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People on the Street | Ackkaamayah Yahoudah (Part 1)

Ackkaamayah Yahoudah, who was raised in the inner city by a single mother, has set out to correct the record.

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We are being suffocated by a system of colorism and supremacy

“I can’t breathe.”

These, the last words to echo from the mouths of Eric Garner, Adama Traoré, Freddie Gray and George Floyd, provide a window into our pain.

Make no mistake: we are being suffocated by a system built on colorism and supremacy. We are being bled dry by those who consider us property, not people. 

Law enforcement officers across the globe are fighting this war for our oppressors, but our battle is not against them — they are merely tools. If they would put their badges down and join us, we would welcome them with open arms. But, as it is — while they brutalize, murder and maim us — we will be clear about this fact: police are not our friends.

However, police are not the oppressor’s only tool. We must tear down every single last institution — the prisons, the courts, housing, business and more — that thrives on dividing and exploiting our people. 

We declare the absolute right of every person to water, food, care and shelter. We affirm our absolute right to peace of body, mind and spirit and condemn those who would inflict harm, whether physical, psychological, emotional or environmental.

As stolen people living on stolen land, we denounce theft and possession, for we will only be free when we let go the chains that bind us. We are one people, stronger together, powerful in love and dignity.

Let us heed the words of those we have lost, so their sacrifice is not in vain.

Support justice efforts here in Milwaukee (CASH APP: $themovementfund) 

Donate to other justice and mutual aid groups across the country in Atlanta; Chapel Hill, N.C.; Chicago; Cleveland; Jamaica Plain, Mass.; Los Angeles; Louisville, Ky.; Minneapolis; New York City; Philadelphia; Pittsburgh; Salt Lake City; St. Louis; The District of Columbia; Minnesota and Texas 

If you would like to contribute to bail funds, the National Bail Fund Network connects to bail funds in 33 states, or you can check out this map.

#WeWillWin as long as we support one another

Brooklyn sits in a wheelchair, behind a fold-out table, to welcome volunteers to the Bernie Sanders Dubuque field office the weekend before the Iowa Caucuses, the first leg of the Democratic nomination process. Buses and caravans of volunteers are coming in from all over the Midwest — Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana and even Ohio — and not one of them gets by without Brooklyn kindly asking “sign in please, don’t forget to sign in.”

Brooklyn came to Dubuque in October after being seriously injured in a home invasion, landing at a Dubuque shelter not far from where we are standing. After a few interactions with Bernie folks, Brooklyn found her way into the campaign office. It was the efforts of staffers to reach out on a human level, Brooklyn said, and the kindness they showed that influenced her decision to stay. Since December she’s been a mainstay at the campaign headquarters.

“I was crying for about thirty minutes this morning,” Brooklyn said Thursday morning, over the phone. “I don’t want all our hard work to be for nothing.”

In a startling move, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez called for a site-by-site recount Thursday afternoon, just as a Bernie Sanders victory became apparent. This after an unprecedented three-day delay in reporting caucus results. The announcement, which comes as about three percent of the voting data has yet to be released, casts even more doubt on an already dubious process.

Late Monday night, after nearly two percent of results came in, the Iowa Democratic Party announced that no more results would be reported that night in order to verify results. In the wake of this announcement, with more than 98 percent of the results yet to be tallied, Pete Buttigieg declared victory. Tuesday night, the Iowa Democrats released 64 percent of the vote, which showed Sanders with a slight edge in votes and tied with Buttigieg in pledged delegates. However, pundits focused coverage on Pete’s two percent lead in State Delegate Equivalents (SDEs).

One of the measures used to calculate pledged delegates, SDEs are, in and of themselves, meaningless.

Even as late as Wednesday morning, the New York Times predicted, based on SDEs, that a Pete victory was all but guaranteed. However, as more and more precinct data came in, Sanders’ vote lead widened and folks began to draw attention to reporting inconsistencies in a number of precincts, where Sanders should have received more delegates or Pete should have received less. The errors were corrected, contributing to the Sanders surge.

 

The New York Times was caught with its pants down on this one.

By Wednesday, the New York Times predictor had gone dead so the company could “evaluate how it is processing the results of satellite caucuses.” These gatherings, hosted in other states, or at different times, were incorporated for the first time this year to include voters that weren’t able to attend a regular caucus because of work shift or location. The Sanders campaign made a distinct effort to turn folks out to these caucuses.

At the time of Perez’s announcement, Bernie is ahead by 2,500 votes, has 547 SDEs to Pete’s 550, and both have 11 pledged delegates, the measure that ultimately determines the nominee. With about two percent yet to be reported, the Sanders campaign has claimed victory. The DNC has not said whether it will release the remaining data before a recount.

