I don't listen to much radio, commercial or otherwise, so I haven't actually heard the anti-streetcar ad featuring Nate Hamilton, brother of Dontre Hamilton, the man shot 14 times by a police officer in Red Arrow Park last year.
But the transcript of the ad alone is plenty upsetting. "Funny how Tom Barrett's precious trolley gets the fast track," Hamilton says in the ad, "and so many of our aldermen and the beautiful people downtown are ramming this down our throats, yet justice for our people is at a standstill."
He goes on, "Let's make this a teaching moment for Tom Barrett, [Milwaukee District Attorney] John Chisholm and the business elite who don't give a damn about our rights and could care less about our people ... Defeat Mayor Barrett's precious trolley."
Nate Hamilton is a tremendously sympathetic figure. He's one of those, in Shakespeare's words, who have greatness thrust upon them: after his brother was gunned down, he's become a leader – or at least a figurehead – in the nascent civil rights revival here in Milwaukee. While many of us are firmly behind the idea that the city needs deep and ruthless examination of our racial disparity, Hamilton is living it every day. "Justice for our people" is not an abstract concept to him.
I don't envy the position Nate Hamilton is in, or the life he's had for the last year. But his words here demonstrate, at least in part, one of the biggest flaws in the arguments being posed against the Milwaukee streetcar project, which gets another vote in the Common Council later this week.
Streetcar opponents have many legitimate concerns about the project, sure, from where future operational funds will come from to how to pay for expansion to how limited phase one of the project is, including, as Hamilton suggests, that this initial phase doesn't reach into minority neighborhoods. (Phase one doesn't get to my Milwaukee neighborhood, either – nor phase two for that matter – but I'm still onboard with the idea.)
In the ad, though, Hamilton puts forward a textbook false dichotomy. A false dichotomy is just what it sounds like, with a speaker suggesting a false choice or saying that there are only two possible positions on an issue. "America, love it or leave it" is a classic example; plenty of legitimate stances actually exist between jingoism and exodus.
For Hamilton, the false choice seems to be that we either build the streetcar or we get "justice for our people." Though he phrases his call for opposition almost as revenge for his brother's killing, his implication is clearly that the streetcar will proceed only at the expense of justice, or the other way around – stopping the streetcar will bring about the justice he seeks.
But that's just not true. There is no limited, finite pot of fix-it energy in Milwaukee that, if used for the streetcar, is then unavailable for social justice issues. Phase one of the streetcar can happen – should happen – concurrently with the hard work of repairing the broken race relations in this city.
But Hamilton's not the only one muddying the debate with false dichotomies. The Facebook group "STOP the Milwaukee Streetcar," with more than 2,500 "likes" and the support of organizations circulating the petitions against the streetcar, last weekend posted a kind of quiz. "What would YOU do for Milwaukee with $124 million, the cost of Mayor Tom Barrett's wasteful The Milwaukee Streetcar starter loop to nowhere?" they ask. The possible answers included hiring police/firefighters/teachers, patching potholes, cutting taxes, and improving the Milwaukee County Transit System.
Those are all noble goals, sure. But someone should point out to these armchair legislators that, of course, none of those things are possible with the money set aside for the streetcar. That money comes from dedicated sources that can't be used for any other purpose than the streetcar.
And yet this is by far the biggest rhetorical stick being wielded by opponents of the streetcar: there are other things, better things, that affect me more than the streetcar that we should be spending money, energy and time on. The belief is that somehow stopping the streetcar opens up a floodgate of resources that didn't exist before to do these things. It won't.
At an anti-streetcar rally last weekend, Ald. Bob Donovan, who's running for mayor against Barrett, ran through a long list of things resulting from city budget cuts, from browned-out firehouses to rationed road salt. (Video is available on that STOP the Milwaukee Streetcar Facebook page.)
Now, Donovan's not actually proposing we raise taxes to pay for these things, which is what it would take, streetcar or no; however, he is leaving his audience with the very, very wrong impression that shutting down the streetcar plan will result in, among other things, an adequate supply of salt.
But that's wrong; that's the false dichotomy. Don't fall for it.