Latest Posts

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.

See more videos from Milwaukee Stories, Inc.

Did you find value in this story? If so, please sign up to receive periodic updates.

We need your help! Milwaukee Stories is a nonprofit organization that brings you the real stories of regular people. This work is supported by small, individual monthly contributions from people just like you.

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!

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.

SIGN UP: GET OUR PERIODICAL ON THE NEWS YOU CARE ABOUT

IMG_0465

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

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!

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.

SIGN UP: GET OUR PERIODICAL ON THE NEWS YOU CARE ABOUT

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.

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!

‘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?”

SIGN UP: GET OUR PERIODICAL ON THE NEWS YOU CARE ABOUT

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.⬩

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!

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.

SIGN UP: GET OUR PERIODICAL ON THE NEWS YOU CARE ABOUT

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.⬩

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!

MacCanon Brown Homeless Sanctuary builds community in 53206

Shirley Curtis, 72, shuffles down an alley behind the MacCanon Brown Homeless Sanctuary, 2461 W. Center St., supported by a man about half her age, one of the many volunteers helping to sort donations on this sunny early-spring afternoon.

Curtis, who lives on $900 a month in social security income and receives less than $20 a month in food assistance, left with some sweaters, fruit and juice for her grandchildren. “It’s something I won’t have to spend money for,” she said, adding that she plans to tell others about her experience.

“I felt welcome — the people were nice and friendly,” says Curtis. “I would come back.”

“It comes from God, and we don’t need it — why would we make people pay?” asks Sister MacCanon Brown, the sanctuary’s namesake.

The sanctuary is a labor of love for Brown, who co-founded and spent 22 years with Repairers of the Breach, an organization that advocates for and provides resources to people experiencing homelessness. Despite leaving the organization in 2013 over a dispute regarding its vision, Brown was determined to continue the work to which she has dedicated much of her life.

In December 2016, Brown closed on the Center Street building. Though the structure still needs a lot of work, Brown’s vision is clear. She intends to create a comprehensive resource center for people without regular housing and those who are at risk; the building will also serve as an emergency shelter on particularly cold winter nights. In the meantime, the organization provides free clothing, bag lunches and other necessities from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday.

The group also offers a 3 p.m. meal on Fridays at Hephatha Lutheran Church, 1720 W. Locust St., and distributes clothes, shoes, coats, blankets and hygiene products at the church Sundays between noon and 1 p.m.

SIGN UP: GET OUR PERIODICAL ON THE NEWS YOU CARE ABOUT

On this particular day, we enter through a large garage-door entrance off the alley. Tables display corn, fruit, roasted chipotle red beans and “nourish bowls” made of cauliflower, chickpeas and curry sauce. A volunteer tends bins of bathroom essentials, including tooth brushes, soap, shampoo and tampons in the next room. Four or five others help unload and sort through the truckloads that arrive from places as far as Grafton, New Berlin, Oconomowoc, Cedarburg and South Milwaukee.

Though donations come from across the region, many regular volunteers live in the neighborhood; some have experienced homelessness themselves.

Eddie Kentle lives near 23rd and Chambers streets, where he’s been for 15 years. In addition to volunteering between eight and 10 hours a week with Brown, Kentle holds down a job at Little Caesar’s. He describes the area as a “food desert,” adding that there may be a corner store here or there but prices are often too high in an area where almost half the population lives in poverty.

“It’s a blessing just to give someone something they need,” says Geraldine Lucas, 63, who has volunteered at the Center Street and Hephatha locations for three years. “It makes your heart feel good to see that look on peoples’ faces.”

Lucas travels a little farther than Kentle, riding three different buses from her home near 60th and Appleton to come and help.

According to MBHS, more than 250 people have given their time, about a third of whom are in economic hardship themselves. And, Brown doesn’t send anyone away without a heartfelt thank-you, a bag lunch or something else they need.

“We create community with the people who are with us,” she says.

The sanctuary has an opportunity to be the “pioneering model” of a self-sufficient “homeless community center,” Brown notes. Plans for the five-story building include a rooftop garden, aquaponics-based agriculture, a dining room and commercial kitchen, where people will be served restaurant-style with food grown on-site. A makerspace with training for those interested in woodworking, electronics, printing, welding and will also be available, as well as employment resources and other assistance.

