"Political education seems to be surging during this crisis"

An interview with Izmira Violet Aitch about Milwaukee, the impact of COVID-19 in the United States, and the political importance of the present-day Black human rights movement.

Izmira Violet Aitch is a native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin and a senior advisor in the U.S. Congress. She previously lived and studied in Germany, and spoke to the FES DC about the significance of Milwaukee in American politics, the impact of COVID-19 in the United States especially in communities of African descent, and the political importance of the present-day Black human rights movement. Her comments reflect her personal views.

 

How would you describe Milwaukee as a city and in relation to Wisconsin? What makes it unique? What drives its politics? 

Milwaukee, the most populous city in Wisconsin, is the economic engine of the state, thanks to global giants including Harley Davidson, Johnson Controls, Milwaukee Tool, and several beer breweries headquartered here. Situated on the western shore of Lake Michigan, one of the largest bodies of freshwater on Earth, Milwaukee features an international port with a Foreign Trade Zone classification that serves ocean-going vessels and Mississippi River barges and also supplies Wisconsin and other Midwestern states with salt, steel, grains, and more. Theoretically, one could travel from Bremen to Milwaukee without ever stepping on dry land.

 

"Milwaukee features an international port with a Foreign Trade Zone classification that serves ocean-going vessels and Mississippi River barges and also supplies Wisconsin and other Midwestern states with salt, steel, grains, and more. Theoretically, one could travel from Bremen to Milwaukee without ever stepping on dry land."

 

One distinction making Milwaukee unique is that the Socialist Movement in the United States began here in the 1850s. It culminated in a long era of Milwaukee elected officials from the Socialist Party who were named “Sewer Socialists” for their commitment to cleaning up the city both physically and politically, evident in their massive public works projects that improved sanitation and their initiatives to curb corruption in public office. The first Socialist ever elected to United States Congress represented Milwaukee in the House of Representatives. We also elected several socialist mayors between 1910 and 1960, including the great Frank Zeidler, who executed a civil rights platform of racially integrating city jobs and public housing in the 1950s. Zeidler went on to serve as national chair of the Socialist Party and in 1976 became the Party’s candidate for president of the United States.

 

"The first Socialist ever elected to United States Congress represented Milwaukee in the House of Representatives. We also elected several socialist mayors between 1910 and 1960, including the great Frank Zeidler, who executed a civil rights platform of racially integrating city jobs and public housing in the 1950s."

 

Two other unique highlights of Milwaukee are the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences, which is the only one of its kind in the country, and the world’s largest music festival known as Summerfest. With 900,000 attendees and 1,000 performances over 11 days, Summerfest contributed to Milwaukee being named the City of Festivals. Both these local gems are located on the picturesque shore of Lake Michigan.

Driving its politics in contemporary times are concerns about the accessibility and maintenance of family-supporting employment and the equal availability of high-quality public education. Once a hub of production, Milwaukee used to offer an abundance of career-spanning industrial jobs that paved financially secure lives well into retirement with home ownership and comfortable pensions along the way. Many of those career opportunities have since abandoned the city and been replaced with short term, low wage, and high stress service sector jobs that create economically unstable families subjected to insecure living conditions. Our once thriving middle class has dwindled while the working poor class and the cost of living have risen. This decline has resulted in neighborhood blight that has reduced important revenue for area public schools collected from local property taxes.

 

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted Milwaukee? How has it impacted specific communities? What are Milwaukee residents expecting from their elected representatives and how have they and the state addressed the needs of citizens? 

The United States President calling [COVID-19] a hoax and the wide dissemination of misinformation about it just being a flu has caused COVID-19 to have a severe impact on Milwaukee, particularly in communities of African descent that already deal with disproportionate rates of preexisting health ailments stemming from generations of impoverishment. Illnesses more common in African Americans such as diabetes, asthma, and hypertension supply the virus with more strength to wreak havoc on the body. The first 13 fatalities in Milwaukee County were all African American, and of the 67 COVID-19 deaths reported by the Milwaukee Country Medical Examiner between March 19th and April 8th, a whopping 46 were African American. This population is less likely to have a trusted primary physician (Hausarzt) and are much more heavily reliant on emergency room care once their health conditions become urgent.

