Chemical Weapons in Syria? True?

“Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.”

We, the American public, have already been fooled twice by our leaders about the truth on international incidents.  Both times, the resulting actions were disastrous. 

Now, we need to resist being “fooled” for a third time, this time by a claim that the Syrians, apparently with help from Russia and Turkey, have been using chemical weapons against the rebels.  Frankly, I don’t honestly know whether the Trump Administration claims that chemical weapons were responsible for 42 deaths at the former rebel stronghold of Douma are true or not.  Most likely they are true, but I still have lingering doubts.

The first time we Americans were fooled was when the Lyndon Johnson Administration claimed that two U.S. destroyers were attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin on


USS Maddox,, one of the destroyers in Tonkin incident.

Aug. 4, 1964.  It later turned out the “attack” may indeed have never occurred as it was characterized.  Even though the reports about the incident were still sketchy, the next day President Johnson called upon Congress to enact the famed Gulf of Tonkin resolution that gave the President authority to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression. It also declared that the maintenance of international peace and security in Southeast Asia was vital to American interests and to world peace.  And within two days, Congress passed the bill with an overwhelming bi-partisan vote.

Presidents Johnson and Richard Nixon used that resolution to escalate the Vietnam War, and for years the American public supported that action, until eventually tiring of the War.  During that time, any of us who questioned the wisdom of our Vietnam experience were called “traitors,” “unpatriotic” or even “commies” by the many Americans who were duped about the realities of our engagement in Vietnam.

The second example of being fooled was in 2003 when the George W. Bush Administration claimed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.  Again, the same scenario developed, although this time there was more skepticism throughout the country. 


Secretary of State Colin Powell at UN claiming WMDs existed in Iraq.

Nonetheless, Congress with some opposition approved the attack on Iraq.  Throughout the debate, the Bush Administration provided “evidence” of the existence of WMDs; later it was learned such “evidence” was circumstantial at best.  No WMDs were ever found; yet the war began.

In both of the examples, we saw government propaganda at work.  Sadly, the American media largely went along with the fiction until a few more enterprising journalists began to look more closely into the government’s claims.  Yet, in both incidents, the damage had been done, bringing 58,209 U.S. casualties in Vietnam and nearly 4,489 in Iraq.  In addition, more than a million citizens of both countries were killed, coupled with terrible devastation to their infrastructure.  

It’s Sunday morning, April 14, as I write this.  It’s spring and the grass should be green and the trees filled with buds, but we have more than an inch of snow and more is coming.  To the north of us in Green Bay, there’s a foot on the ground.  I’m far from the Syrian city of Douma, so how am I to know about the truth of chemical weapons?  Must I take the word of our government?

President Trump ordered the attack two days earlier, even before an international commission had a chance to verify that chemical weapons were indeed used.  We’re told Syrian President Assad is an evil devil, and it certainly appears that way.  Assad and his Russian allies deny the use of chemical weapons.  

How am I to know the truth?  The government tells us the attack was a success in knocking out much of Syria’s chemical facilities with minimal casualties.  

President Trump declared “Mission Accomplished.”  Will that prove true?  Sounds familiar.   Didn’t President Bush declare “Mission Accomplished” just a month after we  invaded Iraq?   How true was that claim?

— Ken Germanson, Milwaukee WI, April 14, 2018



Dr. King’s final words and their real meaning

December 7, 1941 – August 6, 1945 – November 22, 1963

April 4, 1968 – September 11, 2001

What do these dates have in common?   For me, they are dates I will never forget.  (If you’re not sure what the dates refer to, see end of this comment.)

Today, I reflect upon that day 50 years ago today, April 4, 1968.  That day Martin Luther King was shot in Memphis Tennessee, a date that will live in American history as testimony of the racial hatred that has flourished in this nation and continues to the present day.

I recall vividly, the morning after, April 5, when I was sitting in the old Orlando Hotel in imagesDecatur, Ill., when the black boldface headline in the Decatur Herald-Review proclaimed the killing of Dr. King on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis.  I was devastated by the news because I had seen Dr. King just five months earlier at a conference at the University of Chicago where he spoke out eloquently against the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

As I read the news, a grizzled veteran labor union representative (at the time I was a newly hired union rep) wandered by, saw the headline and said something like, “Good, they finally got the b—–d.”  As angered as I was at the comment, I was either too shocked, or too new on the job or just plain cowardly to argue with him.