Folks on twitter noted that the staggered rollout allowed Buttigieg to grab headlines and dominate coverage, as some pundits criticized Sanders for not performing as well as expected. Many Sanders supporters were already skeptical of the process after emails and other documents verified the DNC had influenced the 2016 primary in favor of Hillary Clinton, who lost to Donald Trump in an election that featured the two most unpopular presidential candidates in U.S. history.

Just recently, there have been reports of party insiders attempting to change convention rules to allow superdelegates — often party elites who can vote for any candidate they like — to vote on the first ballot, shielding the party from the potential controversy of a second vote that overturns the will of the people. As former DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz said in 2016, “Unpledged delegates exist really to make sure that party leaders and elected officials don’t have to be in a position where they are running against grassroots activists.”

Likewise, Sanders is largely ignored by establishment news corporations, despite regularly drawing large crowds and polling well nationally, particularly with youth of color. Regardless, his campaign — which stands on a platform that prioritizes environmental, economic and racial justice — is drawing the attention of folks who feel left out of the process.

The idea that we should be able to access medical care if we are sick, go to school if we’d like and support our families without working ourselves to death, is not controversial among working people. In fact, in my experience, it has been unifying.

 

I was encouraged to speak with folks who’d committed to caucus for Bernie, and to bring others along. In a few cases, I was blessed to share this message of solidarity with folks who had not yet heard. I listened to people as they shared, and they listened to me. For a moment, we were present with each other.

“This is a people’s campaign, not a for-profit endeavor; this is not politics-as-usual ― this is a movement. And, as long as we remember, we will never be defeated.”

Many of us distrust the political system, and politicians, in general. And, as the Iowa Caucuses have revealed, this distrust is well-deserved. But I trust you. I trust us. And, I trust Bernie Sanders.

So, let us not lose sight of ourselves. Let us not forget this is about relationships. This is a people’s campaign, not a for-profit endeavor; this is not politics-as-usual this is a movement. And, as long as we remember this, we will never be defeated. 

We shall overcome.

“When I came here, I was broken,” said Brooklyn. “You all helped put me back together.”

 

“Free at last, Free at last, Thank God almighty we are free at last.” ― Martin Luther King Jr.

Bernie Sanders can’t save us but, together, we can create a more just society

I, by default, distrust politicians. I was part of the Obama generation, proudly casting my first vote for the first Black president, whose ascent into political stardom was swift, buoyed by an optimistic message of “Yes, we can.” That message created hope among working people who had, for so long, felt overlooked. The excitement was palpable. 

Perhaps that’s why it hurt so badly when he bailed out the banks, instead of us

Obama himself wrote about the corrupting influence of money in his 2006 book The Audacity of Hope. Indeed, is there a time when American politicians have not represented powerful, monied interests first? Social, economic and racial inequality were baked into this country’s constitution, and still exist today. Ultimately, we are destroying our planet and people for profit. And, to some degree, we all have blood on our hands.

So, no, Bernie Sanders can’t save us. But I do believe this campaign might begin to right the ship. 

Despite 29 years in Washington, he hasn’t bowed to the corruption that permeates our politics, resisting the temptation to benefit from his position. Of course, Sanders has his shortcomings. None of us are perfect. But he listens, and he’s been speaking up for us for a long time

I heard Bernie’s message for the first time during the 2016 campaign. To understand how someone like myself — in their late 20s, who’d studied journalism and political science at one of the nation’s top universities and considered myself well-informed — could be kept in the dark for so long is to understand how effective our white supremacist, patriarchy-driven political machine is at silencing the voices of those who seek justice. 

What resonated then and still resonates today is a very clear commitment to justice. His policy proposals — such as Medicare for All, cost-free college education and a Green New Deal — are built around that commitment in a way that speaks to our shared humanity, a rare quality amongst a generation of pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps politicians.

I grew up in poverty. After my parents divorced when I was young, I watched my mother work multiple jobs to provide for our family. Today, we’re not much better off financially, the result of depressed wages and limited opportunities. At 31, I have never had health insurance as an adult. Many of my friends are saddled with tens — if not hundreds — of thousands of dollars of student debt. And, even if we act immediately, it’s likely that my 8-year-old daughter and her peers will find life increasingly difficult, given the state of our planet.

That’s why, this past Saturday, I boarded a bus from Milwaukee to Marion, Iowa, with about twenty others, to knock doors for the campaign. As a group, we listened to hundreds of potential voters who spoke about the importance of beating Donald Trump, ensuring people have family-supporting jobs, and making healthcare available to all. I shared my personal story, discussing where Bernie stands and pointing out that the campaign raised more than any other democratic candidate in the last quarter of 2019 — $34.5 million on more than 5 million individual contributions, the most ever at this point in the race. 

