Black Milwaukee looks at the Democrats with suspicion

The corner of 21st Street and North Avenue in Milwaukee is a city desert. What used to be a sprawling parking lot is now a desolate plain with weeds sticking out from every crack in the asphalt meters high. Behind a bush is a homeless crowd with old mattresses to prepare a place for the night. A half-wrecked boat lies next to a pile of old car tyres.

Reggie Jackson, a city historian attached to America’s Black Holocaust Museum, brought us here for a reason. He grew up in this town. He’s pointing to an abandoned building on the edge of the parking lot. “This building was once the largest department store in the state of Wisconsin. When I moved to Milwaukee as a little boy, I often went shopping here with my mother.”

It’s hard to recognize another department store in there. The roof has partly collapsed, the windows are partly covered with large wooden panels. For Reggie Jackson, this is the Milwaukee story. The story of great promises that Democratic politicians never kept. Of the black part of the city where the inhabitants live in deep poverty. Of the schools that don’t even have enough money to buy pencils and notebooks. Of the neighborhood where crime is high and where half of all black inhabitants disappear behind bars at some point. It is the story of a neighborhood that has been abandoned for decades, while the government invested millions in the white, prosperous part of the city, a kilometer away.

Milwaukee has been run by Democrats for decades and is known as the most segregated city in the US. Last year, the city council promised to turn the old department store on North Avenue into a hip hotel, but nothing came of that either. Reggie Jackson is not surprised. “We’ve seen this over and over again. Countless promises made by elected representatives. But then two, three years later. What’s going on? Nothing. Clearly, they don’t care. If they did, you wouldn’t see what we’re seeing now.”

Correspondent Arjen van der Horst visited Milwaukee:

Milwaukee is an important battleground in the American presidential election. With 590,000 inhabitants it is by far the largest city in Wisconsin and 40 percent of the inhabitants in Milwaukee are African-American. For years, the state was a Democratic stronghold. In 2016 Hillary Clinton was so convinced that she would win Wisconsin that she didn’t even bother to campaign in the state. To everyone’s surprise Trump won with a difference of 22,748 votes. Wisconsin sealed his victory in the battle for the White House.

The Democrats don’t want to make that mistake again. It was the reason Kamala Harris made her first campaign visit as a Democratic vice-presidential candidate to Milwaukee this week. She specifically wanted to make a gesture to the black community and make sure they go to the ballot box this time.

Naked self-interest

Republican administrators in Wisconsin had passed all kinds of laws in the previous decade that made it harder for black voters to cast their votes. But it wasn’t the only reason that in 2016, turnout among African-Americans was nearly 20 percent lower than in 2012. Black voters were significantly less enthusiastic about Hillary Clinton than they were about Barack Obama and simply stayed at home.

It’s one of the reasons the Democratic Party enthusiastically embraced the Black Lives Matter movement. It reflects a party that is becoming increasingly diverse, but is also a sign of naked self-interest: the Democrats need the black vote to win in November. The activists of Black Lives Matter in Wisconsin understand that only too well and therefore have little faith in the Democrats. It is a gesture they have seen before.

Take Chris Washington. Since George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, the 20-year-old student has been demonstrating daily on the streets of Milwaukee against systematic racism in his country. He denounces the Democratic government’s approach during the corona crisis, which hit the black population above average. “It wasn’t our politicians who gave water to us on the streets. It wasn’t our politicians handing out food. It wasn’t the politicians who gave shelter to the homeless.”

Washington will never be able to vote for a Republican, but he has almost as much difficulty voting Democratically. “I’ve had enough of the mentality of those so-called white saviors. They assume that black voters will vote for them anyway, when they’re not doing anything for my community. It’s a good thing they’re walking on eggs now. That’s the way it should be. They can’t assume we trust Democratic politicians one hundred percent.”