Democracy for the Elites

The signs are unmistakable: the United States is sliding more and more deeply into a caste system, not much unlike the Indian system that created a caste of “untouchables.”

An untouchable was unlikely to ever climb out of the hole into which society placed him or her.

Now, this blessed nation which became great during the first 80 years of the last century as it become more and more egalitarian is morphing into a Third World society where the wealthy and favored live in posh gated communities, surrounded by the makeshift houses of everyone else.

Perhaps that is an overblown conclusion; yet I can’t resist thinking such a picture may be in our nation’s future.

It is not only that the wage gap has been growing, sinking more and more families into seemingly hopeless monetary holes, but so has what I choose to call the “Democracy Gap.”

Just the other day, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago upheld Wisconsin’s Voter ID Law and ruled the law could go into effect for the Nov. 4th election in which Republican Gov. Scott Walker is in a neck-to-neck race with Democrat Mary Burke. Never mind that there likely will be glitches and costs rising from such a quick implementation of the law nor that there has been no major evidence of voter ID violations anywhere, the Court ruled the law could go ahead.

The real impact of the law will NOT be to stop voter fraud, but it will be to disenfranchise some 330,000 Wisconsinites who have no drivers’ licenses or other authorized forms of picture ID. To get them, they’ll have to locate birth certificates – or more likely write to county clerks in their home states and pay up to $20 for a certificate, which can be a bureaucratic morass for some folks, even if they can come up with the money.

(Quick aside: Presumably the law provides some relief for those who have trouble finding the money, particularly if they were born in the state of Wisconsin, but we question the machinery needed to do the checking as required can be set up to work smoothly less than two months before the election.)

Is it not obvious that the principle purpose of this law was to take away the vote of our poorer citizens, most of whom would likely vote Democratic?

Why the three-judge panel of judges failed to see this confounds me. Certainly these bright and learned people could sift through the evidence to see the truth, even if they were Republican appointees. Weren’t they sworn in to be impartial?

Who were these beacons of legal jurisprudence? Chief Judge Frank A. Easterbrook, who wrote the decision, was appointed by President Reagan, being confirmed only reluctantly after the American Bar Association gave him a low rating. Judge Diane S. Sykes, appointed by George W. Bush, is divorced from notorious Rightwing radio talker Charlie Sykes in Milwaukee but appears not to be separated from his ideas, and John Daniel Tinker, of Indianapolis.

Nothing in their backgrounds indicate they have the least bit of understanding of what it is to live on the edge of society, where people often have to choose whether to pay the rent to avoid eviction, to pay the utility bill to keep the lights on or to buy gas in order to get to their minimum wage jobs in the burbs.

This decision – whether it ultimately stands or not – is indicative of the trend that is creating a democracy gap that is forever heading to putting many Americans into the bottom rungs of a permanent caste system.

Other signs are obvious: the sorry story of redistricting in state-after-state where majorities are overruled by cleverly drawn politicos that see Republicans winning the majority of seats in state legislatures and the U.S. House of Representatives, even though the raw vote heavily went Democratic. Also there is the starving of public education in our cities and poor rural area thus depriving the children from struggling families to rise into higher standards of living. Then, our judicial system puts millions of young people – overwhelmingly those of color – into prisons that doom most of them to a life of failure.

The people who make these decisions usually aren’t evil or in a grand conspiracy to create the caste system I’ve imagined. Most care about the future of the United States and maybe even show up at charity functions or make generous contributions to worthy causes. Their problem is: they just don’t understand.

Such leaders grew up in supportive families in safe neighborhoods and attended good schools and chummed around with other bright and cheerful people. Some might even have had summer jobs where they rubbed elbows with “other” people. Nonetheless, they can’t understand why a single mother can’t find time to get her voter ID, much less pay for it. They ask: What’s the matter with “those” people?