“I have cast some lonely votes, fought some lonely fights, mounted some lonely campaigns. But I do not feel lonely now.” — Bernie Sanders

Working people are flocking to this campaign in droves. The majority of donors are teachers, nurses, construction workers and folks who work for Walmart, Amazon, Starbucks, Target and the United States Postal Service. On Saturday, as a whole, we knocked on 35,000 doors across Iowa, with folks coming in from at least three other states to help.

And, this is how we will win: by showing up, listening to each other and sharing of ourselves.

Recently, Sanders opened up about his experience representing working and other marginalized people in a congress that is full of multi-millionaires, saying, “I have cast some lonely votes, fought some lonely fights, mounted some lonely campaigns. But I do not feel lonely now.”

So, no, Bernie can’t save us. But he is human, just like the rest of us. Personally, I wouldn’t have given my time (and nearly frozen my toes and fingers off) for any other candidate. I trust Bernie to be our standard-bearer and I believe that, together, we can begin to create a more just society, one where we share freely, move with purpose, and steward this earth well. 

So, what are we waiting for?

Ex-prisoner: incarceration is “destroying our people”

Caliph Muab-el has spent almost half of his life in prison. The 36-year-old was incarcerated from the ages of 15 to 29; ten of those years, he states, were in solitary confinement. He served time with two of his brothers and his grandfather, and says he saw fathers meet their children for the first time while incarcerated together.

Muab-el, former MSDF detainee Alan Schultz and Joseph Walker, another former inmate, said incarceration creates a cycle that both harms people and keeps them from becoming healthy again. Muab-el pointed to a “systematic design” that binds inner city communities — particularly people of color — to poverty.

“This is an urgent issue that demands urgent attention,” said Muab-el. “We’re talking about the right to live, the right to thrive …  These systems are destroying our people.”

Incarcerated people across the country are demanding fair treatment, a prevailing wage and access to rehabilitation services in the wake of an April riot at Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina. Dubbed the deadliest incident of violence in a U.S. prison in 25 years, the riot claimed the lives of seven people and injured dozens more. Eyewitness reports state correctional staff did not intervene in the violence, or provide adequate medical aid.

The national strike, lasting until September 9, encourages prisoners to temporarily cripple prisoner-fueled labor. Locally, a campaign to close the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility (MSFD) is standing in solidarity with those striking. The campaign, which began early last year, has called on Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to shutter the state-run institution.

According to Close MSDF organizer Ben Turk, if the strike is able to attract enough attention it could alter the way prisons are run and affect the profits of contractors that benefit from inmate labor. But, he says, MSDF administrators have cracked down on striking prisoners.

The Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility was founded in 2001 to house people who violated parole. Shortly after it opened, the facility broadened who it was willing to house. Although its max capacity is 1,040 people, MSDF averaged 1,077 every day in 2017. According to its website, unlike other Department of Corrections (DOC) Institutions, “MSDF accepts new offenders 24-hours-a-day.”

Activists point out that many individuals housed there have been re-arrested and detained for minor parole violations, not new crimes.

Former inmates describe inhumane conditions, including intense heat and guards intentionally denying people access to water. Reports of spotty medical and mental health treatment also permeate the contested facility. On average, one person has died in the facility every year since it opened. Ten of of those deaths, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports, occurred between 2008 and 2012.

During a short stay at MSDF in 2004, Schultz said he and cellmates were not able to wash, drink or flush the toilet for two days, after correctional officers turned off the water.

“We’re here [and] we’re concerned about this,” he said. “It’s not going away, it’s getting worse.”

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Caliph Muab-el speaks at a recent Close MSDF rally. Muab-el, who was incarcerated for 15 years, is working with groups in Milwaukee, Madison and Chicago to combat incarceration, which he says is part of a system that preys on communities of color. (Photo by Jabril Faraj)

Close MSDF has consistently engaged in public action to call attention to the facility. The campaign, which is led by former MSDF detainees, has provided a platform for former prisoners to call for reform. At a recent demonstration in downtown Milwaukee, formerly incarcerated people and their family members gathered to do just that.

Damene Garrison’s significant other, Lucas, has been inside MSDF for over 252 days. Since arriving, he’s been in and out largely due to what Garrison feels is a broken parole system. In one case, Lucas was re-arrested just 16 hours after being released, under dubious circumstances. Another time, he was detained after his GPS monitor malfunctioned.

This cycle of repeated detention has cost Lucas two jobs. According to Garrison, the mounting stress ultimately contributed to a failed suicide attempt, which landed him in the hospital.

Inside MSDF, Garrison told Milwaukee Stories, Lucas isn’t getting the regular blood tests doctors ordered after his suicide attempt. She claims he’s also being deprived of mental health services, and says he’s lost 10 pounds in 30 days.

“I’m scared,” says Garrison.