His reaction, however, was not surprising, since the majority of white Americans were either scared that Dr. King’s leadership that might stir up black resentments, thought he was a communist or would bring violence to the nation.

What the old union rep had forgotten or never knew – along with many white Americans at the time – was that Dr. King was truly on the side of all Americans who might have been denied economic or social justice.  He opposed the Vietnam War in part because the task of dying in the jungles of Southeast Asia was being done by poor and working class young men (women were not a major part of the fighting force then). The college educated sons of the privileged classes were exempt from the draft in those days.  Case in point:  Most of the “chicken hawks” who led us into Iraq on the myth of weapons of mass destruction.

The old union rep should also have realized that Dr. King was in Memphis supporting the union sanitation workers at the time of his death. Dr. King saw the labor movement, in spite of its spotty history in civil rights causes, as a major way to bring working classes, particularly African-Americans, into a better standard of living.  He was on his third trip to Memphis in support of the striking members of public employees’ union (AFSCME).

His final speech mainly is remembered as for his eerie promise that he had “been to the mountaintop,” thus foretelling of his death by assassination that next morning. In reality, most of the speech was involved with bringing justice to the striking workers.

He pleaded with his audience in that Memphis Masonic temple on April 3 that economic justice required that they support the strikers, urging that “we’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through. And when we have our march, you need to be there. If it means leaving work, if it means leaving school — be there. Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.”

It was a message of solidarity that could be preached by any union leader urging support for a group of strikers.

Dr. King was a unifying force for America and sadly too few Americans understood that in 1968; as the years went by, most have given at least “lip service” to the work of the great man.  He was, yes, a civil rights leader, but in many respects, he was also a leader in the cause of worker rights.  Ken Germanson, April 4, 2018.

December 7, 1941:  The Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor, putting U.S. into World War II.

August 6, 1945:  The US drops the atom bomb on Hiroshima, Japan to begin the nuclear age.

November 22, 1963:  The assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

April 4, 1968:  The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

September 11, 2001:  Nearly 3,000 killed when planes plow into World Trades Center and Pentagon.

Milwaukee’s new streetcars won’t have the same magic!

Exactly sixty years ago this past March, I boarded the ancient No. 10 (Wells Street) streetcar for one of the final runs of a streetcar on Milwaukee streets.

It was a nostalgic run for me that day – then a 28-year-old reporter for the former Milwaukee Sentinel – sent to do a feature story on Milwaukee’s last streetcar; the final run would come later that night, but for morning newspaper deadlines my feature story had to be based upon an earlier trip.

Now sometime later this year, streetcars will again run down Milwaukee streets, an initiative spurred on by generous Federal grants and a belief that modern streetcars will lead to a revitalization of the city – a belief certainly not shared by all Milwaukeeans.  Its success remains to be seen.

I will certainly make an effort to board one of the first runs of the new streetcar, even though it will hardly be much of a service for me, due to its limited scope.  Of course, I’ll be riding the modern, new streetcars, definitely more comfortable than the streetcrs of more than sixty years earlier. Strictly for nostalgia!



1938 Map of Milwaukee transit lines.  Streetcar routes shown in orange. Photo courtesy of Dan Steininge

Streetcars once were key to Milwaukee’s early development as a city.  For the first 20 years of my life, they were the means by which mom took us kids to the doctors and dentists; they took me and my classmates and neighborhood buddies to movies and trips downtown; they took mom and us three boys to Schusters on Third and Garfield for school clothes, and they took me on dates through much of high school. Early in his years as Milwaukee mayor (1948-1960), Frank Zeidler rode the No. 19 car from his home near N. 2ndand W. Locust Streets to City Hall. 

But it was the No. 10 streetcar that remains most vividly in my memory.  Throughout my childhood, the No. 10 took us from its westernmost terminal, a narrow station in the Wauwatosa village (Harwood Ave. and W. State St), along a right-of-way adjacent to the Milwaukee Road tracks, turning S. on N. 68thSt., and then east on Wells, where it continued into downtown, usually to a doctor’s, dentist’s or optometrist’s office, all of which were downtown.