How to stop this trend? In the U.S., we still have a political system that retains many democratic protections, even as it more and more penalizes our less fortunate citizens. It means all of us must find ways to to work around these onerous, wrong-headed laws; it means using social media to fill the ether with the need for all to be active; it means registering “everyone” to vote and to assure they get those hateful voter ID cards, using whatever means possible. In short it means getting involved in politics – even though it’s getting harder and harder to believe in the system.

If we fail, will we not be creating a caste system with untouchables? Ken Germanson, Sept. 13, 2014.

Expressions of Gratitude on Zeidler Award

It is difficult for me to fully express the depth of my gratitude to those who congratulated me for receiving the 2014 Frank P. Zeidler Public Service Award from the City of Milwaukee’s Common Council.  The occasion was marked by a 30-minute ceremony in the council’s elegant anteroom, with 50 friends and colleagues showing up to cheer on the presentation; the following evening even more folks filled the Puddlers’ Hall in Bay View at a reception to acknowledge the honor.

I was pleasantly surprised by the many friends, colleagues and former colleagues who took time to show up at the two events.  Also, I need to thank those who could not attend for expressing their kind words in many emails, with written cards and letters and on Facebook. 

In my acceptance remarks at City Hall on Sept. 3, I admitted to “feeling very humble to receive an award in the name of Frank P. Zeidler.  I got to know him as a reporter for the old Sentinel while he was

Frank Zeidler and the blogger at the Bay View Tragedy event, May 1997

Frank Zeidler and the blogger at the Bay View Tragedy event, May 1997

mayor.  Even though that newspaper editorialized against him almost daily, he still treated me with respect and openness.  Later on, we co-chaired a Labor and Religious Coalition and he was a continuing inspiration to our annual commemoration of the Bay View Tragedy.  He cared about this city . . . and I might say, all of humanity.”

*****

I have long admired Frank Zeidler for his commitment and dedication to building a better community for all citizens.  I admire the fact that he not only “talked a good game,” but that he was able to get things done.  While he was truly a pragmatic and practical politician he never sacrificed his principles. 

Perhaps that was why I was most moved by what Frank’s daughter, Anita, said in comparing me to her father.  If I remember the words accurately, she said that I reminded her of her father in my dedication, hard work and commitment to justice.  I could have received no better praise than that.

Nonetheless I was further humbled by many others who commented upon my service to the community; so effusive were the comments that I often wondered who this individual was.  I thank all of those who took time to make such statements.

Ald. Bob Bauman presents the Frank P. Zeidler Public Service Award to Ken Germanson Sept. 3, 2014 at Milwaukee City Hall

Ald. Bob Bauman presents the Frank P. Zeidler Public Service Award to Ken Germanson Sept. 3, 2014 at Milwaukee City Hall

In particular, I need to thank State Rep. Christine Sinicki for nominating me as well as State AFL-CIO President Emeritus David Newby, Wisconsin Labor History Society President Steve Cupery, Milwaukee’s premier historian John Gurda and Anita Zeidler for letters of support to the committee.  My gratitude also goes to Zeidler Memorial Committee, particularly Art Heitzer, himself a tireless advocate for social justice. 

It was most pleasing to have several aldermen at the presentation event, including Ald. Bob Bauman (who made the presentation), Council President Michael Murphy and my own alderman, Terry Witkowski.  Mayor Tom Barrett was unable to attend but issued a proclamation declaring Wednesday, Sept 3, as “Kenneth A. Germanson Day.”  How about that!

Three State Legislators attended the Thursday night reception, including Rep. Sinicki, Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson and Dan Riemer, and presented me with a resolution of commendation from the State Legislature.  Sen. Larson commented that Gov. Scott Walker was not asked to sign on to the action.

*****

All of the accomplishments that were mentioned in the comments would not have been possible without the support of so many committed and dedicated friends and colleagues, whether in my  work or in my volunteer efforts.  Their presence was always reassuring as I pursued all of these quests (many of them likely quixotic) knowing that these marvelous folks were right along at my side.