Joseph Walker, 35, who had two seizures while in custody at the Milwaukee County Jail, said prisoners don’t receive adequate health or mental health care.

Walker said, guards were largely inattentive to the needs of prisoners, and the complaint system provided to inmates was ineffective. According to Walker, inmates would verbally lash out at guards, or even flood cells just to be noticed. “If you act a fool you get your meds,” he said. “You have to be disruptive to get help.”

“Trauma keeps you where you are,” noted Muab-el. “Why would you choose a better way when this is what you’re faced with?”

Demonstrators stressed that, though little official information is available about conditions in these facilities and prison officials repeatedly deny allegations of abuse, reports from prisoners are consistent and credible.

“We came out here show love for the people locked up in there,” said Elijah Helm, a member of Bad Religion, a trio of young rappers who performed at the MSDF protest. “We stand with them.”

And, despite the lack of action from Governor Walker, activists remain motivated. Joseph Ellwanger, a local pastor and interfaith leader, encouraged organizers to push forward, noting that all eight candidates in the Democratic primary for governor supported incarceration reform. Democratic nominee Tony Evers, who will take on Walker in November, views incarceration as a racial justice issue. According to Evers’ website, he would end crimeless revocation, mandatory minimums and solitary confinement, and invest in alternatives, including diversion programs, restorative justice strategies and living-wage employment.

“This ain’t ending anytime soon,” said Schultz. “And I ain’t going nowhere.”

Jabril Faraj contributed to this story

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State Assembly candidate: invest in communities, not corporations

Rick Banks knocks the same knock at every house he approaches. It’s rhythmic, not heavy-handed, yet with purpose.

“I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback,” Rick says of the knock, noting that people said it’s how they knew he wasn’t threatening.

Not unlike many central city neighborhoods, most screen doors are locked and residents are apprehensive — many peek through their window or yell through the door before coming out. Still, there are others who refuse to answer, evidence of the deep distrust that exists. “It’s a fear thing,” according to Banks, a candidate to represent the 16th State Assembly District, which includes swaths of the East Side — including parts of Riverwest, Harambee and Brewers Hill — and the near west side, to 35th Street.

“I think we need to feel secure,” said Ernestine Rawls. “I don’t think I should have to feel uncomfortable in my own neighborhood.”

When Rawls moved into a home near 22nd and Walnut streets 30 years ago, it was the only one on the block. Because of this, it was a target for theft, she says.

The area, which was largely vacant, began to fill with homes, many of which were built through Habitat for Humanity. As the neighborhood began to fill with more people, Rawls says she experienced less break-ins; the drug deals that regularly occurred in front of their home eventually moved to the block just south. Still, the family has had lawn mowers, snow blowers, bikes and more stolen. In one particular instance, a man Rawls sheltered in their home after he claimed to have been robbed took her daughter’s wallet.

Rawls, who holds a master’s degree from UWM, admits the poverty that afflicts much of Milwaukee is at least partially to blame for the crime she and others have experienced. And, while immediate resident concerns include fixing poorly maintained roads, reckless driving and replacing a stoplight that was recently knocked down, much deeper issues are at play.

This census tract — bounded by Brown, Galena, 27th and 20th streets — seems to be more stratified than other distressed central city neighborhoods. While per-person income is only $17,172, median household income is more than $20,000 higher and 11 percent of households bring in more than $100,000 a year.

Ninety-five percent of residents — 90 percent of whom are Black — have been in the neighborhood more than 10 years, and two-third of the houses are owner occupied.

Still, some residents described feelings of helplessness, particularly in relation to housing and employment. They expressed a desire for something better, yet are doubtful that a system which hasn’t worked for them in the past will ever change.

Christina Bonds, a single mother of four, aspires to home ownership but hasn’t been able to save enough for a down payment on her $11-per-hour wage. Bonds, who has worked in factories, as a home health care worker and in food service, wants to become a nurse but doesn’t have the time or money to acquire the education necessary. So she remains in the rat-infested 3-bedroom apartment she rents for $925 a month.

Bonds, who grew up not far away, near 29th and Brown, says all she wants is for her children, the youngest of whom is 3, to have a better life. “I want them to be in a safe environment where they can go out and play.” She says the biggest barrier for her to attend nursing school is the cost of childcare.

Bryan, a 26-year-old Black man who has lived in the area since 1999, said police regularly harass individuals who are doing nothing but minding their own business. “Why they just pull up, snatchin’ us, searchin’ us for no reason?” he asks. “Is it illegal to sit in your car?”

“There’s a system at play,” says another resident, who has lived in the neighborhood for more than 40 years. They worry about being pushed out, pointing to recent moves by corporations and monied interests to expand Milwaukee’s downtown area.  

“It’s about the money — it’s not about us, it’s about the money.”

