I parked while the sun was still out on a beautiful fall day this Tuesday in the city at 13th and Clarke, two blocks from the school. The area is almost exclusively populated by poor African-Americans in this most segregated of American cities. There were a lot of people out on the street, standing on porches and hillsides overlooking the school's athletic field. Many were middle-aged, trying to get a glimpse of the president's motorcade that was still more than an hour away. Outside some of the rundown houses, standing in the doorways, young men dressed in ghetto black and baggy pants looked on curiously at the commotion, and, when they noticed my attention, ducked back inside.
As I walked up the street to the press entrance, thousands of people streamed in from every walk of life in Milwaukee. Sure, it was primarily an African-American crowd, excited to see a legitimate hero and historical figure in the flesh and in the neighborhood. But it was also working people of all colors of the rainbow.
I was there with a press pass as your wayward blogger. I first got myself invited to the media pool for an Obama appearance in Green Bay during the push for health care reform in June 2009. I was blogging regularly then and figured it didn't hurt to ask and they let me in. Since then, I have seen President Obama from the media area at least three other times; in Waukesha, at Master Lock in Milwaukee, at Labor Fest just this September and I think there were more...
Seeing the President of the United States -- and, in Obama's case, the most famous person in the world -- up close so often has been inspiring and fun. I have been a news and politics junkie ever since my dad put me on his shoulders to see Richard Nixon at Mitchell Field during the 1960 campaign (and still have this image of Nixon's shiny head poking out over a sea of trenchcoats). The political theater of an Obama presidential visit has always been interesting to watch from behind the scenes -- the dour trudging of the local and national media, the hours of waiting for 30 minutes of talk, the Secret Service dancing around...
The most interesting time (so interesting, I didn't bother to blog it -- apparently the White House doesn't check to see if I actually do anything with the access provided) was just last month at Labor Fest on the Summerfest grounds. It was not your standard get-a-ticket-from-the-party-and-stand-around-for-hours event -- Labor Fest is actually a real thing for a day, like one of the ethnic festivals. Obama was on the Jazz Oasis (still, always) stage, like the rock star he sort of is. The beautifully diverse working-class crowd on the benches in front were laughing, drinking beer, having a great old time on a gorgeous day. The only people who were stuck in place were the poor souls the politicians always put behind them on the stage and make them sit for an hour before the event starts to create a human backdrop. Eventually, Obama came out and kicked ass, as he always does. Cue the next band.
And Obama always does kick ass at a rally. One of the right wing's most obnoxious memes and lies is that anyone ever looked at Barack Obama as "the Messiah", born to lead us out of the undeniable darkness of the Bush years. Obama was never that and never claimed to be. He was and is simply a very talented communicator -- ten times more so and far more intellectually and personally honest than Saint Reagan. Watching him in person from close range, as I have many times now, he never sounds a sour note, always speaks his own words, from the heart, with a great sense of humor and occasional flashes of brilliance.
The president has now made two trips to Milwaukee in the past two months; both in front of poor-to-working-class crowds. By coming to Labor Fest and North Division, Obama showed a commitment to reaching out to those most affected by the successful drive by the business class and its sock-puppet, Scott Walker, to crush collective bargaining and suppress the wages of regular Americans. Even the visit before that -- at Master Lock in February 2012 -- was mainly before a working-class crowd on the edge of the inner city on 35th and North, although the white-collar employees of the company and the CEO were also welcome and celebrated. Around here, anyway, Obama is certainly is not hiding from the victims of the Walker agenda and corporate greed -- he is fully engaged, and always has been, in trying to limit the damage and create a tide -- for instance, raising the minimum wage -- which would raise all boats. He dives right in to the Heart of the City and fights for what is right.
This night's venue, North Division, is a still-proud high school half its previous size, located in a now-divided, underused MPS building, the victim of the right-wing attack on the public schools in Milwaukee. Although the gym where the event was staged was dressed up for the camera's eye in bunting and bright lights, the building is showing its age and its status. I have visited many suburban high schools during my awesome son's athletic career, and all those facilities are nice, clean, newer, with up-to-date equipment. Not so at North Division. On the opposite side of the gym, behind the cameras, tired-looking banners from whatever is left of the City conference hung limply above the old bleachers. In the hallway leading to the gym, a worn sign on a dirty office window reminded students about the $10 activity fee to be paid. The entire building stood testament to the lack of support for public education in Walker's Wisconsin.