Last, but most importantly, I must acknowledge the support of my wife of sixty years, Ann, who suffered through many nights and weekends of my absence while bearing the major burden of raising our five children.  Thankfully, she shared my goals of social justice and often participated in the work at my side.

If nothing else the receipt of this award reminded me of the fact that the work of creating a just society never ends and that – regardless of present-day despair – the arc of history bends toward justice as long as we continue in our work.   It seems we all have lots of work to do. Ken Germanson, Sept. 7, 2014

A Middle Ground for Ending Gun Violence

A friend has two guns in her apartment, ready to protect herself from any entry by an assailant.

She is disgusted with me when I argue that such weaponry is not necessary and could even end in tragedy for herself, such as being picked up and used in anger at a friend or in a fit of depression being used to commit suicide.  I choose not to press the issue: if she finds comfort with such “protection,” so be it.  “To each her own,” in the words of a politically correct refrain adapted from a 1940s song.

To my knowledge, she is a stable, sane human being; her apartment is in an acknowledged safe neighborhood.  Having been raised in a rural area where guns often are a tool for hunting or ridding a farmstead of predator animals, she presumably  knows how to use a gun safely.

Yet, when the discussion arises about gun control legislation, she bristles.  She won’t even listen to arguments about banning AK-47’s or background checks to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.  Is she mentally ill, or does she desire an assault weapon?  No, of course not, yet she believes that those of us who favor any such legislation are hopeless “liberals” or “do-gooders” who want to turn all weaponry into plowshares.

Few who favor gun legislation want to take her legally licensed guns from her, nor do we wish to end hunting.  We recognize the right of a person to protect herself (as long as she keeps her guns in a safe place and knows how to use them) as we recognize that for many persons hunting is part of the culture.

Gun violence hits hardest in the most “at risk” neighborhoods of most major cities.  It does not occur in such near epidemic levels in rural or suburban neighborhoods, and perhaps that accounts for the strong opposition to even the most reasonable and modest gun legislation.  Most of those in the more endangered neighborhoods favor such controls, even while many will still obtain guns “to protect themselves.”

Many of the opponents view gun control legislation as part of the larger campaign to protect their “individual liberties” from what they consider an intrusive (or in the more extreme view “dictatorial”) actions.  The truth is we already obey many governmental laws, like stop signs, speed limits and the need to carry auto insurance; most modest proposed gun laws are nothing more than reasonable attempts of “keep the peace.”

Sadly the gun control issue has taken on the same “us” versus “them” aspect as our political climate, such as the situation where Democrats won’t talk with Republicans or vice versa.  In a democracy, we must remember that “compromise” is not a dirty word, that it requires talking – and more importantly – listening.

The first step is to realize that the person on the other side of an argument is NOT inherently evil, or that he or she is a dunderheaded “wing nut,” even though in our estimation the person may be thinking like that.  Remember they’re likely viewing you in the same light.

Sometimes I despair that we’ll never be able to bridge the ideological chasm that has developed between the opposing views on gun legislation.  It’s hard to listen to arguments from the “other side” when they seem downright goofy and misguided, but it is something we must strive to do.  Perhaps if the other person begins to view you as someone who listens while not responding in a rabid fashion, we will eventually be able to talk and begin to compromise.  It’ll take tons of patience, but it’s a necessary start to dialogue.

Perhaps if we began a dialogue we might be able to engage those who seem to violently disagree about guns, like my friend, to agree that they may keep their guns while going along with more reasonable restrictions that might curb the use of AK-47s or keep weapons from the hands of the mentally ill. - Aug. 18, 2014

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Milwaukee and Racism

It’s an unexpected joy to learn that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar “likes” Wisconsin.  At least, he says he does, based on the comedic – some would say embarrassingly corny – commercial promoting tourism in the state.  If you haven’t seen it, Kareem re-enacts the part he played in the hilariously funny movie, “Airplane,” as the plane flies over prominent vacation spots in the state.