The resident requested their name not be shared for fear that such statements might make them a target, of whom they were unclear.

“We create these arbitrary borders and distinctions,” says Banks. “How do we make sure people have the basics?”

Banks referenced the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which acknowledges that all people, inherently, possess dignity and “inalienable rights.” It states that the recognition of this truth is “the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,” while also admitting this hope has not yet come to pass. “The advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.”

Courtney Nabors, a resident of North 24th Street, lost his driver’s license and has been unable to get a new one because of back child support. He points out that this condition prevents him from getting to “the good paying jobs” so he can repay that debt. He said understanding is important.

“The system is crazy,” says Nabors. “We need some balance.”

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Banks, a community organizer, grew up near 23rd and Hopkins before his family moved to the Lapham Park Housing Projects. (Photo by Jabril Faraj)

Banks, a community organizer by trade, was considering law school and had just accepted a position with Black Leaders Organizing for Change (BLOC) when Leon Young, who represented the 16th District for 25 years, stepped down. Banks, who grew up near 23rd and Hopkins before his family moved to the Lapham Park Housing Projects, said he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to run.

An openly gay anti-capitalist, Banks says the state’s priorities — which he claims value large corporations over individuals — need to change. His platform focuses on reforming the criminal justice system and developing community-based economies. According to Banks, investing in the local efforts of individuals will protect folks from the instability that can come from relying on large employers.

In order to nurture ownership, he says people need access to capital. “It’s all about what’s on the block … People in the community know what goods and services they need.”

Banks also supports full legalization of cannabis, raising the minimum wage and expanding access to health care, child care and mental health services. Creating a healthy environment by investing in sustainable energy, affordable housing and urban agriculture is a pillar of his candidacy.

And, Banks faces an uphill battle; he doesn’t have name recognition or loads of money. Signs promoting 19-year-old Kalan Haywood II — the son of a local real estate developer — and Milwaukee County Supervisor Supreme Moore Omokunde (whose mother is Congresswoman Gwen Moore) can be spotted in store windows and front yards throughout the district. Banks is hoping to turn out first-time voters, and individuals who may not have voted in a long time, but he says that’s hard to do without financial support, which would allow him to pay canvassers and purchase materials, such as signs (most of Banks’ campaign has been powered by volunteers).

Still, he’s hit the streets, knocking doors and speaking with residents, almost every day since mid-June. He says he’s encountered some people who say they don’t vote or don’t plan to; some have been discouraged by recent events and, for others, it simply isn’t a priority. But, according to Banks, nothing will change if people choose to stay silent.

“I always vote,” says Mary Jackson, another longtime resident Banks spoke with while canvassing. Though she couldn’t say whether or not she would vote for him, she feels she can’t complain if she stays home on election day.

“Whether or not my vote counts,” she says, “it counts to me.”

The primary will take place August 14, with the victor most likely running unopposed in November’s general election. If you would like to make a donation to Banks’ campaign you can do so here.

Will you help us create a movement of people-centered news? This work is supported by small, monthly contributions from folks just like you — join our mission by becoming a member today!

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Podcast: Vaun Mayes

In this exclusive interview, recorded in August 2017, Vaun Mayes, a community activist and co-founder of Program the Parks, talks about growing up in The South, the importance of empathy and the forces — including racism, profiteering and crime — at work in Milwaukee. 

“It’s about the haves and have-nots,” says Mayes. “If you hoard something to yourself and live in a house surrounded by people who don’t have it, more than likely they’re going to get it from you.”

Mayes, who had a difficult childhood — from abuse to brushes with the law — speaks about why people must find community and learn to share again. “Though I see failure and though I see chaos, I see a reason for hope,” he adds. “I think that we have an opportunity to do something very big.”

Program the Parks works with challenged youth in Sherman Park, and across the city. The group is almost exclusively supported by small, individual donations. If you would like to contribute to these efforts, click here to donate.

Editor’s note: Mayes was recently accused by the federal government of conspiring to firebomb a Milwaukee police station in the wake of the Sherman Park unrest in late 2016, charges which many community members question. You can find our coverage of the case here.

Will you help us create a movement of people-centered news? This work is supported by small, monthly contributions from folks just like you — join our mission by becoming a member today!

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Community activist freed from federal custody, as supporters question legitimacy of charges

Four white United States Marshals guide Vaun Mayes, dressed in drab blue prison clothing and dull orange slippers, down a second floor hallway of the Federal Courthouse downtown. His head is bare, hands and feet shackled. A crowd of community members watch, and eventually follow single-file, as Mayes is led into one of the building’s many courtrooms.

It’s the second time in three days a large contingent of community folks have turned out to support Mayes, a well-known activist recently accused of plotting to firebomb the District 7 police station in late 2016. Mayes was formally indicted by a grand jury in a closed hearing Tuesday.