African Americans, especially those of us who are the descendants of the Africans enslaved here and dispossessed from the protection of American society, have a long and tragic history of justified mistrust of the mainstream health care system. (A great book that explores the history of medical exclusion and horrid experimentation on African Americans in shocking graphic detail is Harriet Washington’s “Medical Apartheid”.) So the issue of self-diagnosis due to phobias of and/or lack of access to health care providers complicates the coronavirus’ adverse impact in the African American community even further. 

 

"African Americans, especially those of us who are the descendants of the Africans enslaved here and dispossessed from the protection of American society, have a long and tragic history of justified mistrust of the mainstream health care system." 

 

Acting in conjunction with the health care disparities is the dearth of good jobs mentioned before that would allow them to work from safe spaces like their homes. African Americans tend to work in essential service industry jobs and reside in multigenerational households where highly susceptible elders live in close contact with asymptomatic millennials going out to work essential jobs that interact with wide swaths of the public. It’s nearly impossible to physically distance yourself from 7 other people living in a crammed apartment with no where else to go.

As Wisconsin is consistently ranked one of the most racially segregated states in the country, one finds strikingly low rates of COVID-19 cases among neighborhoods, villages, and regions of Wisconsin that are homogenously White.

The economic impact of the COVID-19 shut-down on African American communities is just as bleak. Many small businesses and entrepreneurs were shut out of the Paycheck Protection Program loans/grants that overwhelmingly were granted to big businesses and millionaires with plenty of monetary reserves to rely upon in these times that are so direly trying for others who are struggling to stay afloat in an economy already quite challenging for aspiring and fledgling entrepreneurs.

 

"Milwaukee residents expect, and all people deserve, trustworthy and verifiable data and messaging from elected officials and community leaders about the ramifications of COVID-19."

 

In my view, Milwaukee residents expect, and all people deserve, trustworthy and verifiable data and messaging from elected officials and community leaders about the ramifications of COVID-19. Access to reliable and rapid response testing as well as affordable medical treatment if one does contract this virus is also vital. Essential workers who must interact with the public expect and deserve personal protective gear to be provided in ample supply and that safety precautions be required of the consumers they serve. They are willing to be essential but don’t want to be disposable. Fortunately, the Governor of Wisconsin has planned a cautious and careful reopening of the state on a phase by phase basis.

  

What happened in the Wisconsin primary election this year? It was initially postponed due to the pandemic, and then reinstated by the state Supreme Court despite the health risks of large gatherings - which polling places tend to be. How do you interpret this event in the context of current state politics, and in the lead-up to the General Election in November?  

On April 4th, the Federal Emergency Management Agency declared Wisconsin a major disaster zone as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. On April 6th, the day before our primary election, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers (a Democrat) issued an emergency order to postpone in-person voting. Later that day, the Republican majority Supreme Court of Wisconsin enjoined the governor’s executive order to reschedule the election and ordered in-person voting to proceed despite the risk posed to voters and poll workers. Then just hours before Election Day, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked a district court order extending the deadline to return absentee ballots even though numerous Wisconsinites had not even received their ballots in the mail yet. Both decisions denied state and local leaders enough time to implement necessary measures for conducting the election safely amidst a public health emergency. It also created mass confusion for voters.

 

"...hazardous conditions forced voters to make a highly unethical choice—risk exposure to a deadly virus or forgo carrying out their right to vote."

 

These hazardous conditions forced voters to make a highly unethical choice—risk exposure to a deadly virus or forgo carrying out their right to vote. Milwaukee’s usual 182 polling places were cut 97% to a mere 5 sites due to an abrupt and severe shortage of poll workers who rightly feared for their health and the well-being of their families. They decided not to dare the danger of exposure. Lines stretched several city blocks with voters waiting hours in the rain to exercise their constitutional right to vote. Footage was broadcast of the Wisconsin Assembly Speaker, Republican Robin Vos, visiting a rural polling site dressed in a hospital gown, surgical mask, gloves—layered in more personal protective equipment than many healthcare workers have access to and surely far more than the average American voter could grasp in time—giving unfounded assurances to people in line that everyone there was safe. It all resulted in what Wisconsin’s largest newspaper called “the most undemocratic” election in our state’s history. 

Wisconsin was the only state to carry out its scheduled election during a time when all others opted to postpone or shift to all-mail balloting. Tens of thousands of Wisconsinites’ absentee ballots were not received in time, causing an abhorrent denial of their right to vote. It was an incredibly reckless display of exactly what not to do in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic. In fact, dozens of cases of COVID-19 in Milwaukee have been traced to in-person voting that occurred on that day.


