Listen to Ferguson. See Milwaukee.

September 21, 2015

Rick Deines, a conversation facilitator with The Zeidler Center for Public Discussion and a Milwaukee resident for 33 years, asks what Milwaukee can learn from the recently released Ferguson Commission report. Originally posted in Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service:  http://milwaukeenns.org/2015/09/21/listen-to-ferguson-see-milwaukee/

 

If Milwaukee looks at the new report of the Ferguson Commission, we will see our city. The community culture exposed by Michael Brown’s death followed by ‘Black Lives Matter’ is the state of the nation and our city.

 

 

“What we are pointing out is that the data suggests, time and again, that our institutions and existing systems are not equal, and that this has racial repercussions,” the report states. “Black people in the region feel those repercussions when it comes to law enforcement, the justice system, housing, health, education, and income.”

 

And the prophet cried out, “There is nothing new under the sun!” (Ecclesiastes)

In 1967 as urban unrest spread to every part of the nation, the Kerner Commission appointed by President Lyndon Johnson wrote about race in America. It concluded that the nation was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”

 

2015 is not 1967, but the basic findings of these two commissions are strikingly familiar. Is the analysis right? Does it dig deeply enough?

 

Our culture puts a high priority on ‘fixing’ people, things and institutions. We solve problems. But if the diagnosis is faulty, the results will be disappointing. What do these reports tend to ignore or minimize?

Do they reveal enough about how systems work? Is this not a case of those who have committed the crime investigating themselves? Systems aren’t fixed. They are gradually replaced by concerted efforts to insert a different set of values and behavior into the equation. A system can do minor adjustments. The change we want and hope for will always be a partially realized accomplishment, but if we know we are shifting our values and behavior, we may keep at it.

 

So don’t look for the Ferguson Commission report and its recommendations to go beyond fixing certain parts of law enforcement or citizen participation. The fixes are good, often creative. But they lack a sense of what an imperfect, yet just society would look like.

 

The very system that sustains racism cannot be the solution. It cannot rid itself of itself. This is the heart of the issue. This is why we get stuck.

 

We also get stuck because we aren’t that sure we want things to change. Perhaps a tiny fix here or there that will make our lives easier or someone else’s life more livable, but cultural change is simply hard. Whether we hold a large stake in the current system or a small one, we all have some kind of a stake.

 

As Sen. Elizabeth Warren said, “the game is rigged.” When the Occupy Movement described the injustice as the “99% vs. the 1%,” I cheered loudly. I began to reflect on my much smaller piece of the pie and realized I benefit from the same system. Consumerism is one way to describe our culture. I’m an actor in that drama.

 

It is not true that some of us can stand completely outside the system and shout “change” to everyone else. To admit one is complicit in something as destructive as racism is not for the faint of heart. And even those treated most unjustly also have a stake that they may not want to give up. Dr. King’s strategy to gain civil rights was to work within the system of law that says “all are created equal.” Those particular laws were changed and we are better for it. Yet, 50 years later the reports say things are much the same as they were before 1965.

 

Nelson Mandela could not follow the same strategy. No South African constitution declared that equality. So instead, Mr. Mandela suggested a new cultural paradigm. By declaring forgiveness and calling for everyone to be part of the new South Africa, he was attempting something new. He envisioned that a different and more just system would emerge—not a “fixed” South Africa, but a new one. He recognized that in a strange way all the people of South Africa (black and white) were part of the oppressive system. And that they all would be part of creating a less oppressive one.

 

And Milwaukee? John Gurda is set to release his new book, “Milwaukee: City of Neighborhoods.” In a Journal Sentinel article, Gurda described life in the inner city through the eyes of those who live there. This perspective could awaken in us the desire for more cross fertilization of our lives. It may serve as both a primer and guide into a generous and welcoming Milwaukee.

 

Milwaukee has so many individuals doing remarkable things to usher in a new kind of culture. Here are a few who are going beyond the ‘let’s fix it’ approach:

 

Eric Von, Venice Williams, Ellen Blathers, Will Allen, Rev. Willie Briscoe, James Murrell, Andre Lee Ellis, Yvette Murrell, Vince Bushell, Ann Van Dunk, Sharlen Moore, Reggie Jackson, Reggie Moore, Katherine Wilson and literally tens of thousands of others.

 

The question remains is, “Can these and others birth a new common culture here through individual achievements?” That is the question we are left with from the Ferguson report and the mirror it provides for Milwaukee.

 

South Africa chose to have national “Truth and Reconciliation” conversations. We could do the same.

 

Peter Block said, “The city is a conversation.” How will we initiate the conversation and sustain it? This kind of conversation is itself “action” from which important shifts in our structures can take place.

Gurda’s conclusion is profound. It echoes Mandela’s stance of forgiveness. He says, “It is in the ground of compassion that solutions take root.”

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