A judge ruled two days earlier that Mayes should not remain incarcerated during his trial, as the government did not present “clear and convincing” evidence he is a flight risk or “danger to the community.” Mayes was scheduled to be released within 24 hours of the judge’s ruling, but the government appealed the decision, citing the “violent and dangerous” nature of the allegations and additional allegations of witness intimidation.

During the appeal hearing, U.S. Attorney Christopher Ladwig argued that Mayes is dangerous, casting him as an individual who uses his influence to persuade young people to commit violent acts and utilizes intimidation tactics to silence opponents. Ultimately, when pressed, Ladwig admitted his evidence was “circumstantial,” and Judge Pamela Pepper upheld the previous ruling, to a cheer from supporters.

Pepper encouraged people to let the case play out in the courtroom. “It is not a help to Mr. Mayes if people take the process into their own hands.”

In an exclusive interview with Milwaukee Stories after being released Mayes said he was touched by the showing of family, friends and community members. As he sat in the courtroom reading a letter of support before the appeal hearing, Mayes said, “I literally was crying.”

Mayes, who began patrolling Sherman Park in June 2016 to help de-escalate fights between area youth, is a prominent and controversial figure. Since then, he and Program the Parks co-founder Gabriel Taylor have provided regular meals, activities and direction for area youth, many of whom are in challenging situations. (Full disclosure: Milwaukee Stories Founder and Editor-in-Chief Jabril Faraj has covered Mayes, Taylor and Program the Parks since around the time of the unrest, and has made personal donations to the organization; Program the Parks is a supporter of Milwaukee Stories)

According to law enforcement, the firebombing was set to take place August 15, 2016, two days after Sylville K. Smith was shot and killed by a Milwaukee police officer. A criminal complaint written by Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) agent Rick Hankins claims — based on the word of two unnamed informants that Mayes was present at an apartment where materials to make Molotov cocktails were found, and that he manufactured some of the illegal explosives himself. Hankins writes that ATF found Molotov cocktails in a dumpster behind the apartment building, just off Sherman Boulevard; additional materials were found inside one of the apartments.

According to the complaint, a search of Mayes’ home found bottles of Everfresh juice and wine coolers, apparently identical to those found in the dumpsters. No Molotov cocktails, or any other materials, were found at Mayes’ apartment.

Mayes is charged with attempted arson, possession of a firearm and “possession of a destructive device in relation to a crime of violence.” The charges would carry a minimum of 30 years’ imprisonment.

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Mayes is led, shackled, into the second floor courtroom. (Photo by Jabril Faraj)

The plot of which Mayes is accused was never carried out. And, the timing of his arrest has caused many to question the legitimacy of the charges.

“I don’t believe any of this — I don’t,” said Aisha Carr, a teacher who has spent time helping Mayes and others with programming in Sherman Park. “This man ruffled feathers … he disrupted the system.”

Carr said Mayes’ community policing and youth work has shown people how to help themselves, and not rely on the government. “He’s done the work a lot of others should’ve done a long time ago.”

Suzelle Lynch, a Minister at Unitarian Universal Church West, said Mayes has effectively subverted the established system because he builds relationships with people, regardless of skin color or social class; she believes he’s been targeted because of it.

Mayes’ relationship with law enforcement has often been adversarial and, at times, confrontational; he and Taylor have said this stems from officers’ tendencies to criminalize the young people they work with. Mayes was arrested multiple times by Milwaukee police during and after Smith’s shooting and the unrest that followed, despite reports that he was working to diffuse tensions. The Milwaukee Police Department’s distaste for Mayes is not a secret; officers have even, at times, been known to speak disparagingly of him in public.

Historically, Black social justice leaders have often found themselves at odds with law enforcement. MPD surveilled and harassed NAACP Youth Council Commandos during the Open Housing Marches in Milwaukee; Chicago Police murdered 21-year-old Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in 1969; and the FBI systematically infiltrated and destroyed “subversive” political organizations — including civil rights and Black Power groups — with its Counter Intelligence Program, dubbed COINTELPRO. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, determined to prevent a cohesive Black movement from forming, used psychological warfare, smear campaigns, wrongful imprisonment and assassination to intimidate individuals and destabilize organizations.

The Jeff Sessions-led Department of Justice has renewed interest in “Black Identity Extremists,” who it claims are a violent threat to law enforcement. A report, prepared by the FBI’s Domestic Terrorism Analysis Unit, says activists’ “perceptions of unjust treatment,” grievances regarding police violence and a discriminatory criminal justice system have caused retaliation against law enforcement that will eventually lead to premeditated attacks. The crackdown has been compared to COINTELPRO.

