Sunday, August 28, 2016


By Dominique Paul Noth

The clichés are rolling in the wake of the Sherman Park disturbances. First up is “closing the barn door” after the horse has bolted. That’s the  skeptic’s way to view Gov. Scott Walker’s skillful lifting and combining of existing federal programs and harmless shifts in state money to announce a $4.5 million bailout in mainly jobs aid targeted at the Sherman Park area.

Don’t expect residents there or anywhere in Milwaukee to look even a belated shrunken gift horse in the mouth, to vary another cliché.  The help – any puny help – is welcome in a city so often ignored by the state and by its richer surrounding neighbors in the WOW counties (Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington, which have been the beneficiaries for decades of white flight and Republican insulation).

Let’s not pretend the savagery against Milwaukee and the lack of steady interest by Walker haven’t played  an escalating role in the problems. In a diatribe uncomfortably echoing Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn statement to Bush about Iraq (Mr. President, you broke it you own it),  Keith Schmitz of Grassroots North Shore noted how Milwaukee lost 28,000 jobs in 15 years while the WOWs gained 56,000, many from white relocation.  So he told “right-wingers, you built this, you benefit from this, you are the problem.” 

It is also Kumbaya cliché to hear elected officials hold hands and say “we’re all in the same boat now.” Sure it’s true – it’s always true.  But it becomes a truism hard to believe in any year much less an election year.  Are city, county and state officials really pulling the oars in the same direction, or even in the same waters, beyond what is politically convenient?

LaTonya Johnson speaks reality.
I share the worries expressed by state Representative and soon to be Senator LaTonya Johnson in a Shepherd Express story recalling her negative initial reaction when the national guard was called in by the governor and Sheriff David Clarke (though smartly held in abeyance by Mayor Tom Barrett and Police Chief Ed Flynn).  In remarks she could have made 49 years ago, when Milwaukee also made national headlines, “You are going to get electeds who feel they need to step in,” said Johnson. “[How is this] going to affect our poor families and those individuals who are convicted felons? I’m sure there are going to be some harsh pieces of legislation that are going to come down the pipeline.”

Sherman Park was a short eruption on an August weekend that pushed to the forefront lingering sores. But it unfortunately has labeled a vibrant and diverse neighborhood, now deteriorating,  as the poster child of Milwaukee problems.  Walker’s help while welcome is almost a plantation master’s knee-jerk. There are other neighborhoods in Milwaukee where the blight looms larger and they  now feel doubly neglected. 

People immediately went about their lives as normal a few blocks away from Sherman Park while suburbanites are still shunning the city, just as it took years to recover from that July 30 to August 3 of 1967.

I was a local copy editor in 1967 and my view of the “riot” is somewhat different than popular history provides.  That was the Long Hot Summer when civil disturbance roiled through 159 cities, many much more destructive than Milwaukee’s. Yet the National Guard was quickly called in by Mayor Henry Maier and he also imposed a citywide 24-hour curfew for four days (with a few open hours for grocery shopping and liquor buying).

Clarke seems to have brought the ghost
 of the late  Harold Breier back
to Sherman Park.
In sum, if I remember right, there were four deaths (one from a heart attack), 100 injuries and under Police Chief Harold Breier (who would be Clarke’s Icon of Militant Authority if he hadn’t been so hated in the black community) 1,700 arrests.

The Milwaukee Journal was allowed to continue as we showed our press cards at the barricades on State St., but unlike others’ memories, the inner streets were not swarming with officers. I had no business except curiosity but I walked around then Third and Walnut with no incident, almost as if in a ghost town. 

(Nine months later I understood the quiet throughout the city, and even earned an eagle-eye reputation at the paper.  In those days the Journal copy desk routinely marked up and published the birth notices, and I noticed – and passed along to editors -- a remarkable surge in births nine months after the riot. So there clearly was a party side to the curfew.)

Back then, police officers were angry about attacks on their ranks and responded roughly to the behavior.  But a few took me inside. They told me it started with a few fights, escalating police presence,  teen window smashing and rock throwing, a crazy old man shooting at everything in sight and  a lot of people  sticking their guns out the windows, firing and then ducking inside chuckling.

Maier was much praised, even though a few months later he refused to pass the fair housing ordinance that underlay the tension then, much as deaths at police hands do now.

I came to believe that Maier’s actions were excessive. That’s not a majority opinion.  Better safe than sorry goes another cliché, so clamping down fast was highly regarded and in that summer considered prescient.  I’m sure we’ll discover over time that some adolescents who hang around Sherman Park were content to join or even lead the chaos.

But let’s not repeat the excess in different circumstances. The Park has also been a haven and learning place.  Maier in retrospect was more concerned about protecting us white folks than helping them black folks or addressing the roots of the problem. 

Now for another cliché. This is not a defense of the rioters from one of those “bleeding heart white liberals.” It’s recognition that violence does no good, never has, but does draw attention – mostly the wrong kind of temporary attention, which is why it is also stupid.  White flight escalated after 1967, especially if you combine the “riot” with federal requirements to integrate the schools. Greater isolation, mistrust and job loss continue to advance in the wake.  

There’s something hypocritical about our reaction to adolescents in this community.  Despite strong evidence that other young people were inflamed by social media and came storming in, headline-enterprising  Clarke scored strong-arm points by imposing  a continuous 6 p.m. curfew for youths in Sherman Park.  The youths in the area used to respond better  to kind words. Will they still? But this is Clarke’s American Way -- guilty until proven innocent.

When students after a basketball loss ran amok in Ann Arbor starting fires, it was addressed with another cliché (“Boys will be boys”). 

Nor do we summon the national guard into Madison after a rowdy football game or street festival. There is a racial and class component not only to the uproars but also to the state’s reaction.

Frantic Band-Aids can wind up worse than itching powder.

There’s been a lot of welcome discussion about remedies and endurance, some serious realization that nothing short-term will work, unless of course you are the governor or the state legislature judging from afar.

Some of those folks will judge it is all about broken homes, others all about residential segregation, though there’s growing evidence of why blacks like to live around blacks and whites around whites even when incomes rise.

Others claim lack of jobs alone, but in 1967 Milwaukee was awash in manufacturing jobs compared to now. According to Marc Levine, director of the UWM Center for Economic Development, then it was 119,000, not it's down to 27,600 by 2014.

Others say poverty, but it is a different kind and manner of poverty than immigrants endured in Boston and New York, since there was a non-melanin base to  assimilation and upward mobility.

A modern cliché of sociology is “systemic problems” – and it’s another case of  true, depending on who is defining “systemic.”  Should it be the same people who think systemic solutions can be imposed from the outside? Will we ever truly recognize the founders of the feast?

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for

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