So far, Brown has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to purchase the building and make necessary repairs; she receives partial compensation for the hours she gives, and currently employs three people on a part-time basis. According to Brown, more than 700 individuals have made one-time and sustaining donations, which has enabled the organization to remain grassroots and debt-free. She points out that their mission is not money-driven, “but the need is big.”

There is still much to do. The building needs a new roof, evidenced by pools of standing water on the upper floors, a cost Brown estimates at almost $100,000. And, to realize her vision of a fully-staffed and -resourced community center, the cost is in the millions. Still, Brown seems undeterred.

“It’s a faith thing, but it’s not blind faith,” she says, as her aged hands point eagerly to floor plans and diagrams of what the building will be. “It’s already happening.”

Brown tells me that solidarity is important, and indeed support will be necessary if her vision is to come to fruition. Shirley Curtis, who has already benefited from the community Brown is building, has another take:

“It does not take more than one voice to start something.”

If you would like to make a cash donation to the MBHS building or operations fund you can do so here. For clothing or food donations, please contact Sister MacCanon Brown at 414-305-8997 or maccanon.brown@att.net.

Update (June 18, 2018): In response to questions, MBHS sent Milwaukee Stories this statement explaining why the nonprofit is named after Brown.

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!

MSO, Gibraltar partnership unites people through music

At first glance, Peter Thomas and Evan Christian might look like an odd couple — Peter, a cellist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra; Evan, a flamenco guitarist and Milwaukee mainstay who recently opened a music club in Walker’s Point. Some might say the two don’t go together. But Thomas and Christian would disagree.

The 414 Quartet residency, a partnership that brings MSO musicians to Christian’s club to perform chamber music, is still in its infancy but has shown promise, drawing packed crowds and inspiring powerful performances. Evan and Peter agree chamber music, a more intimate expression of classical, is an accessible way to introduce people to an art form that can often seem reserved for the wealthy or elite.

“The point of playing something, anything, is for people to hear you. And that is the greatest power of music,” Thomas says. “It brings people together.”

SIGN UP: GET OUR PERIODICAL ON THE NEWS YOU CARE ABOUT

Since Christian opened Gibraltar MKE, in December 2016, it’s taken on an almost-mythical allure for those seeking quality music and a diverse crowd. Gibraltar, located near 6th Street and National Avenue, sits in a largely Hispanic area and draws people from across Milwaukee. That was a consideration, Thomas said, when considering where to host these events.

Christian, whose first instrument was upright bass, has been a long-time admirer of classical music. Gibraltar hosts flamenco acts, DJs, bluegrass bands and a variety of other performers. But Christian said the opportunity to host the quartet is a special treat.

“The experience of being there, and seeing the expression on the face of the musicians — the sweat and all that — that’s the thing,” says Christian. “I’m just really grateful”

Quartet performances are held periodically on Friday nights at Gibraltar. Admission is $15.⬩

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!

Will you help us build a movement of community-supported news?

As people, we are deeply divided. By politics, place, skin color and economic ability. In Milwaukee — the most segregated city in America, where Black men are disproportionately jailed and people of color experience staggeringly high rates of poverty — these divisions manifest in a way that is particularly alarming.

Part of the reason these divisions persist is because media organizations, many of which are beholden to corporate interests, don’t have the time, perspective or will to seek out the people most affected.

We intend to change that, by building the first community-supported news outlet in the country.

Since I founded Milwaukee Stories in 2014, we’ve shared more than 200 personal stories of people across this city. I have covered the lead poisoning crisis, protests inspired by the police killing of Dontre Hamilton and grassroots efforts to combat violence. I wrote about demonstrations in Sherman Park, before the August 2016 events that captured the nation’s attention. Within the last month, we’ve published stories on incarceration reform, resident fears of gentrification and Latinx-led action to halt a harmful federal program.

What these stories have shown is that united calls for justice cannot be ignored. But the future is never guaranteed — if we are to create a more fair and equitable society, we must support each other and, when necessary, be willing to put our livelihood on the line.

We are committed to seeking out solutions by building relationships with people who exist on the edges of society — those being harmed, and those who are healing. We will focus our coverage on issues that have the potential to create more stable, inclusive and healthy communities. We intend to feature stories told with integrity by individuals who come from the communities they cover. And we intend to compensate them fairly, while being transparent about who is benefitting from our work.