“I’m really just speechless,” said state assembly candidate Danielle McClendon-Williams as she emerged from the courtroom. “I just don’t get it.”

Reverend Ellen Rasmussen, of Brown Deer United Methodist, who spoke on Mayes’ behalf during the appeal, said she’s “very grateful he’s being released.” She described him as skilled organizer who transforms lives “in a positive manner.”

“Vaun has been instrumental in the healing of our neighbors,” said Rasmussen. “He senses, listens and responds with compassion and hope.”

Though supporters know this is only the beginning, the mood was noticeably light in the aftermath of the decision. The plan for that night: celebration, complete with a large batch of banana pudding. “It’s Vaun’s favorite,” said Lavita Booker, who has also worked closely with Mayes. “We’ll take this a day at a time.”

Mayes, looking relieved, reunited with Booker and Taylor outside. He tied his red, green and black durag back into place under the gaze of two photographs straddling the courthouse entrance — one of President Donald Trump; the other, Vice President Pence.

“Now,” Mayes said, “I can fight.”

The United States Attorney’s Office and Milwaukee Police Department did not respond to requests for comment.

Isiah Holmes co-authored this report

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Group seeks millions to light Hoan Bridge, as Milwaukee communities suffer

On a rainy Monday evening, I find my way to a dimly lit table in the back corner of Art Bar, a hip watering hole in Riverwest. The East Side neighborhood, where I spent much of my childhood, has changed dramatically since my parents purchased a home there for less than $15,000 in 1992.

A recent assessment valued that same home at $108,000. As of the most recent census data, housing prices have just about tripled in the neighborhood since 1990. The difference has been even more pronounced following the 2008 housing market crash, with median home values rebounding to $161,000, while that same figure in Harambee (the adjacent neighborhood, where I have lived for the last five years) sits under $70,000.

More than 40 percent of Riverwesters have a college degree, up from less than a quarter 25 years ago, while more than 20 percent live in poverty. A neighborhood once known for its diversity, now about two-thirds of residents are white.

On this day, I’m meeting Ian Abston, a co-founder and former leader of Newaukee, a local young professional networking group. Newaukee, under Abston’s direction, developed a large following of downtown-dwelling, millennial-age professionals who sought to redefine Milwaukee. He also spearheaded the creation of Young Professional Week, a statewide event whose goal is to attract 20-somethings to Milwaukee and 26 other cities. (Full disclosure: I have known Abston personally since 2011, was deeply involved in Newaukee until 2014 and helped conceive Young Professional Week)

Abston, who consults on Millennial issues, is a board member of the Greater Milwaukee Committee and has been interested in real estate as of late, agreed to meet because he’s also the director of Hoan Group, an organization that recently announced a campaign to light up the Hoan Bridge.

The campaign, which is largely modeled after similar efforts in San Francisco, Pittsburgh, New York City and Edmonton, Alberta (Canada), is hoping to raise $1.5 million next year, and $5 million over the next 20 years, to put hundreds of lights on the bridge. Each light will honor a Milwaukee individual or organization and recognize “the countless unseen or under-celebrated acts of kindness, generosity and service that give our city hope.”

People can dedicate a light for $25, or donate as much as $500; donations, which are being funneled through the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, will go to the Light the Hoan organization.

Abston described the project as “vibrant,” “cool” and something that will “set this city apart.” But others have called the campaign “tone-deaf” and criticized it for not directing funds to organizations addressing local issues.

“We’re not a conduit for donations,” said Abston, clarifying that even if a light is dedicated to an organization, that organization will not be in line to receive any of the associated funds. He said Light the Hoan plans to employ writers to promote the campaign.

“Do I think that’s right? No,” said Lori Hayman, a lawyer. Despite her personal feelings, Hayman explained that the approach is legal as long as the group doesn’t make a profit.

A social justice advocate whose work focuses on neighborhood issues called the campaign “nonsense,” adding, “In 10 years, if we’ve got people with houses and neighborhoods that aren’t being torn down, maybe we can do that.” They said a portion of the funds should be used to combat homelessness and displacement in Milwaukee neighborhoods.

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Riverside real estate in the city’s Harbor District, just south of the Third Ward and east of Walker’s Point, currently represents some of the greatest opportunity in the city for developers, to the tune of a potential $864 million in increased property values. And plans for the area are already in the works with the City of Milwaukee Planning Commission unanimously endorsing the Harbor District water and land use plan in January. The Hoan Bridge is a demonstrative part of the skyline, when viewed from these properties.

Abston leads a group of prominent, white Milwaukeeans, including Jeff Sherman of OnMilwaukee.com; Michael Hostad, director of innovation at the Greater Milwaukee Committee; and Lori Richards, a partner and president at Mueller Communications.