"...It all resulted in what Wisconsin’s largest newspaper called “the most undemocratic” election in our state’s history." 

 

This fiasco undermining Wisconsinites’ health and one of the chief tenets of democracy was maneuvered by the very people whose duty it is to protect it the most. I don’t consider such an election to be a free and fair. I am one American who sees the need for international observers to monitor our elections here in the way that U.S. officials routinely do around the world. Fortunately, in June the bipartisan Wisconsin Election Commission voted to spend $4 million of Wisconsin’s federal COVID-19 relief package on mailing nearly every eligible voter in the state an absentee ballot application ahead of the November general election.

 

What are the greatest concerns of your Milwaukee neighbors in this election year? 

Foremost, I would say access to and verifiable counting of the ballot. It is also important to note that relying solely on the vote-by-mail method disenfranchises Americans with different needs. People living with physical disabilities requiring special accommodations may find accessibility equipment only at a physical polling site. People living in poverty have high homeless and transience rates, which makes ballot receipt by mail quite challenging without a stable address. Offering low risk in-person opportunities such as same-day registration and early in-person voting periods is critical to guarantee that eligible votes can vote safely and successfully.

Next, I would say the provision of a baseline level of adequate health care for all people regardless of their employment status or income level, including culturally sensitive community medical clinics that build trust from the demographics they serve. This pandemic has spotlighted exactly why this is imperative of the United States.

 

Do elected leaders in Congress look to experiences in other countries and how they responded to the crisis?

U.S. legislators have certainly surveyed the practices of other countries for solutions to domestic crises in the past. To curb the spike in infant mortality cases many low-wealth regions were facing, lawmakers adopted Finland’s baby box program to incentivize prenatal medical monitoring by distributing sleep-safe bassinettes filled with baby and breastfeeding supplies during doctor’s visits. These appointments were used to educate expectant families on the high risks of sudden infant death syndrome and bed sharing with newborn babies. To counteract the severe damage the prison industrial complex does to underserved communities, members of the Congressional Black Caucus introduced legislation inspired by Ukraine to give voting-eligible Americans in jails and prisons access to absentee ballots or internal polling sites. The goal was to help areas ravaged by the United States’ appallingly high incarceration rate become enfranchised into democracy by being able to vote. 

 

"U.S. legislators have certainly surveyed the practices of other countries for solutions to domestic crises in the past. [...] Germany’s Kurzarbeit model in which employers reduce working hours that are consequently subsidized by the government instead of terminating employment, would be beneficial to workers in the United States especially because our health insurance is tethered to our employment."

 

However, one issue that is particularly relevant right now that U.S. Congress ought to examine best practices in other countries for guidance on is the mitigation of unemployment shock in sharp economic downturns and times of immense uncertainty like this public health crisis currently confronting us. Germany’s Kurzarbeit model in which employers reduce working hours that are consequently subsidized by the government instead of terminating employment, would be beneficial to workers in the United States especially because our health insurance is tethered to our employment. If one’s primary job is lost so is one’s health insurance, adding even more instability to a situation that is enormously stressful already. We now have approximately 53 million people who have filed for unemployment and 30 million who have lost their healthcare—several of whom are also on the precipice of being evicted from their homes since the moratorium on removal for nonpayment and the federal pandemic unemployment compensation ended in July. Germany’s approach has largely insulated its workforce from the cliffhanging stress many American workers are now suffering with great uncertainty about the future.

  

What does social democracy mean to you?

I’m so glad you asked that because in U.S. political discourse, the term social democracy is frequently confused with democratic socialism. For the overwhelming majority of Democrats and certainly Republicans in U.S. Congress, anything labeled as ‘socialism’ is still a red alert expletive and a radioactive non-starter. I’ve seen staffers who have done great work to advance the progressive platform suddenly ostracized and marginalized for declaring themselves ‘democratic socialists’ amidst the rise of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Democratic socialism is a socialist society attained by democratic processes with social governmental ownership of the means of production as one of its components. Social democracy, on the other hand, is a form capitalism that is heavily regulated with social welfare policies and safeguards—many of such policies and safeguards are exactly what the United States needs to finally correct the ills that have long plagued its society, including the persistent educational and economic injustices that have hollowed out our middle class and allowed obscenely massive wealth to be concentrated among such a tiny few while the working poor burgeons. In my view social democracy manifests the true definition of national security—an educated workforce able to raise healthy families to maintain a robust economy buttressed by quality infrastructure that minimizes harm to the environment.