But we can’t do it alone.

To realize this vision, we need people who share in our values to stand up. Are you one of those people?

Without your support, we will cease to exist. Can we count on you?

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!

Upcoming County Board vote could allow cannabis referendum this fall

A referendum to gauge whether Milwaukee County residents support the legalization, regulation and taxation of cannabis could come before voters as early as this fall.

The measure will be added to the Nov. 6 ballot pending approval by the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors at its next meeting May 24. On May 10, the County Board’s Judiciary Committee unanimously recommended a resolution, which would create the referendum, to the full Board.

That vote came just days after a large pro-cannabis rally in Milwaukee, where a diverse group of at least 200 occupied the shadow of the Milwaukee County Courthouse, in 80-degree heat, to call for cannabis reform. Supporters said legalization could have a positive effect on people’s mental and physical health, as well as efforts to reform the incarceration system.

“I think any politician who is against it is not looking at the big picture,” said Ray, a combat veteran who attended the rally with his son. “It’s about time Wisconsin get with the program.”

State Rep. David Bowen, who attended the march, noted bills pushing non-psychoactive CBD products have helped. “However,” he told Milwaukee Stories, “at the end of the day there’s still a lot of opposition, and a lot of misinformation spread about anything that has to do with moving forward on legalization. Even medical marijuana.”

Late last year, Bowen and other Democratic lawmakers introduced Assembly Bill 482, which would have legalized cannabis for medical and recreational use. The bill, which not one Republican supported, never made it out of committee.

In March, Bowen also introduced a bill to prevent employers from drug testing for cannabis. According to Bowen, the bill gained some momentum before Republican legislators quashed it. “It did start a conversation,” he noted, “a really unexpected conversation.”

Bowen said he hopes state legislators “give the issue the real time of day that it deserves” when the new session begins early next year.

SIGN UP: GET OUR PERIODICAL ON THE NEWS YOU CARE ABOUT

NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), the group that organized the rally, supported Bowen’s bill prohibiting drug testing. Eric Marsch, director of Southeastern Wisconsin NORML, a regional chapter of the national organization, told Milwaukee Stories a successful November initiative could have a domino effect, paving the way for non-violent criminal cannabis convictions to be wiped from the books.

In a country known for high incarceration rates, Wisconsin imprisons more Black men than any other state. According to an analysis by the Wisconsin Justice Initiative of 95 arrests in 2015 and 2016, 86 percent of all Milwaukee County cannabis arrests were African-Americans.

Several cities, including San Francisco and Seattle, have recently experimented with throwing out non-violent drug offenses. Toward the end of his last term as president, Barack Obama also commuted the sentences of 46 non-violent drug offenders. However, data on the effect of these decisions is hard to find.

Wisconsin voters expressed support for treatment alternatives to incarceration and 81 percent of people said the government uses too many resources to arrest and incarcerate marijuana users, according to a 2016 Marquette Law School Poll. Fifty-nine percent of respondents said cannabis “should be fully legalized and regulated like alcohol.”

States where the substance is legal have reaped vast economic benefits. In Colorado, cannabis products created more than $230 million in tax revenue last year alone.

Residents and supporters also spoke of other benefits to reform.

“For far too long veterans have been prescribed far too many opioids,” Ray told Milwaukee Stories. Ray, a former US Marine and National Guardsmen, stood quietly just beyond the crowd’s perimeter holding a sign that read: “Veterans For Cannabis.” He declined to give his last name.

Ray said cannabis can help combat veterans transition back into society. He spoke of its grounding, and calming, effect, which he said could be particularly helpful for veterans experiencing post traumatic stress. However, he noted that many returning soldiers are prescribed a cocktail of sedatives, antipsychotics and painkillers, adding, “All they’re doing is making [us] zombies.”

Although the November vote won’t itself end prohibition, it pushes the state to make a decision. Depending on what voters decide, the future, for people like Ray, may be a bit brighter.⬩

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!

High ticket prices for ‘Evicted’ keynote exclude most vulnerable

Matthew Desmond, author of the wildly popular ‘Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,’ will speak tomorrow at an event in Milwaukee. Desmond’s remarks — his first appearance here since winning the Pulitzer Prize for the book early last year — will focus on the eviction crisis, which he has said is traumatic and “devastating” to individuals and families.

