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'Group Chat': Black faces in high places won't save us

Matthew Lewis, Monique Liston and Nate Gilliam
Jimmy Gutierrez
Matthew Lewis, Monique Liston and Nate Gilliam

Group Chat is our new series that gets Milwaukeeans in conversation with each other, asking their own questions, while we provide the mics and get out of the way.

This month we’re hearing from local organizers around Milwaukee that want to talk about Milwaukee’s Black elected leaders. They’re calling this conversation: Black faces in high places won’t save us.

Here’s Dr. Monique Liston chief strategist at Ubuntu Research and Evaluation and Nate Gilliam, founder and director of Milwaukee Freedom Fund. They start their conversation talking about why they think the city courted the RNC.

Dr. Monique Liston: I feel like the city as a whole is just salty. We're just salty. And I mean that in the most academic and intellectual sense of not getting a fair shake, cause I think, this push only came because of the DNC in 2020. Not that I'm saying that would have been a better platform to put out. But I feel like this push came because there was so much economic promise for the DNC. COVID happened and the next opportunity was the RNC. And I feel like people were like, “Well, we gotta reclaim stuff.” Unfortunately, we're in a space where now, we're making space for a lot of hate to exist in the city as if we don't have a city that's majority Black, a city that has a way more left-leaning, blue-leaning ethos.

Nate Gilliam: I would agree with the saltiness. I think a lot of the decision making or advocacy had happened out of public purview before we even became, I think, one of the first articles I ever saw was we were one of the finalists. I was like, “I didn't even know we were in the running. When did that happen?” You know, there was no real public warning to that. I guess the Council also voted unanimously to support this decision to move, to get it, and I understand, some people thought it was, you know, a loss with the DNC because of the impact of the pandemic. But to follow it up with this convention, post January 6, post the extreme right, white nationalist, white supremacist lurch of this country is just to me, unacceptable.

Liston: I guess it makes a lot of sense too, that you said, the Common Council voted for this, right? And this is right before we had that historic change in the Common Council where we have so many Black people holding those seats. And if there was any moment for us as a united community to say, “We are not gonna let the status quo, white supremacist, white nationalist, political ethos prevail in this space, it was then to say [that] we're not going to allow that. And so, when it doesn't happen, it's like we're in these false equivalencies of the Republican and Democratic Party as if we gotta vote for this so, we don't get that. When it's really not even two sides of the same coin. Two colors are the same shade is really how close it is. And so, it's hard for me not to sit in apathy.

Gilliam: Even the arguments that are made by the proponents that are, Mayor, County Executive and the folks that really worked hard to bring this convention here don't even stand up in terms of the financial benefit. Another argument [that] they were making was that it should give greater impact with the Republicans in the State Legislature to work bipartisanly to get certain things done. And, I mean OK, the shared revenue deals passed. But Milwaukee is not benefiting from that deal that we essentially eroded our Fire Police Commission. We've locked ourselves into essentially given a significant portion of the resources that we do get from this sales tax increase to the police. And we're already one of the most incarcerated places in terms of Black people in the country. They didn't even fight for Evers’ proposed shared revenue deal, which actually would have benefited Milwaukee and not even had those same kind of negative impacts in terms of what that would mean for the Black community or expanding policing or things like that.

Liston: Thinking about that, right? There's a long-term plan, political impact of something like the RNC being in the city. And like you said, these decisions were made ahead of time. All of a sudden, we knew thinking about that long term and sort of the immediate political things that we're feeling in the city of where the Common Council stands, the upcoming elections for our state representatives, where our school board is. How do you reconcile for the general voting public the connections between what's happening locally in these much smaller things to something like we should have been more aware about the RNC coming?

Gilliam: I think they're related in a ways of a lot of so-called democratic processes that we have here are not that. Real decisions that impact the majority of us are made prior before. Now we're just experienced political theater, to me, in a sense of, you know, certain votes or we come and testify or different things like that where that has no real impact. The length there is a lot of processes are incredibly undemocratic.

Liston: I concur. One of my I don't say favorite, but one of the scholars I really respect, Fred Moulton, always talks about Black people being in the position of the unthought. And if we are unthought of, which means not considered, not prioritized, marginalized, maligned — that means that we are never going to be at the center of any of the decisions that would make this system run because we hold the position of the unthought. And so considering this, and I think this gets to our broader conversation of, “Well, but there are Black folks in some of these positions.”

Gilliam: You know, I'll say for me, just individually, throughout our life and understanding history and seeing Black people get positions of what appears to be power, it does, in an emotional level, give you some symbolic, feeling of affirmation. But it's all this stuff that works internally. But I think once you settle down and look at what the impact of how their leadership, how their work is going to impact the majority of Black people and actually specifically the most marginalized. If the politicians or leaders or whoever, kind of continue to train or maintain the status quo, I think that's what we should be assessing; if we are improving the quality of life of Black people — are the Black leaders doing that? Whatever policy change or whatever kind of things they're advocating for, very publicly or even privately. That's how we assess it and I think you can make that assessment pretty quickly.

Liston: I agree. I think that assessment is a strategy, right? It's a voting strategy. It is a political strategy and I'm not here to say that all political strategies are wrapped up in our electoral politics. I think that is a method of us organizing and thinking about power relationships our pursuit of freedom, liberation overall, how do we get there and what does it look like? And I think I get struck, too, about accountability, right? Because there is putting folks in these positions of voting right? That's what we do. We vote, they get in the position, right? And then once they're in that position, because we voted for them, the populace, they're accountable to us, right? But then there's the energy spent making sure that we're holding them accountable versus the energy that we need to spend in order to make sure [that] people are conscious and aware versus the energy we need to spend to build so that folks can continue to have hope, love, joy [and] justice in the midst of all of this.