OnMilwaukee, FOX6, the BizTimes and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel all published stories promoting the campaign in the wake of its launch in May. Abston said he ran the idea by local Black leaders, including Municipal Court Judge Derek Mosley. Mosley, who has dedicated three lights, including one to his kidney donor, said, “I wasn’t involved in the planning — I just thought it was a good idea.”

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett has spoken glowingly of the project. “The Daniel Hoan Memorial Bridge has long been a symbol of Milwaukee,” said Barrett. “This effort to light the bridge up demonstrates the next generation’s commitment to putting their mark on the future of the City.”

Twenty-nine percent of people who live in Milwaukee earn wages less than the federal poverty line; that number is twice the national average. People of color who live in the city, which is one of the most segregated in the country, experience higher rates of poverty, incarceration and police violence than their white counterparts.

Thousands of children, primarily those who live in central city communities, continue to be poisoned by lead, as the City of Milwaukee — mired in disorganization and mismanagement — has failed to provide a comprehensive, strategic response.

According to Dennis Walton, a former organizer with the City of Milwaukee, there is an absence of leadership in the city among those in positions of power. “The real leaders aren’t being supported,” he said, referring to individuals working in neighborhoods to feed, clothe and house people.

Walton, who founded Made Men Worldwide, a fatherhood-focused mentoring organization, said it is essential for people to broaden their perspective, and be willing to engage outside their typical circles. When people are willing to do this, Walton says, it allows for growth. “We have to get out of the rat race … you have to be able to share in the struggle of all people.”

He added, “We’re all struggling to overcome something. So, if we can share in it we can overcome in a more genuine way.”

Light the Hoan has received more than 400 dedications, the majority of which are personal notes to loved ones. Only 32 of those donations have come from the 53206, 53208, 53209, 53216 and 53208 ZIP codes, which represent a population of almost 240,000, 30 percent of whom live in poverty.

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‘20 Weeks, 20 Hoods’ promotes peace by building relationships

Residents of Milwaukee’s central city are campaigning for safer neighborhoods.

A group of about 25 marched through Garden Homes, just north of Capitol Drive near 27th Street, Sunday, attracting attention of motorists and other bystanders, some of whom came out of their homes to say hello. It was the third of 20 demonstrations planned throughout the summer in five central city neighborhoods that organizers hope will spread positivity and connect community members with resources.

Some North Side neighborhoods can be dangerous, particularly for Black men, who represent more than 80 percent of the city’s homicide deaths in recent years. Gun violence is a persistent challenge for many central city neighborhoods where a disproportionately high amount of residents experience poverty.

Vaun Mayes co-founded 20 Weeks, 20 Hoods in 2014. The marches were meant to combat violence by promoting alternatives. But he said more needs to be done.

“I felt like I was leaving people with their issues,” says Mays.

Since then, the campaign has conducted community surveys to find out what residents need. Mayes and others have also provided grief-counseling, and facilitated discussions between alderpeople and their constituents. The hope is that residents will become more involved in improving their quality of life.

Rodney Triggs, who lost a friend to gun violence, attended the march to display love for his community. “Someone has to say enough is enough,” he said. “If we don’t who will?”

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Demonstrators marched through the streets chanting “We don’t need no mother’s crying, we don’t need no children dying,” and other slogans meant to promote peace.

Isaiah Jacobs, who lives on the 2500 block of Hope Street, says it’s important for people to get involved, and stand up for the future they’d like to see.

“There’s a lot of violence in the community, and there aren’t enough people coming out to do something about it.”

The group will meet every Sunday at 2 p.m. through October 20. This week will mark the final demonstration in Garden Homes; the remaining neighborhoods have yet to be chosen.⬩

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Juneteenth Day celebration unites Black Milwaukee

Despite poor conditions, thousands of Black Milwaukeeans turned out June 19th to celebrate the 152nd anniversary of the event considered by many to represent the actual end of slavery in the United States.

The Juneteenth Day celebration in Milwaukee, organized by Northcott Neighborhood House, stretches up Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, from Center Street to Burleigh. The annual event features performances, food and local proprietors offering wares, from scented oils to hand-stitched clothing.

Juneteenth is the only Milwaukee festival where the presence of police is significant and noticeable. No major incidents occurred.

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Though the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect in 1863, it was not until two years later that the news reached Galveston, Texas, a small city on the coast near Houston. Texas had become a refuge for those fleeing battleground states, some of whom brought enslaved people with them; the announcement abolished one of the country’s last bastions of slavery. Immediately afterward, freedmen rejoiced in the street; the first official festival, organized a year later was dubbed “Juneteenth.”

However, the end of slavery, in law, did not end the practice of dehumanizing Black people. Black Americans have continued to experience legal and extrajudicial discrimination, disenfranchisement, detention and death because of the color of their skin.⬩

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