place of work, a social integration she finds sorely lacking now. Sadly her husband had recently passed away, and after learning more about Mason’s campaign, she said she would be excited to volunteer with it. This served as a reminder of the power in this moment of having political, values- and livelihood-based conversations with people who haven’t traditionally engaged in politics (Sam’s guess since she wasn’t on the canvass list).

Ten days after we visited, Cory won his mayoral race! (We’re pretty confident that our two hours of door knocking is what pushed him over the edge…)

In addition to the standard Midwestern elections issues (unions, women’s right to choose, and gun rights) that people raised at their doors, Mason’s campaign was highlighting a few very interesting key issues: he was opposing public subsidies for an event/sports arena in Racine (the Milwaukee Bucks D-League team had pulled out of the deal), fighting a Republican attempt to re-segregate the already underfunded public schools, and he was fighting for the best possible rights for local workers in the incoming Foxconn manufacturing plant in Racine.

Foxconn – the company known for having to put nets outside its windows in Chinese iPhone factories due to worker suicides – announced this summer that they’ll build a new manufacturing plant for flat screen displays for TVs and computers in Wisconsin, in Paul Ryan’s district. Governor Scott Walker has committed $3 billion in tax credits from the state for this deal – equal to $15k-19k per job per year, about seven times the typical incentive. Some neighbors of the future plant are concerned about how they’ll be compensated for losing their land to the deal, and after Governor Walker waived a number of environmental regulations and permits, groups are criticizing the environmental impact it will have on the area. Foxconn likes the location in part because it needs lake water for its production; at the same time, adherence to water regulations is crucial as the Great Lakes has 20% of the world’s fresh water. Because the factory will be in the County of Racine, not the city, the Council of a small village, Mount Pleasant, has ended up as one of the key negotiating parties for the deal, to which they recently reached a first agreement. The plant is expected to employ from 3,000 to 13,000 people by the sixth year. One of the real challenges in an economy that has been globalized to help the elite accrue wealth through exploiting the least organized workforces and least protected ecologies, is how to create jobs without participating in that race to the bottom.

On our way up to Green Bay we stopped in Janesville, which is Paul Ryan’s hometown and a key constituency in his congressional district. In addition to being Ryan’s hometown, Janesville became a national focus in 2008 when a General Motors plant in town closed down. (We’re listening to the audiobook version of Janesville by Amy Goldstein that tells the story of what happened in Janesville when the GM plant closed.) We struck out and weren’t able to attend mass at Ryan’s church (we were an hour late in typical Sam and Katie fashion) so we went to breakfast at a local diner and talked with folks sitting at the counter. Both people we talked with were white men sitting alone who were happy enough to chat about the town until we started asking about voting and they both replied, “I don’t talk about politics.” One of them was a middle aged man who said he and his dad still sometimes “get in fistfights” over politics, and that’s why he’s trying to stop talking about it. We realized we have to figure out more indirect ways of learning about people’s lives and values in some parts of the country.

Our last cultural experience in Wisconsin was a stay in Green Bay, where we watched the Packers beat the Dallas Cowboys in a bar across the street from the Packers stadium, Lambeau Field, (on Brett Favre Pass, just off of Lombardi Avenue). From the green-and-yellow decorated houses and murals surrounding the stadium to the monuments to famous players around town, we had never seen a sports town so dedicated to its team. It is after all, the NFL franchise with the most championships, in by far the smallest city of a major sports team – and the only publicly owned major sports team!


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