And again, that gets me back to, “Huh, I don't know what to do about my position of solidarity, what that looks like and how to operationalize it.” And I'm really torn about the accountability, right? Because once you hold someone available in the voting space, that means we need to do recalls. We need to go to meetings. We need to show up. And each of those meetings takes our time away from our families that we're trying to build with, time away from the study groups that we know that are necessary, time away from all the things that we know we want to be institutionalized towards our freedom dreams. And so, how do we balance or, how do you suggest we should balance those realities?

Gilliam: I think accountability is an interesting thing within electoral politics and the connection of people's policy and their engagement with communities. But they, I think, just to back up a step, because I think at least I see sometimes when people run for office or they're trying to be something they do a lot of signaling in a lot of different ways. And one of the things that in particular, I guess I could just bring up in Milwaukee that I see that just has been annoying me for probably a decade, is you'll see Black politicians be like, “I'm from 53206, the most incarcerated ZIP code, so I know XYZ,” right?

But then they go get elected and they expand policies that will incarcerate more Black people from 53206 or be silent on the ones that could prevent more. So, there's this signaling that happens to try to be like they went to [Bradley] Tech, they went to Marshall, they went to Bay View, they went to wherever, they’re from the community. So, I could trust this person.

But when it comes to when they actually have power, what are they doing? And it's so far removed. So, I think in terms of accountability, a lot of these people are showing up at different events in the community or doing different things or when they need it sort of transactionally. I think people should just be like, “No, we're not going to let you, if I have this business opening or if I'm doing this cooperative that I worked blood, sweat and tears for many years to create.” The accountability escapes us because we allow the bandwidth of these people to share space and look like they're doing or they're supportive of things in the community. But it's, honestly, just a photo op and very performative because their policies don't enable more Black home ownership, more Black small businesses to to be able to get space or things like that or more green space or, oh, “We're working to expand healthcare.” They're just not even doing that. I think the accountability comes in us being like “Oh, you know the mayor or the county execs wants to show up at your thing. Like no, like I don't know. They weren't there when we were building, when we trying to get these grants. So, we were trying to do all this other stuff. So Nah, we good.”

Liston: No, I completely agree. If the political narrative is built, not just the narrative, the power structure is built around visibility, it makes sure certain people don't have access, and it makes sure that we take up space and spaces we're not supposed to be in. And if you're gonna be an elected official, can I see your work? Because I know I can say I will say for Black Milwaukee, I was gonna speak on my, on my community. We recognize and lawd amongst the folks who, I'm using “on the ground” ‘cause I don't have other quick language. But we see each other.

And I think that seeing and validating and loving on is present. And I think that if elected officials were thoroughly a part of that, they would understand how to operate within it because people are good for, “You speak. I can step back. I'm here cause it's your event. I'm here. What you need? I'm here because of that. or I can't be there. I'm gonna make sure there's some of this, or that goes through.” I think that is a part of what's happening politically in this city.

I think it's unfortunate that our elected leadership class isn't a part of it intimately and that that lack of intimacy, to me, makes it hard to authentically represent a group of people. And I think that the narratives about how bad Milwaukee is has been so embraced and made part of the fabric of people's identity, that they don't even know how to see good in themselves? See good in the community and the narrative is too easy to access, and then the electives take it and move it forward and champion it. And that's not how the organizers in our city talk about the city. That's how you, because you get on the radio, you're on TV, you talk about it, but that's not how people talk about it around the dinner table or at the events. But you're not there. You're not intimate with the group and your lack of intimacy means you're not even, you're actually representing the skewed image of us.

Gilliam: You also made me think about, we all know, people, Black folks in the community that do so much, with little to no fanfare, little to no funding, people starting housing co-ops, starting community gardens, starting, you know, doing de-escalation stuff without needing to be sanctioned by the government or whatever like that or interacting with the police. This, and I didn't mention earlier, but that's part of my hope because I see people doing it already and we've been doing it. This is just the part of like who we are in our legacy and things like that. But that's the beauty in it. And I really like the point that you brought up and you did say there are positive things to say about 53206 or the north side of Milwaukee, Black Milwaukee, there are beautiful, beautiful things that happen organically all the time. With no fanfare, unsexy people checking in on each other, bringing meals, bringing food, taking care of each other when they're sick. That happens consistently day in and day out.

Liston: All of that reminds me of Ella Baker saying, “Strong people don't need strong leaders.” You know, that quote [gets] taken out of context all the time. But strong people don't need strong leaders. The questions becomes where do we get strong people from? From practicing. The more we practice, we build strong communities and practicing building strong communities, creates strong people who do not need strong leaders.

And I think that being able to understand what we're vibrating or trying to echo does not go into this system as it is. And it's the reason behind why a Black face in that electoral seat doesn't necessarily mean good things for our community. Because it's just a, it's a strong person and what we're looking for is a strong people, a collective and being able to work together to build that collective comes through practice. So, I think the call from us is really like, “Will y'all practice with us? Commit to the practice. Be in practice of our community, be in practice of loving Black folks and that will get us a little bit closer to the world we're trying to see.”


Jimmy is a WUWM producer for Lake Effect.
Rob is All Things Considered Host and Digital Producer.
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