Image

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, A/K/A Lew Alcindor Milwaukee Bucks, 1969-1975

Back when he was drafted to play for the Milwaukee Bucks in 1969, he showed little affection for the city or the state and couldn’t wait until he flee to the LA Lakers, as he did in 1975.  In spite of the role he played – along with a marvelous supporting cast including Oscar Robertson, Jon McGlocklin and Bobby Dandridge – in bringing the Bucks their only NBA championship in 1971, he failed to win the hearts of Milwaukee fans the way Oscar (the “Big O”) did.

As a big fan in those days, a co-worker and myself shared two season tickets in the cheap seats at the Milwaukee Arena.  The seats, by the way, offered a better view of the game than any but the most expensive seats in the Bradley Center.  I know I marveled at this towering player’s sky hook and his ability to block shots.  He was a joy to watch; never was such a tall man so graceful.

Nonetheless, many fans were disappointed in how Kareem (then known as Lew Alcindor) rejected Milwaukee, its lack of sophistication and culture when he asked to be traded to either Los Angeles or New York.  Though he didn’t say it directly, it could be inferred that the racism of our city bothered him.  Even then – when the minority population was a fraction of what it is today – Milwaukee had the reputation of being the most segregated city in the U. S.

Despite his snub of our city, I liked Kareem for his intelligence and honesty.  Like his play on the court, he never held it back, and he didn’t in a recent comment in Time Magazine when the Don Sterling’s racist quote caused Sterling to be dropped as owner of the Los Angeles Clippers.

In true Kareem fashion, he minced no words in saying that just because the nation elected an African-American president Americans are still far from wiping out the stain of our historic racism.  The Don Sterling remark was an example and a symbol of how racism still haunts Americans, even when they don’t realize it.

For instance, Kareem reads off the words we often hear from whites that “I don’t care if you’re white, black, yellow or purple.”  Then he writes: “You might be a racist if you’ve used that phrase.”

He continues: “Maybe the worst racism of all is denying that racism exists, because that keeps us from repairing the damage.”

The Milwaukee of forty years ago when Kareem left the Bucks for the Lakers is now a much different place.  Then, it was an acknowledged “white” community with relatively few minorities.  Today, it is a majority minority city; yet, I doubt that if Kareem returned to spend more than a few hours in the community he’d find anything more to be please him.  While African-Americans, Hispanics and the growing numbers of Asian and Middle Eastern persons filter into many neighborhoods of the city, including a few of the suburbs, African-American and Hispanic ghettos are as concentrated and desperate as ever.  Our public school system is less than 20 per cent white.  Wisconsin continues to incarcerate black males to an extent that no other state does.  And our minority poverty rate is among the worst as well.

Meanwhile, the current reactionary state government in Madison has turned a blind eye to assisting in developing a climate in which all citizens may thrive.  Are the politicians making those terrible decisions all racist?  They would tell you that they “don’t see color;” yet, their very blindness to the issues in our minority community betrays their racism even when they don’t realize it.

The solution, Kareem tells us, should come from each of us.  Each and every time we see an example of racist behavior, we should say so.  He writes:  “That’s why the best way to combat racism . . . is to seek it out every minute of every day and expose every instance we find. And not just racism, but also sexism, homophobia and every other kind of injustice that lessens the principles of inclusion that define this country.”

During his five years playing for the Bucks, Kareem hurried back to either his New York roots or to LA as often as he could.  Now, in his recent tourism advertisement, he seems to show a certain fondness for the state.  Do you think he would find Milwaukee any less racist today as it was during his playing days here?   Ken Germanson, June 21,  2014

(NOTE:  If you feel you have an answer to the closing question, why not answer it with a comment below.)

A mystery solved!

On a relatively mild February afternoon in 2013, I inexplicably fell into the middle of a street a couple of blocks from my home. It’s one of those things that happen to people of my age (83 then) over which they seem to have no control.

