February 3rd, 2017
I had never been in the meeting room of the Milwaukee County Board. There is a first time for everything. It’s an interesting place, for a variety of reasons. The room itself has a certain character. The ceiling is ornate and has several large hanging lamps. There is a massive mural on the wall facing the door. It seems vaguely heroic. The style looks like it was painted by artists during the Great Depression. The desks for the county supervisors are old, wooden roll tops. The visitor gallery in the back of the room has heavy wooden benches, worn smooth over the years. There is a sense of history in the room, and it is only slightly disturbed by the presence of laptops and microphones on the old wooden desks. I don’t know if a secular government can have a sacred space, but if it can, I was in it.
I was there in the meeting room with a number of other people to witness the board’s debate and vote regarding Resolution 16-738. The resolution is a long and unwieldy document that basically says that Milwaukee County will welcome and protect all minorities. It also states that the county will resist any attempts to deport members of our immigrant community. The resolution is sharply critical of President Trump’s recent executive orders, and it is by its very nature divisive. The resolution was originally put forth by Supervisor Marina Dimitrijevic. She has a personal interest in immigration issues, especially seeing as her father is from Serbia. She had been at the committee meeting during the previous week, where the proposal was initially presented and many local citizens gave their input. I know I did. I spoke about my family and our own experiences with immigration. I had my two minutes of fame. I have an intense personal interest in helping immigrants, and I think it showed.
Resolution 16-738 was far down on the list of things to do during the County Board meeting. It would be well over an hour before the board got to that particular topic. Even so, the meeting was interesting. There appears to be a ritual to the meetings. There is a roll call. Then everyone says the Pledge of Allegiance. Then there is a moment of silence (call it “secular prayer”). Finally, the supervisors turn to the business at hand. The Board Chairman, Supervisor Lipscomb, kept things moving. He quietly and consistently nudged things forward, despite the tendency for board members to go off on interesting but irrelevant tangents. The five black members of the board all wore traditional African garments to the meeting (it was the start of Black History Month). They literally provided vibrant color to the proceedings. All the while, more and more citizens wandered into the gallery of the room, filling it to overflowing.
The media were there in force. There were four TV cameras pointed in our general direction. It’s interesting how people react when they know that they may be momentarily famous. I think the cameras had an effect on the assembled supervisors. Some of them remained quiet. Some of them put on a show.
It was after 11:00 when the anti-discrimination resolution was introduced to the board. Things got interesting quickly. Supervisor Dimitrijevic offered up a substitute resolution. In doing so, she gave a passionate defense of her revised proposal. She said that we should protect the immigrants in our community (legal or otherwise), regardless of Trump’s threats to cut off funding to our county. She described Trump as a bully who wanted to shut down local control of the police.
There was a reason for a substitution .The original resolution had gone through several reincarnations over time. This wasn’t so much because the proposal was poorly conceived. It was more due to the fact that President Trump had signed orders so quickly, and the original resolution had suddenly become outdated. The chairman wanted the supervisors to simply discuss substitute and then vote on whether they wanted to approve the revised version of the resolution before they got into the actual meat of the subject. That didn’t happen. Various supervisors immediately and enthusiastically launched into speeches about the original resolution.
One of the first to speak was Supervisor Sartori. He began by loudly stating, “I am a combat vet! I bled for this county!”. That comment made me smile. It wasn’t that I was mocking his military service. It is just that I have also played the “I am a veteran” card in the past. There is no quicker or more effective way for a person to establish his or her bona fides as a patriotic American than to mention that he or she served in the military. The attitude of the people listening changes almost immediately. It reminds of Wilhelmine Germany, when people in the Kaiser’s Reich would step off the sidewalk to make way for a German officer. People in the United States have a profound respect for veterans, at least until they actually have to do something to help them. Then things are different.
Supervisor Sartori’s speech was rambling and more than a little unfocused. It was hard to tell what he was really trying to say. He expressed sincere compassion toward immigrants in our community, and he made reference to the fact that his parents had come to this country. However, he kept coming back to the comment, “There is a right way to do things and a wrong way to do things.” He eventually made the argument that immigration law was a matter for the Federal government, and that this county resolution usurped that authority.