In my early years, I turned into a pathetic scaredy-cat as the car approached the rickety Wells Street trestle that ran from approximately N. 41ststreet, over the Menomonee River industrial valley (including Piggsville) to N. 37thSt.  The ancient structure, composed of spindly struts, swayed in the wind and I was certain the streetcar would topple off, plunging mom, my two brothers and me into oblivion. Of course, it never happened and in later, more mischievous years I remember going with a bunch of kids and trying to


No. 10 eastbound on Wells Street

challenge gravity by swaying in unison as the streetcar crossed the creaking, precarious trestle.

The streetcars were hardly carriers of luxury.  To enter, one had to climb up steep portable stairs that dropped down when the motorman (there were no women driving the units then) stopped and opened the doors. I have no recollection of what disabled or older folks did to enter the car.

Cold and drafty in winter, there were heating units placed under several seats, which meant a passenger faced two choices, getting a hot seat or shivering.  The seats were of a lacquered wicker.  Summertime was no better; there was no air conditioning, of course, and thus windows were usually open, letting all sorts of bugs to enter, along with the stink of then-industrial Milwaukee from the tanneries, packinghouses, foundries and Red Star Yeast.


Wells Street Viaduct made for scary ride.


What was most fun for mischievous kids, the streetcars had fronts on both ends.  When a streetcar hit the end of its line, there was no way to turn the car around, so the motorman merely unattached the control handles from what had been the front end of the car and carried them back to the other end, latching them in, making the rear now the front.  Then he’d walk back, switching the seat backs so they reversed direction.

The more daring of us kids would often hightail it to the rear of the car, sitting on the motorman’s seat (now at the rear).  There, a kid could ring the dinger, hitting a button on the floor, angering the motorman. (Streetcars had no horn, but the motorman would use the dinger to warn autos or pedestrians of its presence, though such warning was hardly necessary due to the noisy nature of a streetcar’s run.)

Both ends of the car were equipped with a “cow-catcher,” a devise that could be dropped to clear the tracks of any debris.  I was told some kids, playing the rear of the car, might drop it, forcing the motorman to stop and raise the unit in order to continue.  I never did that!  That was really being naughty.

From what we’ve seen of the new streetcars, they’ll afford a comfortable ride, most likely smooth and quiet.  I’ll make sure to be one of its first riders.

I may enjoy it, I suppose, but it won’t be the same. — Ken Germanson, March 31, 2018


A racist? Who? Me?

No doubt, President Donald Trump’s comments about “shit hole” countries is racist.  Whether he said them or not is beside side the point.  There have been too many Trump tweets and comments with racist overtones to overlook them.  The president is certainly racist, and the evidence was there long before his vulgar comment last week about Haiti, Honduras, El Salvador and some African nations.  NewYork Times Columnist David Leonhardt has compiled a list of Trump’s more notable comments, all of which drip with racism.

Yet, the president has said several times, “I am not a racist. I am the least racist person you have ever interviewed.”  Perhaps it’s just Trump being Trump (he seems incapable to speak without exaggeration) and he might even believe it.

Certainly, Trump is not the first president who has used racist remarks, or may have even personally been racist. It is well-known that Presidents Washington and Jefferson owned slaves at the same time they were founding a nation based on the principle that “All men are created equal.”  The Great Emancipator himself, Abraham Lincoln, believed that Negroes deserved to be free, but that they were of a lesser people and should be returned to Africa.  President Woodrow Wilson was known to support the “Birth of a statue-of-liberty-new-york-ny-nyc-60121.jpegNation” movie that glorified racism.  President Harry Truman was known for his salty language and grew up in a racist environment and President Lyndon Johnson (whose language may have been even more salty) uttered the “n” word repeatedly.

Yet, there is a major difference between Donald Trump and the Presidents mentioned above.  They did not let whatever racism that was in their souls govern the actions they took on behalf of the nation; nor did they advertise their racism over and over again.  Instead, Lincoln freed the slaves, Wilson supported policies that helped the unfortunate of the nation, Truman desegregated the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard, and Johnson pushed through both the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts — perhaps the most far-reaching civil rights legislation since the Civil War.