All I remember is heading face down onto the hard, cold asphalt pavement, with my glasses breaking into two pieces. From then on – for perhaps ten or more minutes – everything is more or less a blank. The first clear memory I have is entering the back door of our home.

“I have no idea how I got home, though I have a vague image of being in a car, like a Ford Escape, with a young couple,” I told the emergency room doctors

Though I couldn’t be sure, I figured that the young couple were Good Samaritans and brought me home. Who they were, I had no idea. I had never seen them before, and I began wondering if they even existed. Perhaps I had dreamed the whole episode.

It turned out the fall was quite serious; stitches were required to close wounds on my face, the glasses were ruined and the EKG examination found blood on my brain. As a result I spent two days in intensive care while they kept an eye on me. They tell me the fall, however, has had no lasting effect on the brain, though some who know me may doubt that.

The identity of the mystery couple remained a mystery.

*****

Just the other day, on a warm, sunny June afternoon, I was out walking again, trying to rehabilitate my left knee after a replacement operation six months earlier (another surgery so commonplace among oldsters these days) and found myself headed toward the same intersection into which I fell on that chilly, dreary February afternoon 16 months earlier.

A half-block before the intersection, I notice a woman about to get into a Ford Escape –like vehicle. She looked at me, giving me close examination, as if she may know me. I didn’t recognize her, but as is my neighborly manner greeted her with a “hi.”

She said nothing for an instant before asking: “Aren’t you the man who fell in the street down there a year ago?” She pointed toward the intersection.

“Yes,” I said. I still didn’t recognize the woman, but reasoned that she must have been the woman of the young couple into whose car I remembered from that day.

She agreed she was and I said, “You probably saved my life.” That was no overstatement since perhaps without the couple’s help I might have remained flat down in the street and could have been easily run over in the late afternoon darkness.

“I saw you were all bloody and told my boyfriend that you probably needed help,” she told me. “You wanted to walk home by yourself and you argued with us that you were all right, and my boyfriend had to lift you into the back seat.”

How they realized where I lived I forgot to ask her, but she said they dropped me off at my home and watched me walk up the drive to the backdoor. Later, she said, she was concerned that I might live alone and still need help; she said she checked the house later, got more worried when no one answered the door.

“My daughter had driven me to the hospital by then,” I explained to her.

“I was able to peak through a window and saw a pair of women’s shoes on the floor so I figured you had someone else around,” she said.

“I can’t thank you enough,” I said over and over.

“I’m Patti,” she said, holding out her hand.

Just then a young man, perhaps about 20, walked up. “This is my son,” she said, introducing me. So much for my rescuers being a “young couple;” they had to be at least 40. Well, they are still less than half my age; they must be young.

After more profuse “thank you’s” from me, I continued my walk home, pleased that the mystery of the lost minutes of my life could now be explained.

*****

More and more in these contentious times it is important to know that people are still capable of being kind and helpful. They did not care whether I voted the same way they did; they did not care what religion I practiced or whether I was religious at all; they did not care that I was of a different race.  Their only concern was for the safety of an old man who was in trouble.  Their actions are proof that humanity is still a reality – and it may be what restores us to a better world in the long run. – Ken Germanson, June 13, 2014

‘Put the Guns Down’ event brings more than 100 together

Well over 100 young people filled the site of the Our Next Generation Neighborhood Center at N. 34th Street and W. Lisbon Ave., on Wednesday, June 4, to echo a common message: “Put the Guns Down.”

This combined effort of Westside Academy II and Serve-2-Unite was designed by the teenagers themselves, according to Jennifer Koss, a 7th and 8th grade teacher at the Academy.  They distributed more than 2,000 flyers going door-to-door throughout the neighborhood, stood along Lisbon Avenue to hold up signs advertising the event and distributed information and peace bracelets to participants.

Enthusiasm among the teens was clearly evident as folks from the neighborhood (mainly under eighteen years of age) entered the structure. 

