The images from Milwaukee this weekend were sickening — burning buildings, riots, shots fired, police in riot gear. Many people over the past 72 hours have likened the recent events to the Milwaukee riots of 1967, which began only 15 blocks from today’s still-smoldering scene. Growing up in Milwaukee and the surrounding suburbs, I occasionally heard about the riots from family members, but I never thought we would be experiencing our own version.
Those of us who have lived or worked in Milwaukee or the surrounding communities have remained hopeful over the decades that Wisconsin’s largest and most diverse city can once again reach its full potential. It’s why groups like the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty and School Choice Wisconsin simply will not accept the never-ending failure that is the state’s largest school district.
But the reality is that we are seeing in real time the effects wrought on a community by a generation of low education expectations, crumbling family foundations, and dependence on an insufficient welfare state. Milwaukee’s leadership continues to ignore these obvious factors, with deadly consequences. Milwaukee deserves better.
No official epitomizes the leadership void more than Alderman Khalif Rainey. As the city burned from Saturday night into Sunday morning, Mayor Tom Barrett, Police Chief Edward Flynn, and Alderman Rainey held an impromptu press conference. Instead of trying to calm a clearly agitated and violent city, the alderman instead chose to use language that cannot be described as anything but incendiary. Alderman Rainey demanded that inequities be rectified immediately, because if they aren’t, “this vision of downtown, all of that, you’re one day away, you’re one day away.” The alderman also referred to the Sherman Park area, where the unrest originated, as a “powder keg.”
Words matter. The latter statement’s implications are obvious; the former statement was a clear reference to the investment the city has made over recent years in improving Milwaukee’s downtown, which many believe came at the expense of investment in the inner city. These statements from one of Milwaukee’s elected leaders illustrate all that is wrong with much of urban leadership. The most obvious deficiency is a lack of awareness. While riots are taking place, buildings are burning, and shots are being fired, the last thing an elected official should do is suggest that more violence is on its way to otherwise safe areas of the city. However, the statement also suggests a lack of appreciation for what truly ails the city.
While the city’s investment in follies such as the mayor’s beloved streetcar are worthy of criticism, even the redirection of hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer resources will not alleviate the city’s woes. The only thing that will truly change the city’s frightening trajectory is a return to the basics of what makes community success possible — education and family. All the taxpayer-funded resources in the world cannot replace a loving father and mother and an education that equips one to pursue one’s dreams. Without these basic building blocks, hopelessness, despair, and ultimately criminality fill the void.
In imploring the city’s residents to lower the temperature, Mayor Barrett admitted that government does not always have all of the answers.
And ironically, at the very same press conference, the mayor referenced at least one of these building blocks. In imploring the city’s residents to lower the temperature, he admitted that government does not always have all of the answers: The “police officers are doing everything they can to restore order,” he said, but ultimately the city needed help in restoring order. He pleaded: “If you love your son, if you love your daughter, text them, call them, pull them by their ears, get them home.” While this was an encouraging statement, it assumes that a mother or father is present to make such a call, and that sons and daughters will heed their parents’ advice. The dark truth is that this assumption is too often not correct.
In addition, the statement, while encouraging, was still made by a mayor who has otherwise failed in providing real leadership. Only days earlier, following nine shootings and five homicides over a single weekend, the mayor blamed lax gun laws for the series of events. To be sure, guns in the hands of criminals are a problem, but as the events of recent days prove, passing more gun laws often does nothing to prevent more violence. This weekend’s events were in reaction to the officer-involved shooting of Sylville Smith, who at the time of the shooting illegally possessed a firearm, which reportedly had been stolen.
Moreover, the statement was made by a mayor who has spent his career fighting against the very policies that have a chance at rebuilding a broken city and culture. Recently, my law firm fought on behalf of Right Step, a voucher school that wanted to obtain access to a vacant Milwaukee Public Schools building. As of last year, at least 17 buildings owned by MPS have been sitting vacant and unused for an average of seven years, costing MPS more than $1.6 million. But when not outright fighting efforts to open vacant school buildings to willing and able educators, the mayor has been MIA.
Milwaukee deserves more effective leadership. Those of us in southeast Wisconsin appreciate the important role Milwaukee plays in our collective culture and economy. However, our proximity also makes us painfully aware of all that ails the city. Alderman Rainey is correct: The African-American residents of the city are tired of living in a war zone. And he asks a poignant question: Where do we go from here?
One way to go about answering that question is for Alderman Rainey and others to look in the mirror. Many of us stand ready and willing to help rebuild the city, but it must be accomplished from the ground up, with a focus on faith, family, and education. And thankfully, there are examples of such leadership in the city.
Churches such as St. Marcus Lutheran, led by Pastor Mark Jeske, have invested millions in expanding one of the most vibrant urban schools in the country and nurturing one of the most diverse congregations in the city. In the same way, on Monday, Senator Ron Johnson kicked off the twelfth class of the Joseph Project, in which young job-seekers are taught career and interviewing skills. In so doing, he sat down with Pastor Jerome Smith, who articulated what Alderman Rainey and others have failed to do: “Truth of the matter is, I don’t think government is the answer. I think that faith and the community are the biggest part of this, and that’s what it’s going to take. It takes a community to take the community.” The leadership of folks like Pastors Jeske and Smith is the very leadership Milwaukee deserves.
— Jake Curtis is an associate counsel at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty’s Center for Competitive Federalism. He previously served as an Ozaukee County supervisor, policy director for state senator Duey Stroebel, and a specially appointed assistant district attorney for Milwaukee County. He can be reached on Twitter @jacobjcurtis.