In deep contrast, Trump uses racism to curry support among white Americans, to spread fear and to build divides among Americans that may never be healed.  His remarks, even more importantly, stir whatever racism may lurk in the souls of all of us.

Yes, we all are racist.  We can’t help it.  We weren’t born racist, of course, but we all grew up in environments that foster racism.  It’s universal.  I grew up during the Great Depression in a suburb that then was lily white and reportedly had an ordinance that banned “Negroes” from remaining in town from dusk to dawn.  I never went to school with students of other races.  I knew of only one Jew during my school years and later learned I was one of the few friends he had.  (Years later, I ran into him while shopping and he expressed his long gratitude to me for being his playmate in grade school. He  believed he had been shunned because of being Jewish. I was his friend — not to because I was especially moral — but because I had fun with him.)

Even after more than sixty years of civil rights advocacy, I find thoughts creeping into my head that could be considered racist, particularly when encountering a dreadlocked teen African-American boy and thinking he’s a thug.  Thankfully, my rational mind tells me otherwise, and I dismiss such negative thoughts about the boy.

Similarly, I learned that some of my black friends had resisted traveling into Milwaukee’s once all-white South Side because of their perceptions of all whites as being “honkies.”  For years, those fears were warranted, even though there were many South Side whites who would have been welcoming and friendly.

Yes, we are all racist.  What is important, however, is that we not let whatever latent racism exists within us become fueled by the thoughtless remarks from an unthinking President.  Some Americans, obviously, find that Trump’s dangerous remarks justify their own racism, making it right to act in ways that would injure or humiliate people who are “different” or of another color.

It’s right to denounce the President’s racist remarks and to remind ourselves how dangerous such remarks are to building a strong and just society.  We must also examine our own selves to assure that whatever racism may rest within us is forever buried. – Ken Germanson, Jan. 18, 2018.


Sheriff Clarke’s resignation doesn’t mean struggle is over!

Many of us have looked for removal of Sheriff David Clarke from office, not only for his outlandish views on matters like gun violence (arm yourself citizens, he once urged), immigration abuses (round ‘em up and ship them back) and policing (I’ll clean up city neighborhoods better than Milwaukee police), but also because of his failed administration of the Sheriff’s Department.

Rally protesting Sheriff Clarke

A recent demonstration urging resignation of former Sheriff Clarke

How indeed could he be expected to oversee this important County department while traipsing all over the country as the darling of the NRA, Donald Trump and every anti-immigrant group in the nation?  The six deaths at the County Jail since 2016 and the fact that 70 mile an hour traffic is constant on our 55-mph freeways both point to failed management.  And yes, “the buck stops at the top” – with Sheriff Clarke.  (It’s important not to taint the hard-working and dedicated deputies for the failures at the top.)

We’re glad David Clarke is gone, perhaps to greener more lucrative pastures for him.  He’ll be the show cow of rightwing groups that want to find a token black law enforcement officer to strengthen their creds.  They’ll pay him handsomely.  Oh well!

Now, will the sheriff’s department become better run?  Will inmates of our overcrowded County Jail find themselves in safer, more suitable surroundings?  Will our many immigrants feel more at ease in their homes?

Right now, the fate of the Sheriff’s Department rests in the hands of Gov. Scott Walker, who by law gets to appoint an interim sheriff who will hold office until the Spring 2018 elections.

This is a critical appointment.

Walker, who had turned a deaf ear to any complaints about Sheriff Clarke, is likely to appoint someone who sympathizes with the departed cowboy.  According to Milwaukee Neighborhood News, Walker had not responded before to groups like the Coalition for a People’s Sheriff, a group of organizations convened to defeat Clarke because of his “incompetent,” “unethical” and “inhumane” actions.

It’s doubtful Walker will be open to involving community groups in making his decision, unless it’s the Milwaukee Association of Commerce or Republican Party.  All signs point to a political appointment.

It’s true as well that the person he appoints will have an advantage when it comes to the spring election; officeholders, even when they were appointed, usually get elected.