Television crews from two Milwaukee stations (Channels 6 and 12) set up cameras and interviewed the young people, along with a few adults.  At least one radio station was present to do interviews. 

The degree to which gun violence affects the neighborhoods was demonstrated when one of the presenters asked those in the audience to stand if they witnessed various forms of violence, saw guns, had friends with guns and similar questions.  For most of the questions a majority stood, in some cases a good 90 percent stood, an indication of how great the gun violence has been in the neighborhood.

A discussion on possible solutions followed, with the youth gathering in small groups to share ideas and solutions. “They`re going to get the chance to present them to the adults and say ‘this is what we think should happen,’” Koss said.

The program received funds from the Coming Together Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence to cover costs of giveaways and other materials.

When “horse apples” covered our streets

Horses are no longer a part of daily life.  That’s hardly news, of course, but to the longtime erudite sports columnist and author Frank Deford the fact that horses have lost their importance in daily life is one of the reasons that horse racing has lost popularity to the general public.  On his National Public Radio commentary in early June, Deford said even the wide interest over California Chrome’s possible winning of the famed Triple Crown this year will not revitalize the popularity of the sport.

He cited other reasons as well to explain why the names of today’s top racing horses are not household words as were the names of War Admiral, Whirlaway, and Secretariat in the past, who won the Triple Crown in 1937, 1941 and 1973, respectively.  The most famous horse of all – which everyone knew during those Big Band years of the 1930s and 40s – was Seabiscuit; the horse failed in winning the Crown.

Horse-drawn wagon carried Fauerbach's Beer in Madison, Wisconsin (circa 1886)

Horse-drawn wagon carried Fauerbach’s Beer in Madison, Wisconsin (circa 1886)

His remark, however, that horses mean little to the ordinary American was right on the mark, unless, of course, you are an octogenarian like this writer.

Horses were very much a part of a child of the 1930s and 1940s, even for a child like myself who was raised in a suburb adjacent to a major city like Milwaukee.  “Horse apples” were dropped along the streets and as a young bike rider I remember dodging these collections of manure.  The “apples” came from horses pulling wagons that brought our milk each morning, collected our garbage and trash, and delivered the ice for refrigeration (most families still used “ice boxes”).  We were careful to not step into the apples as we trailed along behind the wagon begging the iceman for particles of ice on hot summer days.

The ragman also collected the recyclables of the day, our old clothes, metal products and other junk in a horse-drawn wagon, yelling out “rags,” which sounded more like “rex” in their broken English.

The city of Milwaukee continued to use the horses that drew their garbage wagons to pull snow plows down the city’s side streets.  The ridiculousness of this apparently frugal practice ended after the massive snow storm of January, 1947, clogged many of the city’s streets for a week when the horse drawn plows were hardly able to move in the heavy snow.  Trucks were used then to plow only the main drags.

I got my earliest education about how little boys and girls are born, thanks to the fact that the city’s largest dairy had its horse barn located across the street from our grade school playground.  When we kids (out for a morning recess) saw one horse mount another, a boy who was far more advanced about the facts of life told me what was going on.  Oh how we giggled that day!

Half of the families in Wisconsin were still farming in those days, too, and my parents had friends with working farms.  By then most had begun mechanizing, but there were still horses about and I remember the fright I experienced in riding a frisky mustang when I was about ten years old.  It was a fear I had to later overcome as our children dragged me out to ride horses at a stable.

Thanks to Deford’s observation on NPR, I realized again how important horses were to developing all of America.  They provided the “horsepower” to pull logs out of the woods to create lumber that built our cities; horses delivered the nation’s food, appliances and machinery being led by teamsters, still the name of one of the largest labor unions in the nation.  Horses were still pulling tanks and supply wagons in the earliest days of World War II.

Whether horse racing ever again regains its once proud standing is not important.  What is important is that we not forget the role that this noble animal had in helping to create our current standard of living.  How fortunate the kids of early generations were to have experienced their presence. – Ken Germanson, June 4, 2014.