MILWAUKEE—There’s something interesting going on in the city known for cheap beer.
Activists from #BlackLivesMatter and Latino advocates for immigration reform are coming together on the streets in a groundswell of racial unity around the rallying cry for a $15 minimum wage.
“The Fight for $15” is bringing together a diverse group of activists that were previously protesting separate issues on different street corners in one of the most segregated cities in the United States. Now, as Tuesday night’s sizable protest in front of the GOP’s debate in downtown Milwaukee showed, black, brown and white activists are starting to sing in unison. And their voices sound a lot stronger together.
“El pueblo, unido, jamás será vencido!” the crowd roared in Spanish, before alternating to a similarly spirited chant in English: “I. Believe. That we. Will win!”
The big-tent approach to the Fight for $15 is a stroke of organizational genius. By identifying $15 as a common denominator among different social justice movements, community organizers are unifying minority groups without diminishing the particular cause of any one organization.
Tuesday night’s protest in front of the GOP debate was a testament to the strategy’s early success. The street was filled with young black and Latino university students, white union workers, fast-food employees, members of the Nation of Islam, retirees who lost their pensions, aging hippies who still show solidarity with all social justice movements, and a guy in a Mexican wrestling mask. The crowd couldn’t have been more diverse if were hand-selected for a Benetton ad.
Some of the energy and frustration from the street protest then poured into Ugly’s bar, where Fusion held a GOP debate watch party after the march. People listened intently to the TVs overhead as the debate opened with a question about minimum wage and the rally outside.
“The Fight for 15 is about intersectionality, because it’s black and brown people who are most affected by low wages. We’re all in the same sinking boat, so we have to work together,” protest organizer Angela Lang told me in a corner booth at Ugly’s bar.
Lang says different activists groups in Milwaukee used to “operate in silos with the same goals,” which is counterproductive to have everyone pulling in different directions. “With limited resources, we have to work together,” she stressed; “because there’s definitely more of us than them.”
The Nation of Islam agrees. Speaking at Tuesday night’s rally, Minister William Muhammad called on the black community to stand with “our brown brothers and sisters” who are fighting to “keep their families together.”
He compared “the pain” felt by Latinos struggling to fight deportation to “the pain” felt by black families victimized by police violence, and “the pain” of the working poor who have to hold down three jobs to provide for their families.
“Dr. King said if we’re in pain, we must redistribute the pain,” Muhammad said, calling for people to exercise their power with their vote and their wallets. “You and I are in pain. The black are in pain, the brown are in pain, the workers are in pain, so let’s redistribute the pain and not spend one dime to help the rich make their bottom line. We are with you in your fight for 15, and if they don’t want to give you money than you don’t give them money.”
Perhaps no one was feeling the pain on Tuesday night as much Black Lives Matter activist Nate Hamilton. Hours before Nate took the stage to address protesters, he found out that federal prosecutors decided not to file federal criminal civil rights charges against the former Milwaukee police officer who shot and killed his brother, Dontre Hamilton. Dontre, who reportedly suffered from schizophrenia, made national headlines when he was gunned down by a white cop in April 30, 2014.
“The whole damn system is guilty as hell. We need to stand on their necks,” Nate thundered into the microphone to a cheering crowd. “We need to yell so loud they can hear us inside the building and be so damned scared they come running out to ask what we need…So rise up! Rise up! And the system will come falling the fuck down.”
In a quieter moment, Hamilton told me that he’s heartened by the growing protest movement in Milwaukee under the Fight for $15.
“What’s happening here is unique; the communities in the inner city are very in tune with what’s going and we’re unifying and connecting the economic and social dots,” he said. “It’s not just about the black community. Because when the black community hurts, the white community hurts too. I’m hopeful we can bring change if we all stand together.”
Milwaukee’s fight for a living wage
Part of the reason the Fight for 15 is resonating so loudly in Milwaukee is because the city has already won an important victory in pushing for a living wage that’s higher than the U.S. minimum wage, which has been stuck at $7.25 since 2009.
In 2013, David Bowen, Milwaukee’s youngest black elected official ever, authored a “Living Wage” ordinance that required all government contract employees in Milwaukee County to get paid an hourly wage of $11.32. Though the measure didn’t benefit everyone making a poverty wage in Milwaukee, it was an important victory for the movement and put things in motion to help the Fight for $15 gain the traction it has today.
Bowen, who participated in Fusion’s debate-watch party in Ugly’s bar following the protest march, says people working in poverty “are busting their butts, day in and day out, hour after hour, and still can’t get anywhere.” That’s not the American Dream, he says; it’s a treadmill.
“You continue to run faster and faster but you still won’t go anywhere,” Bowen told me. The job of government, he says, is to help poor people get off the treadmill with a living wage.
Bernie Sanders is the strongest proponent of a $15 minimum wage nationwide, and Bowen says it’s no coincidence the Vermont Senator’s presidential campaign is causing so much excitement in Milwaukee. “I think he could win here,” Bowen said, noting that Sanders has drawn the biggest crowd of any candidate passing through his state.
But for Milwaukee, the Fight for $15 is not just about Sander’s candidacy, but a larger grassroots movement that’s bringing the city together.
“Blacks and Latinos are in the same struggle against injustice and racism,” says Mexican singer Skribe, of the band Kinto Sol. “If we’re united, we’ll be stronger.”
And if it works in Milwaukee, it can work anywhere, organizers say.
“Milwaukee is a petri dish that the whole country is watching to see what happens,” Black Lives Matter activist Dakota Hall told me. “It’s a model that should be replicated in other cities.”