Shortly after 5:30 p.m. Sunday, a flashy two-car motorcade pulled up in front of the Destiny Youth Plaza on the northwest side of Milwaukee. A crowd gathered around the first car to greet the Reverend Jesse Jackson, visiting Milwaukee to speak on behalf of Wisconsin workers and to rally voters to unseat Governor Scott Walker in the recall election here Tuesday. If anyone was bothered by the fact that Jackson arrived to speak on behalf of the working class in a Mercedes Benz S550 (starting price of some $100,000) and that his escort vehicle was a Cadillac Escalade ESV (starting at about $75,000), nobody showed it.
Jackson was ushered in the front door and quickly escorted to a back hallway, where he mingled with VIPs as a cameraman from WISN television, the local ABC affiliate, captured the warm greetings he had for union leaders and prominent Democrats.
Jackson is in Wisconsin in support of Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett’s effort to unseat Governor Scott Walker in the recall election June 5. If there is a central message to Barrett’s campaign, it is that he wants to begin the process of healing a state divided by Walker’s reforms. Barrett’s not subtle about this. And in a speech in DePere Sunday morning, he used one of his favorite lines to drive home his promise. “I will end that civil war.”
Jackson didn’t get the message. And neither did the many speakers at the pro-Barrett rally Sunday evening. For them, the civil war is just beginning.
Two days before the election, a crowd of 250 Democratic and union activists gathered to hear from Reverend Jackson and a host of left-wing leaders. The crowd applauded mightily when one union leader compared Scott Walker’s reforms to the attacks on 9/11. They rose to their feet when a local teachers union head screamed that Walker is a serial liar. And they cheered wildly when Jackson compared Walker to segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace.
"So now you have a governor,” Jackson thundered. “Wallace did it in Alabama and now Walker in Wisconsin – trying to take back access to vote.”
"Scott Walker is a liar!” screamed Michael Milton, head of the American Federation of Teachers union 212. “When Scott Walker says he's created jobs, we know instead Wisconsin's been losing jobs!"
Larry Hanley, head of the Amalgamated Transit Union, speaking moments earlier, suggested that Walker’s reforms were like the attacks on America that took place on 9/11. "I want to just take a minute here and remind everybody about an event that happened here in the United States eleven years ago. We were attacked. Consider this in the context of what happened here in Wisconsin – and around the United States over the last two years: the attack on government workers.”
Public employees, Hanley complained, are no longer entitled to health care, pensions or bargaining. Their treatment, he said, has been “brutal.”
Hanley continued: “On September 11, when we were attacked, I didn't see any bankers running up the stairs to save lives. ... Rev. Jackson, I looked really hard to find somebody from Wall Street only a few blocks away from the trade center who would run over and save a life. I couldn't find any. There were none. It was the public workers…And now we have watched people including some politicians in this state turn public employees into a worse enemy than Osama bin Laden.”
Hanley’s remarks came immediately after a short speech by Felesia Martin, a national co-chair of Obama for America, the president’s reelection campaign. “In this community, we have to hold our elected officials accountable,” Martin said. “And on June 5, we’re going to hold the biggest one accountable. No longer will we sit on the sidelines while they take away our civil rights, our workers rights and our voting rights. My people have gone too far and lost too much, to go back now.”
After the speech, TWS asked Martin about Hanley’s remarks comparing Walker’s budget reforms to the 9/11 attacks. “This is the great thing about our country,” she said. “We have freedom of speech. We’re able to say what we want to say, whether we agree with it or not. We have the right to say that.”
In many ways, Jackson was the most moderate of the speakers who addressed the crowd, his comparison of Walker to George Wallace notwithstanding. "There are these defining moments," Jackson said, "big moments in the history of our democracy." He drew a line from Emmett Till's lynching to Rosa Parks's civil disobedience to Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech and, finally, Barack Obama's acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention on August 28, 2008, "another big day." The June 5, 2012 recall would be yet another big day, he said.
Jackson engaged in a lengthy call-and-response with the crowd, urging them to respect themselves, to respect the sacrifices of those who came before them, and to vote on Tuesday. But some of Jackson’s comments were a bit awkward. In his critique of Wisconsin under Walker, Jackson spent a considerable chunk of his speech running down Milwaukee. "Milwaukee is the number one most segregated big city in America…and number four in poverty," he said, urging the activists to vote for the man who has served as Milwaukee’s mayor for the past eight years.
Virtually every one of the nearly dozen speakers who addressed the gathering emphasized the need to vote on Tuesday. “You gotta drag Pookie, Big Daddy, Sonny and Peaches to the polls,” exclaimed Representative Gwen Moore of Milwaukee.
Bob Peterson, head of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, was specific about the efforts his union is making to win on Tuesday. “One of the things we’ve done this year is put full effort into changing the political process,” declared Peterson, who said he wants student taught about “the labor movement” as part of their “core curriculum.”
He continued, boasting about the in-school activities of his union members. “We got the district to pass out flyers to every K-8 student, to go home – the back of that flyer says ‘Go Vote!’ Teachers have organized buses at schools to bring parents out, high school students out. And finally, for the next 48 hours, that’s what we’re going to be doing: Get out and vote.”
Mahlon Mitchell, former head of the firefighter union, who is running for lieutenant governor, awkwardly lurked in the back of the room observing the rally. Mitchell, who took pictures with attendees before the event began, did not address the gathering or appear on stage.
As Mitchell left the hall, shortly before Jesse Jackson began his remarks, TWS asked Mitchell why he didn’t speak. He was curt.
“I don’t want to.”