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“Racism, specifically, is the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.”
-Ruth Wilson Gilmore
I write this as a Black man who was born, raised and still lives in this city and loves the people in this city.
Milwaukee is routinely ranked the worst place in the United States for Black people. Wisconsin as a state incarcerates the most Black people in the U.S., in the country that leads the world in incarceration. Milwaukee County, the most populous and racially diverse county in the state, had the second worst health outcomes of any county in the state before the pandemic.
Black Milwaukeeans find themselves locked in a predicament caused by local, state and national politicians over the decades, and this history is well- documented by both local residents and historians. The COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated the deep structural inequities experienced by Black people every single day. True to form, our current elected and appointed officials continue to exacerbate these issues by prioritizing business interests over people’s lives.
Milwaukeeans deserve better. These numbers give some understanding into the anti-Blackness that is so pervasive in this city and state.
Cruel public health response
This detailed timeline accounts for the Biden administration’s calculated COVID response, including a chilling focus more on the economy and on pharmaceutical solutions instead of implementing public health mitigation strategies that could have saved lives. Timely interventions with workplace protections, upscaling testing capacity, enacting more accessible and robust national health care coverage and paid sick leave are just some of the life-saving decisions detailed here from the federal level. At the time of this writing, the Biden administration has no interest or will to use shutdowns as a pandemic mitigation strategy. The U.S. seems to have no issue spending money on its imperial activity, passing the largest military budget since WWII while supporting its citizenry in the pandemic is not truly considered.
In Wisconsin, the fight the Evers administration had with Republican lawmakers and conservative law firms regarding stay-at-home orders and mask mandates was decided in favor of the Republican legislative majority. Many public health departments around the state that fought to keep mask mandates are dealing with similar battles.
However, even with these hurdles, state, county and Milwaukee city officials committed to “public safety” could have done and can do more, especially with the influx of federal resources. In March of 2020, several Milwaukee-based organizations sent these public health demands to elected officials on all levels of government in Milwaukee County. The demands were born from our unique community and labor work. These public health measures suggested at the outset of the pandemic could still be useful today.
The lack of political will among Democratic politicians within the state over what they actually have control over is disappointing at best and cruel at worst. Even simple measures like reinstating Milwaukee’s mask mandate could have saved lives, yet outside of a few politicians’ terse questioning of the health commissioner, there was little will to protect “public safety.”
The current messaging from both County Executive David Crowley and Acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson in regards to the pandemic is for individuals to take personal responsibility to get vaccinated. They say the vaccine is our strongest weapon to “end” the pandemic. As a person who is vaccinated and boosted, I appreciate the ability to have a better chance to fight severe disease and death. It is a weapon but not the only one, and it’s a weapon that is weakened as viruses keep spreading and mutating.
It also parrots the Biden administration’s activity to keep the economy going while we experience great death and misery. We had more COVID deaths in the year we have a vaccine available than when it wasn’t available. Not to mention the completely understudied impact of long COVID.
The lack of public health measures to keep our populace safe went away to satisfy capitalist influence over public health. Social determinants of health seem to have all but left public health discourse to deal with this pandemic, which could account for deep disparities in our state. It also allows our local government an excuse not to do adequate public health education around vaccination safety especially in the Black community as fewer than 40% of Black people in Milwaukee County are vaccinated.
Carceral logic over public health
In stark contrast to public health and health care investments or accountability of nonprofit hospital systems that rake in hundreds of millions of pandemic aid, our state is always expanding resources for war (police, National Guard, the feds, surveillance and cages) against Black communities. We saw that in real time with the response to the 2020 uprisings with expanded federal, state and local resources marshaled quickly and efficiently to protect property as people were righteously angry that the state kept killing Black people.
Our Democratic governor, county executive and then-mayor were in complete unity in action, using these resources against protesting Wisconsinites. There is a deeper criticism to be made of the governor using the National Guard as a health care Band-Aid in crisis points in the pandemic, instead of pushing hospital systems to care for their workers and use their wealth to build health care capacity, but I digress.
Carceral logic is the norm for this state as it spends more money on incarcerating people than educating them. It’s not a far leap to see this tragic trend play out in the lack of prioritization of public health resources. Even as the state spends large sums of tax dollars on incarceration, the COVID response to limit the spread of infection is atrocious.
There is a bipartisan agreement to continue war (policing, jails, prisons, supervision, surveillance) budgets on people, especially Black, brown and Indigenous communities.
Our communities deserve better. People in power should be invested in humanity and not war (carceral solutions). Or putting business interests over life-affirming community investments in housing, health care, education, employment and economic opportunities.
Nate Gilliam is a Milwaukee organizer and founding member of Milwaukee Freedom Fund, which works to defend and protect Black lives.