 

"In my view social democracy manifests the true definition of national security—an educated workforce able to raise healthy families to maintain a robust economy buttressed by quality infrastructure that minimizes harm to the environment."

 

What is your perspective on the current protests taking place in America? The perennial problem of racism and police brutality against Black Americans is the backdrop for the current protests. Do you think this moment is different from the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2012? Is it different from 2015 and 2017?

Anti-Black racism and police brutality are indeed perennial and deeply rooted in the very founding and prosperity of this country. It permeates through every facet of American society with such ubiquity that the inequitable advantages and disadvantages it yields have been taken for granted like the air we breathe and normalized. This normalization has deemed those who in the past have courageously protested for human rights and against racial injustice and police brutality in the United States as radical and militant. Let us remember the veteran activists and freedom fighters throughout the 20th century who fled persecution in the United States to seek refuge abroad. In talking with several ‘68ers’ when I lived in Germany, I learned that in the 1960s and 70s there was even a circuit similar to the underground railroad that kept Black American human rights activists safe from imminent danger in the United States.

 

"Examining the outcomes of members of groups like the Black Panther Party for Self Defense or MOVE and leaders like Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.; it is striking how many were locked away as political prisoners for life or assassinated though the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s counterintelligence program simply for urging the same civil rights for their people that other Americans enjoyed in abundance."

 

Protesting and organizing against racial terror used to be life-dooming work. Examining the outcomes of members of groups like the Black Panther Party for Self Defense or MOVE and leaders like Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.; it is striking how many were locked away as political prisoners for life or assassinated though the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s counterintelligence program simply for urging the same civil rights for their people that other Americans enjoyed in abundance. These are the names we know. The uncountable number of anonymous lynching victims who dared to “step out of their place” undoubtably looms much higher. What has changed now is the saturation of smart phones equipped with one-touch video recording and capable of sharing these outrageous incidents in an instant over social media. That common tool coupled with conditions of this COVID-19 pandemic has ripened the field for a critical mass of demonstrations around the country bringing together people from all ethnicities and walks of life. The anger over the COVID closedown and the anguish over the George Floyd murder coalesced and reached a fever pitch that catalyzed the pervasive and persistent demonstrations that began in the U.S. and spread to major cities around the world.

 

"Political education seems to be surging during this crisis. I am inspired by a new level of awareness, enthusiasm, and engagement by everyday citizens who are demanding durable systemic reform from their legislators."

 

Will this moment bring lasting and substantive change in the United States?

Whether this moment brings lasting and substantive change remains to be seen. For that to occur, the energy from the protests must be channeled into new policies that are corrective, concrete and equitable. Political education seems to be surging during this crisis. I am inspired by a new level of awareness, enthusiasm, and engagement by everyday citizens who are demanding durable systemic reform from their legislators. “Black Lives Matter” painted on high-traffic streets is colorful art therapy to perform and behold, but it will equate to hollow symbolism if the pressure from the electorate is not maintained on elected officials as well as corporate CEOs. In this era of the “Citizens United” Supreme Court decision that ruled money as free speech, artificial entities like corporations as de jure people, and natural persons as de facto commodities; I’m afraid I’m quite cynical about substantive change coming without more radical action from the low wealth masses and the pressure grassroots uprisings places on policymakers. Corporations that benefit from the status quo are keenly aware of the enormous purchasing power of Black Americans, which is why practically everywhere in e-commerce these days one finds bold banners expressing words of empathy for the value of Black lives. Contrarily, many of these corporations pay their employees meager wages for full-time work, unfairly forcing them to be reliant on economic assistance from the state as many of those same corporations avoid paying taxes into the state.

 

"Corporations that benefit from the status quo are keenly aware of the enormous purchasing power of Black Americans, which is why practically everywhere in e-commerce these days one finds bold banners expressing words of empathy for the value of Black lives. Contrarily, many of these corporations pay their employees meager wages for full-time work, unfairly forcing them to be reliant on economic assistance from the state as many of those same corporations avoid paying taxes into the state."

 

Without providing paid family sick leave and family supporting compensation, they are practicing the same old exploitation while promoting hollow rhetoric of the new and trendy Black Lives Matter slogan. It threatens social democracy on all fronts. The anger that swelled into this recent wave of direct action must be sustained until substantive change prevails.

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