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Not counting the folks at the Public Policy Forum – who, if I weren't an avowed atheist, I would say really and truly do the lord's work – no one ever reads municipal budgets to look for the good things.
Nope, if you're poring over a proposed budget, you're almost certainly doing it because you want to know how much of your tax dollars are being wasted on things you hate. This is doubly true if you host a right-wing talk radio program, since bad municipal budgets are great for ratings.
So when talk radio read the proposed 2016-17 Milwaukee Public Schools budget and saw the words "Black Lives Matter" on a budget line, it exploded.
The original inflammatory charge, that MPS would be giving almost half a million dollars to the loose national coalition going by the name Black Lives Matter, was, of course, false.
Rather, "Black Lives Matter" was the name given to a proposed local program that would fulfill part of the promise of the "My Brother's Keeper" initiative, a national project spearheaded by President Barack Obama and that MPS has been working on for two years already, largely with grant money rather than tax dollars.
The half-million dollars in question, as was clearly indicated in other parts of the actual MPS budget proposal, was for three additional teachers, for planning time to develop some culturally responsive curriculum and to spread restorative practices into more MPS schools. No funds will go to any national or local group affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement.
That didn't stop the original talk radio story from rocketing around the right-wing echo chamber, from Fox News to The Daily Caller to Glenn Beck's The Blaze. All were incensed that public tax dollars would go to, or be used to promote the goals of, Black Lives Matter.
It should surprise no one – it certainly did not surprise me – that talk radio is ready to believe the worst about public schools and that their allies in conservative media around the country are right there to amplify the message, even when the message is a big fat lie. Indeed, there is a strong new effort on the part of public school teachers and their allies to curb the spread of lies through talk radio underway right now, and that might even be making talk radio more sensitive to what's in school budgets than normal.
I guess it also should surprise no one that the right-wingers are also terrified of what might happen should Black Lives Matter and its goals be met, but it still does. It should not surprise you because what the movement does want – inasmuch as a loose coalition of groups can have institutional goals – is all pretty reasonable.
Black Lives Matter is not some black supremacist organization determined to ignite white genocide or spread violence against anyone, including police or the authorities. The analogy I have heard and find myself using to explain the situation is that if someone says, "Save the rainforest," they're not advocating we clear-cut all the rest of the trees. Rather, the rainforest is the resource under attack most and thus most in need of our help. An MPS spokesman, when asked about why the budget used that terminology, said "the name speaks to some of the issues raised by the movement, specifically racial disparities in education" – disparities you have to work hard to ignore when it comes to education in Milwaukee and Wisconsin.
When you look at Milwaukee, our public schools and the majority-minority students in our schools are clearly under attack. It is not necessarily a literal physical attack, as happened to black men like Michael Brown and Eric Garner to spur the Black Lives Matter movement nationally, although I could argue that repeated attempts to strip MPS of its property is a kind of physical attack.
Rather, there are sharp and persistent economic and ideological attacks being perpetrated against MPS and its students constantly – everything from dramatically cut state aid to the fact that competition between sectors in Milwaukee's education landscape has left the district with a disproportionate share of the city's special-needs students and English language learners. The city itself is hyper-segregated, and we are barely a generation removed from one of the nation's last prosecuted cases against real estate redlining. Wisconsin incarcerates black men at an alarming rate, and even as violent crime falls around the state and nation, murders in Milwaukee have spiked the last two years.
Aside from the daily barrage from talk radio, MPS and its students are the target of regular insults and attacks by politicians all over the state, from the governor's mansion on down. The current fracas over the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program is a good case in point: Where conservative legislators had hoped merely to splinter the district from the outside, they've gotten the double-win of also creating vast and potentially permanent schisms inside the district and among its allies.
But panic about any loss of white male superiority is the default setting for right-wing media; any suggestion that black and brown children in Milwaukee deserve equal protection, financial help from those around the state more fortunate and curriculum that is relevant to their lives is automatically suspect to conservatives.
That includes nominal Democrat and Sheriff of Milwaukee County David Clarke, who took advantage of the Black Lives Matter budget line from MPS to slam the district yet again. He is a frequent critic of basically anyone not named David Clarke who holds office in Milwaukee, from Mayor Tom Barrett and County Executive Chris Abele to the MPS school board. He's a rising star in conservative circles, with regular appearances on Fox News and gatherings like the recent National Rifle Association leadership forum.
Clarke is one of the many who have blamed the Black Lives Matter movement, which was born of police violence but not anti-police, for a rise in deaths of police officers around the country. The problem is, as I have written before, there is no increase in violence against police officers. It just doesn't exist. And to the extent that any organized attacks on law enforcement are happening, those attacks are led by anti-government right-wingers rather than Black Lives Matter-associated groups.
About MPS using the name to represent greater cultural responsiveness and more restorative justice in the district, Clarke told RightWisconsin that it is an "insult," and that any police officers who work with MPS ought to bail because of it. Worse, he said, "This is more about brainwashing than it is about learning and preparing people to be critical thinkers." Yes, Sheriff, trying to develop curriculum to help black and other minority students stay and succeed in school is "brainwashing."
You know what does sound like brainwashing? "They ought to offer a program on how to respect authority, how to respect the police, how to comply with their lawful commands," which was Clarke's advice for what MPS ought to do instead. If there's anything that seems like the opposite of teaching students to be critical thinkers, it's something like this, which teaches students never to criticize authority at all but rather to obey authority in all respects.
That's a really bitter pill for MPS and its students to swallow considering that the current "authority" – the governor and his legislative allies, not to mention their supporters in Milwaukee's overwhelmingly conservative media market – want nothing less than the dissolution of the Milwaukee Public Schools entirely. The "authority" has segregated this city and devastated funding to its most vulnerable. The "authority" has for decades – for centuries, really – taught black and brown children through words and actions that their lives aren't worth an equal share.
If that's the "authority" Clarke wants me and my students to obey, no thank you. I cast my lot instead with those who believe black lives matter more than unquestioned obedience to that status quo.