Donna Triplett, vice president of development and communication at Jewish Family Services, which is hosting the event, said the goal is to “bring the prevalence and the negative impact of evictions in our city to light.” The description on the event’s online registration page calls it a “community wide call to action.” But some community members were critical of the $125 price tag for individuals to attend, a cost that would be prohibitive for many of the people Desmond has profiled in his work. A table for eight cost $1,500.

“You get what you market to,” said Amaranth Bakery owner David Boucher, who also owns residential property near the North Side cafe. According to Boucher, the people who are most affected by an issue must be at the forefront of finding solutions. “That is not the message that’s being sent when you have such high costs of attendance.”

Triplett attributed the high ticket prices to Desmond’s speaking fee, which she could not name specifically. She said Jewish Family Services (JFS) submitted an application to secure the sought-after author, in which it was required to “explain the rationale for bringing him to town” and describe how many people would be in attendance. The contract JFS signed to bring him here does not allow any part of Desmond’s address to be recorded by media, or by JFS for use in future dialogues.

The event, which is sold out with 950 registrants, was initially intended to be a fundraiser to support JFS services, including its housing program. Though the nonprofit secured corporate sponsorships in the $5,000, $10,000 and $15,000 range, some $50,000 sponsorships went unclaimed.

“We booked him, we went forward with the contract; we hoped that, because of the importance of the issue, that other foundations and corporations would come in as significant underwriters,” Triplett said. “We’re just covering our costs.”

Desmond, who is active on Twitter, did not respond to questions sent via the medium.

The event will take place from noon to 3:30 p.m. Wednesday at Potawatomi Casino and Hotel, in the Menomonee Valley. According to Triplett, underwriting from Herb Kohl Philanthropies and others allowed JFS to offer free admission and a copy of ‘Evicted’ to about 200 people. The tickets were meant for individuals from nonprofits, “community stakeholders” and housing advocates, Triplett said.

She noted that the the tickets “were circulated primarily to local nonprofits” including the United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Waukesha and the Nonprofit Center of Milwaukee. According to Triplett, JFS asked 125 nonprofit partners to “reach out to their specific networks.”

A quick search of “matthew desmond free tickets” on Facebook did not return any results; a Twitter search of “matthew desmond milwaukee” and “matthew desmond tickets” did not show any posts advertising the complimentary admission.

The book has been hailed as an honest, compassionate and “wrenching,” portrayal of poverty and the challenges of maintaining housing under dire circumstances. Desmond follows eight Milwaukee families that struggle to survive as they are pushed and pulled by people and systems that, at times, fail to notice their humanity.

“It’s a story that needs to be brought to the entire community,” said Clayborn Benson, founder and director of the Wisconsin Black Historical Society. Benson noted that housing has been “the key method of controlling this community.”

African-Americans have long faced discriminatory housing practices locally and nationwide. Racially restrictive covenants prohibited people of color from owning or occupying housing in many Milwaukee suburbs and neighborhoods, including Wauwatosa, Whitefish Bay, Shorewood, West Allis and West Milwaukee.

The contracts, which are attached to individual home titles, are no longer enforceable, per a 1948 Supreme Court ruling. However, those agreements, many of which have not yet expired, helped to shape Milwaukee neighborhoods.

An analysis by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published early this year shows that impoverished North Side residents in primarily Black neighborhoods endure higher relative rent prices than some who live in other, wealthier neighborhoods. About 30 percent of Milwaukee households spend more than half their income on rent, and filings by landlords to begin eviction proceedings have steadily been on the rise in Milwaukee County to 14,079 last year.

Wyman Winston, director of the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority (WHEDA), the state agency most responsible for providing affordable housing options, will participate in a panel discussion at the Desmond event. The panel, moderated by YWCA CEO Paula Penebaker, includes Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm and Employ Milwaukee President and CEO Earl Buford.

Winston did not respond to a request for an interview; WHEDA spokesperson Kevin Fischer said he is “very interested and excited” to participate.

And, according to Triplett, JSF will develop an action plan to address the eviction crisis in Milwaukee, following the event. She encouraged people from across the city to get involved.

“There is crisis in our community,” she said. “And it may not be one that is necessarily visible to everyone.”⬩

Will you help us deliver local, people-centered coverage on the issues you care about? This work is supported by small, monthly contributions from folks just like you. Join our mission by becoming a member today!