Two weeks ago, white utility workers entered two predominantly black Milwaukee areas — at one site carrying firearms and at another flashing stickers bearing a Confederate flag and a Ku Klux Klan symbol. After several black city officials spoke up about the issue, they were met with venomous messages laced with racial epithets.
The black residents of those two areas — the intersection of 19th and Meinecke streets and the intersection of 25th and Wells streets — who were interviewed for this story, as well as several community leaders, were unsurprised that such brazen and public acts of racism could happen in their own neighborhoods and to the people who represent them.
Several of them pointed to a new era of open racism, where bigots feel empowered by President Donald Trump, who has been criticized multiple times for not condemning hate groups strongly enough.
Reggie Jackson, head griot of America’s Black Holocaust Museum, based in Milwaukee, said racist viewpoints such as these were expressed “very openly and very brazenly” until the 1960s, when they became taboo as a result of the civil rights movement. He attributed the resurgence of such conversations to the election of Trump, who Jackson said used “clearly articulated code language” in the form of his slogan “Make America Great Again” to appeal to a base that was largely old and white. Former Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, who Trump endorsed, has said the country was last great during the era of slavery.
“It’s a supremacy issue,” said Vaun Mayes, a local activist. “It’s white people having entitlement, especially to this state and to what’s in it. And there’s a sense of, ‘This is my area, this is my space, we don’t want them here.’”
Mayes said the “blatant racism” displayed in the aftermath of the gun incident is only “one piece of a very systemic issue,” pointing to racial disparities in education, employment and incarceration that are greater in Wisconsin than most other states. He, and others, specifically took issue with white workers who display such an obvious fear of, and prejudice toward, the black community being employed on city projects when African-American residents do not have the same opportunities.
“Why aren’t there either black contractors or local contractors from the community or neighborhood? Why did the city feel like it had to outsource to a different company?” asked Arthur Cameron, a manager at The Juice Kitchen, 1617 W. North Ave.
American Sewer Services, the employer of the workers who were photographed with guns near 19th and Meinecke, and racist stickers near 25th and Wells, does not appear to be in danger of losing its $1.14 million project to rehabilitate sewers in 11 locations throughout the city.
But the absence of American Sewer Service’s owner, Dennis Biondich, from a special public meeting earlier this week to address the incidents left many Common Council members angry. The council has already passed a resolution that would forbid contractors from carrying weapons on the job, and several other aldermen have said they would examine how much the city could cut back on outsourcing work in the future.
Residents interviewed for this story were split on whether the city should partner with American Sewer Services again. While acknowledging that any contractor could hire an employee with racist insensitivities or ideologies, Gary Ingram, a program assistant for Central City Churches, Inc., said the actions of the company’s employees cannot be tolerated.
“It shouldn’t even be up for discussion,” said Ingram. “If you get to dance you pay the band.”
Hugh Bent, an employee at Jake’s Deli North, 1634 W North Ave., who previously worked in construction, said the city should still do business with American Sewer Services, since two employees — one who had his gun unholstered in the first photo and one who was responsible for the racist stickers in the second photo — were fired as a result of the photos.
“If the company does good work, then the city has no reason to terminate any contracts with them” as long as they handle the situation with their employees, he said.
According to those interviewed, including Amaranth Bakery owner David Boucher, who is white, fear of central city Milwaukee neighborhoods is unfounded. Jackson, who lives in Sherman Park, and Boucher, whose home is blocks from the Walnut Hill bakery, said those neighborhoods are not as they are portrayed — as excessively violent —by media or some public officials.
Jackson said much of the violent crime occurs between people who know each other, a claim that is borne out by police data.
Boucher pointed to poverty, which disproportionately affects the city’s black population and is concentrated in the central city, as the driver of the crime that does exist.
“When you’re in that dire situation, you don’t see the options,” he said.
Jackson added, “In order to get past those stereotypical images of what the city is like, you have to come to the city, walk around, talk to people, get to know people.”