Nonetheless, Milwaukee County residents must continue to make noise to urge community involvement in the appointment process.  It sometimes works.  Christine Neumann-Ortiz, of Voces de la Frontera, points out that mounting pressure — including two statewide boycotts and demonstrations that attracted tens of thousands as well as the threat of lawsuits and possible criminal charges related to the jail deaths — contributed to Clarke’s departure.

If Walker ignores such citizen pressure, there’s always the election.  Sadly, the spring municipal elections are hardly noticed by too many citizens.  Voter turnout is historically low.

The time is now – seven months ahead of those elections – to organize in a real grassroots endeavor to assure that Milwaukee County elects an effective, fair-minded and humane County Sheriff who will quickly erase of the shame on a department that had been tainted by the 15-year-tenure of David Clarke.   Ken Germanson, Sept. 2, 2017.

Confessions of a soda jerk; or life’s embarrassing moments

Being a soda jerk could be educational.  Well, at least it was for me, a rather naïve teenager who spent three school nights a week and every Saturday and Sunday working at the neighborhood pharmacy, Whipp Drugs.  (For those familiar with the Milwaukee area, it was located at N. 72nd Street and W. North Ave. in the same building now occupied by the Chinese Pagoda.  The exterior looks much like it did in my teen years.) 

imagesI started in 1944, the summer I turned fifteen, when the mysteries of women and sex were still a fearful wonder, partly due to my mother who raised us under the strictest rules a Catholic child of the era could face.  She had lost her own mother at age eleven and by her high school years she had been shunted off by her father and stepmother to a convent to instill her with every rule in the Pope’s religion.  Thus, for example, under penalty of sin, you were not to eat or drink anything after midnight on the Sunday when you were to receive communion . . . and then, you couldn’t eat anything after receiving the host until you drank a glass of water.  God was watching and would penalize. 

Also, Waldemar Whipp, who owned the drugstore and lived above it with his wife, believed in the same strict rules of the Church. 

As excited as I was about being a soda jerk (and particularly with Mr. Whipp’s astounding suggestion that I could eat as much ice cream and drink as many Cokes as I wanted), I quickly learned that I was also a clerk, stocker and floor cleaner.  Usually I was the only employee in the store with Mr. Whipp; occasionally, he’d leave me alone while he went up to eat dinner with his wife.  (I even filled simple prescriptions!) 

My lack of understanding about sex was tested early on when a man aged about thirty asked for a strange item I had never heard of before.  My ignorance was testing his patience and he asked for the pharmacist; he was disappointed when I said he was not available (he was eating dinner).  Finally, he leaned over the counter and said, “You know, rubbers.”  Finally, thanks to boy talk at school, I knew that “rubbers” had something to do with sex, though I wasn’t sure what.  I knew it wasn’t something the Lord would approve.  Nor would Mr. Whipp who refused to stock them due to his Catholic beliefs. 

I told him we didn’t stock such things.  “You’re sure,” he thundered.  “I never heard of a drugstore not selling rubbers.”  He stormed out of the store. 

One dinner time, I was again alone in the store, jabbering at the soda fountain with a buddy who was enjoying a lime phosphate.ii  In walked an older lady, tiny and shy-acting.  She looked furtively around the store and I greeted her at the counter where we had the cash register. 

“I need a box of sanitary napkins,” she said. 

I pictured paper table napkins; I swear I’d seen a package of such dinnertime use labelled “200 Sanitary Napkins.” 

“Oh ma’am, we haven’t had those since Pearl Harbor,” I replied.  (Paper goods of all sorts were largely off the shelves by the early years of World War II.) 

The woman couldn’t have been more shocked.  “No, they can’t be.  I’ve bought them here before.” 

“You couldn’t have.  We can’t even get them from our supplier.” 

In the corner of my eye, I could see my friend (who was more knowledgeable in the mysteries of life) snickering. 

The woman leaned over the counter and in a very soft, almost whispery tone said, “Kotex.” 

“Oh Kotex,” I said out loud, causing her no end of embarrassment I’m certain.  My buddy bursted into outright guffaws. 