Supervisor Mayo spoke. He made a point of saying that he is the most senior black supervisor on the board. He is also the most senior supervisor, period. He stated that there were many things in the resolution that he personally disagreed with. However, Supervisor Mayo said that his constituents had made it clear that they wanted him to vote for this resolution. He would follow the will of the voters. That was his duty.
Supervisor Schmitt echoed Mayo’s sentiment. He too believed that he needed to follow the will of his constituents, rather than his own beliefs. Schmitt said that the opinions of most of his people were not reflected in this resolution. Supervisor Schmitt also spent time discussing the constitutionality of the resolution. Was the resolution even legal? Were Trump’s executive orders constitutional? Did the board have a right to go against Trump’s orders? Schmitt also referred to the endless struggle between local authority and the power of the Federal government. After two hundred plus years, that fight has not ended. Schmitt ended his talk by decrying the division in our community where “One side calls the other ‘idiots’, and then the other side does the same.” He stated that nobody in the room was an idiot. We just disagree.
Supervisor Steve Taylor (my supervisor) spoke. He made it clear that he thought this resolution was useless. Sheriff Clarke can (and will) work closely with I.C.E., and the County Board can’t do a damn thing about it. This is true. Taylor remarked that the resolution was “political pandering”, and just an opportunity for the board to “feel good”. Maybe. He also stated that the debate was an utter waste of the board’s time. I will get back to that comment later in this essay.
Supervisor Sebring spoke succinctly. He stood up and said, “In case nobody else has noticed, President Trump is playing hardball. He doesn’t make threats. He makes promises.” Sebring made the point very clearly that President Trump would have no problem with withholding funds from Milwaukee County, funds that the county can ill-afford to reject.
Supervisor West, also a child of immigrants, made a plea for the county to help and protect the undocumented persons in the area. She knows these people personally, and she tried to explain the fear and anxiety they now feel.
Eventually, the substitute resolution was passed. Then Supervisor Alexander offered up an amendment to the proposal. Her goal was to introduce a version of the resolution that would unite the board, rather than divide them. That didn’t work out very well. Supervisor Dimitrijevic took strong exception to the amendment. Nobody else seemed that interested in it either. This was a topic that was inherently divisive. Even if Alexander had proposed something that said, “We all love puppies”, it wouldn’t have passed.
Alexander built upon what Sebring had said about Federal funding. The Feds contribute up to 10% of the county budget. That’s a big chunk of change. Supervisor Alexander asked if it was worth passing this resolution and then later being unable to provide essential services. She asked the question about where additional funds could be found. Sarcastically, she asked how many people had overpaid their property taxes or made a freewill donation to the county during the last year.
The debate continued. Most everybody had an axe to grind. Supervisor Johnson said that he understood the possible financial repercussions of passing this proposal and risking the wrath of Trump. However, he said that failing to speak out with the resolution would be like giving in to a bully, and he wasn’t willing to do that.
Supervisor Moore Omokunde mentioned, “My ancestors came to this country legally. They were kidnapped and brought here, but it was legal.”
He then said that he was supporting the resolution. He said matter-of-factly that it was his job to do so.
Supervisor Sequanna Taylor paraphrased the German pastor Martin Niemoeller. She talked about how they came for the immigrant, for the LGBTQ person, for the union member, for the Muslim, for the Jew, etc., until there was nobody left to speak up when they would come for her. Her point was that we had to speak up for minorities now. If we wait, it will be too late for everyone.
After 1:00 PM, there was finally a vote. The measure passed, 12 to 6. So, what was the point of it all? The county still is not a sanctuary. It cannot be while Sheriff Clarke works with immigration authorities. What was achieved?
I go back to the comment from my county supervisor, Steve Taylor. He stated that this resolution was a waste of time. I disagree with him there. It is sometimes worthwhile for our elected officials to take a deep breath and really think about what it is that we value. This is something worth discussing, and worth proclaiming to the world at large.
The basic question involved is this: “What do we value, and what price are we willing to pay to defend our values?”
That was the core of the debate, and the conversation was worth the time and effort.