The setup for the event for many of the older people who were brought in early and provided chairs was horrible. Many were behind the camera riser to the right of the stage and, at least early in the day, there was no sound projected back to them. But they patiently sat and waited through the couple of hours it takes for these kinds of things to run their course. The rest of the crowd was led into the area and stood in front of the stage, a delightfully diverse crowd, from the curious to the activist. While they waited, they listened to short but effective speeches by Rep. Gwen Moore, Mayor and former Walker opponent Tom Barrett and others.
The best preliminary speech was by a rising star in Wisconsin politics, if she can pull off a win in the race for Attorney General. Susan Happ is sharp as a tack and has a lot going for her against disgusting sellout Brad Schimel. I've only dealt with Schimel once, to extremely negative results for my victim/client, but he has a rep among other defense attorneys and prosecutors as "not bad" in Waukesha. However, he has completely jumped the shark in this race, caving in to the Dark Side and saying all kinds of shit he never would if he hadn't sold his soul to the worst of the GOP. I haven't had any cases in Jefferson County, but I have had a chance to meet Susan Happ twice in the last several weeks, including Tuesday night. She appears to have a lot on the ball, a sparkling personality and, if she can get this win, there is no reason she shouldn't get a shot at higher office down the line. And, she knows how to work a friendly crowd.
After the preliminaries, the crowd had to wait another hour for the main event. While they waited, the President's Playlist got them singing along to Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" and, delightfully, Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions "Keep On Pushing" (did I mention this was an older crowd?).
Eventually, Mary Burke came out to introduce the president and pretty much shined in the moment. It was the same speech I heard her give at a fundraiser early this month. I hope her and her campaign managers noticed that the biggest applause line for her was a call for an end to the divisiveness that the radical Republicans have brought to the state since their disastrous ascendancy. That should be the closing argument -- a return to sanity and (attempted) cooperation. Not that the Republicans are ever going to be sane or cooperate -- at least one party will be there to try. At the end of both debates, Burke closed with a reminder that Scott Walker was the divide-and-conquer governor. Remind us again, and often, in the closing days.
Finally, the president appeared, looking very skinny, in shirtsleeves, diving into the ropeline on his way to the stage, as Burke waited patiently. Unlike most of the other times I saw him, this was not an "official" visit. He was there to support Mary Burke and spent all of his time expertly contrasting her from the radical Walker. Some of my favorite lines:
- "I don't know why you'd run on a platform of making sure some folks don't have health insurance -- why would you do that? I mean, that's a weird thing to want -- I'm going to make sure folks don't have health insurance in this state. That doesn't make any sense."
- "We need to strengthen the middle class for the 21st century -- that means we need leaders from the 21st century, who actually believe that women should get paid the same as men for doing the same work....Sometimes it feels like these folks, they’ve been watching 'Mad Men' too much...
- "Cynicism didn’t put anybody on the moon. Cynicism has never ended a war. It has never cured a disease. It did not build a business. It did not feed a young mind. Cynicism is a choice. And hope is a better choice."
Those right wingers who pretend not to like Obama have never seen Obama. He has faced the biggest roadblocks on everything from an opposition party in American history, and he still got things done, whatever he could. This is a more vicious version the way the GOP treated Bill Clinton -- they simply refused to recognize the legitimacy of his presidency, even after two elections. The phrase they use on Talk Radio all the time to refer to Obama (at the direction of the GOP) is "this guy", as if he is just some guy off the street who stumbled into the White House. The brutal personal deminishment of the president through Fox News, Talk Radio and others who coordinate talking points with the GOP is in large part racist. Through it all, Obama stood strong and energized this week, in a battered inner city public school.
Walking up the street in the dark after the program, amidst the energized crowd streaming onto the sidewalk, the neighborhood transformed from the center of the ever-changing political universe to its drab, struggling normal. At the Citgo station on the corner of 12th and Center, the same young men I saw in the doorways before the event hung out and looked again warily at the crowd. They will stay in the Heart of the City, making things work as best they can. And Barack Obama and Mary Burke will do their best to give them Hope.