I knew Kotex, of course.  Mom had boxes of the stuff; also, one of my chores at the store had been to put the Kotex and Modess boxes into special brown paper bags made specifically for the purpose off hiding these female items from the public eye.  (I always wondered how they could find paper for such a purpose, when goods like toilet paper and facial tissues were always in short supply during the war.) 

Whipp Drugs – even though the strict Catholic Waldemar Whipp might not have wanted it that way – helped educate a simple boy into the ways of life.  – Ken Germanson.  Aug. 26, 2017. 

50 years later: Any progress on ending racism in Milwaukee?

Is Milwaukee less racist than it was 50 years ago when the disturbances in the summer of 1967 ended up with three deaths, many injuries, looted storefronts and put the city in a weeklong curfew?

As one who has lived in Milwaukee for nearly all his 88 years and has seen change occur, you’d hope I could say it has. Unfortunately, the answer is neither a yes or a no.

In a few ways, of course, racism is less apparent. Our neighborhoods, including those all-white enclaves of the 1960s that flushed up nasty demonstrators to taunt the open housing marchers, are now racially mixed, though some to a far lesser extent than others. Every previously white neighborhood has at least a smattering of families of color. In every area the presence of African-American, Hispanic, Middle Eastern and Asian peoples is common.

Some of the north side neighborhoods, however, have become nearly 100% African-American with the appearance of a white citizen almost as rare as albino animals in a deer herd.


Racism took a graphic form in months leading up to August 1967 riots in Milwaukee.

The Milwaukee metropolitan area is still perhaps the most segregated in the United States. Nearly all of our suburbs are solidly white, the exceptions being Shorewood, Glendale and to a lesser extent Wauwatosa and Whitefish Bay.

In the 1960s — and continuing through the 1980s — many of my black friends would be fearful of crossing Milwaukee’s Mason-Dixon line (the Menomonee River valley) to enter the South Side. Now that has changed with African-Americans freely coming south. On the other hand, many whites are afraid to enter many of our North Side wards, while many of our suburban friends are even afraid to come downtown.

In 1967, Milwaukee a child’s school was determined largely by his or her neighborhood, resulting in many all-white and all-black schools and others with severe imbalances in the races. Now, even with school-busing, little has changed, thanks to the flight of many whites to the suburbs (less than 30% of residents in the city of Milwaukee are Caucasian today) and the creation of voucher and charter schools in which parents have chosen to send their kids to schools that best match their own racial identity. (Of the 76,856 students in MPS schools in 2016, some 88% were students of color and 80% of all students were economically disadvantaged, according to district statistics.)

And there’s no evidence that children are generally better educated in voucher or charter schools than in the highly unbalanced MPS schools.

We repeatedly hear evidence that there’s little progress in making Milwaukee less racist. It’s been well-reported that Milwaukee’s incarceration rate for black males is the highest in the nation with more than half in their 30s and 40s having served time. Zip Code 53206 on the near North Side has been shown to have the highest rate of homicides of any zip code in the U.S.

Nationally, the income gap between whites and blacks remains largely what it was in 1967, according to a national survey conducted by the University of Colorado, Boulder. In 2015 — the most recent year for which data are available — black households in the middle income levels earned an average of 55 percent as much as white households at those same percentiles. This is exactly the same figure as in 1967. With the loss of so many manufacturing jobs in the Milwaukee area, it’s likely the gap may even be greater.

Also, note that Milwaukee has had a number of police shootings, with the one in Sherman Park in August 2016 setting off disturbances reminiscent to those in 1967, though with few deaths and injuries.

Despite that, in many ways Milwaukee is working to becoming less racist. Though the mayor and county executive are both white, minorities are well-represented on the Common Council and County Board; both executives are sympathetic toward programs to end racism (some would argue they may be too timid, however). There are numerous public and private efforts aimed at reducing the disparities in the community, as well as public-private strategies. The church community, most major businesses and the media tend to be supportive.

There is a spirit of hope in the air, but regrettably, there’s a lot of inertia and apathy to overcome. There’s some downright opposition, mainly from suburban and out-state sources. The state government shows little inclination to help the city; in fact it is working to undercut many of the efforts through its starvation of funds.

Meanwhile, within the community there must be continued and even greater involvement in ending the racism that still rests within too many of us. — Ken Germanson, August 1, 2017