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A line of voters wraps around the block outside Washington High School in Milwaukee during the April 7, 2020, primary election. A top civil rights advocate called that election a “travesty that put voters in the crosshairs of having to choose between their safety and their vote.”

While Wisconsin is often viewed as a swing state that pingpongs back and forth between Republicans and Democrats, the way it is governed is right wing.

On the state and local levels, especially in Milwaukee, politicians are not enacting progressive policies. Instead, decision-makers continue to push carceral solutions that further criminalize Black people.

Our organization, the African American Roundtable, is based on Milwaukee's Northwest Side. Our organization is Black-led and works to build a world where Black people activate their capacity to live in healthy, interconnected communities with care, safety and accountability. One of our campaigns, LiberateMKE, is an “invest-divest” campaign that works to move money away from police and prison and towards investing in the needs of residents, which includes mental health, affordable, quality living, and prevention.

Our political vision is clear: We see a Milwaukee with fewer police and eventually no police. As we are building a base with residents on Milwaukee’s Northwest Side, and while residents still favor police, their underlying message is they want safety.

Our landscape has seen businesses, restaurants and malls either close or leave the community. Milwaukee is experiencing rising crime, so it is hard for residents to see our vision of strong and interconnected communities through so much instability, especially when all they’ve known as safety entities are police, jails and prisons.

But to understand where we are in Wisconsin, we must first highlight how Republicans have used violent decision making to gain and maintain power.

Through voter suppression and gerrymandering, sanctioned by the U.S. Supreme Court, Republicans have made it almost impossible for them to lose power in the state Legislature. Again, Wisconsin is viewed as a swing state, but the state Legislature is almost two-thirds Republican because of partisan gerrymandering. This has allowed state Republicans to push a far-right agenda.

One example is currently trying to change the state constitution through an amendment that would make it harder for someone to post bail. They continue to push anti-trans legislation and ban books that center on race, police violence or sexuality, which does nothing but further harm marginalized communities.

State Republicans also blocked efforts to provide more revenue to Milwaukee simply because they don’t like Milwaukee. Former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker once said, “People do not want to see Wisconsin ‘become another Milwaukee.’”  State Rep. Janel Brandtjen called on the state to cut funding to Milwaukee because crime is a “growing and out of control problem.”

The underlying issue seems to be race. Milwaukee is Wisconsin’s Blackest city, so pointing to crime and painting Milwaukee as undesirable or dangerous is one of the oldest dog whistles in politics.

Local politicians are pandering to state Republicans at the expense of Black residents. One example: the tensions about the youth prison proposed for Milwaukee’s Northwest Side. Despite overwhelming opposition from residents of the aldermanic district — a district that lacks aldermanic representation — Milwaukee’s Common Council supported zoning the Northwest Side site for the prison. Dissenting residents voiced concerns about safety, impacts on homeowners and decades-long economic decline in the district at numerous city hearings.

Though many alderpersons support reducing prisons in Wisconsin, they feel that the state’s political climate, which favors carceral solutions, doesn't allow them to support alternatives to building a new juvenile prison. This led to their support for the prison to be built in Milwaukee, enabling the Legislature to continue upholding the status quo. As many residents have made plain, this will only mirror historic examples of crime narratives and optics harming Milwaukee’s Northwest Side, which, of course, has a large percentage of Black residents.

Further, Milwaukee Mayor Chevy Johnson and County Executive David Crowley continue to lobby the Republican Legislature for a countywide 1% sales tax. This tax fails Black Milwaukeeans on several levels. First, this is a regressive tax, meaning Milwaukee’s poorest 20% would lose the highest percent of their income. The proposed tax can provide property tax relief for homeowners, but Milwaukee has the lowest Black and Hispanic homeownership among 10 peer cities.

Additionally, the only way a sales tax can be passed is if Milwaukee agrees to use a portion of the revenue to add more police. This is not a solution. It further adds to Milwaukee’s budgetary problem created by police, who have routinely received close to 50% of Milwaukee’s general operating budget. Rather than cut police, Mayor Johnson preferred cutting funding to the Fire Department and libraries, which provide a safe place for young people and internet access for individuals applying for jobs and other resources.

The organizing landscape in Wisconsin for progressive causes is challenging. Fighting an increasingly power-monopolizing right, and pushing back against local Democrats who are more concerned with Republicans' approval than pushing progressive policies, has made it hard. Yet our commitment to improving Black life in Milwaukee is steadfast.

Devin Anderson is the membership and coalition manager for the African American Roundtable. Ryeshia Farmer is the community programs manager for the group.

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