Tranquility amidst turmoil

A clear, mild, autumn morning . . . for a walk in the park – Jackson Park . . . in the middle of a bustling city.

Such peacefulness will be found in walking aimlessly along the paths . . . through the abbreviated woods . . .next to the lagoon, glassy smooth in the still air . . . leading up to pool, now white and empty of the blue water and splashing kids . . . as a Northern City readies for cold . .  and snow that will bring quieter peace.

This park remains in the midst of a troubled City . . . now as a monument to the wisdom of foresighted leaders who set aside lovely green places . . .  so that all – the favored and unfavored – will find respite from their cares.

Jackson Park Pool, Milwaukee, Sept. 2014

Jackson Park Pool, Milwaukee

Lagoon - Jackson Park

Lagoon – Jackson Park

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