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Reggie Jackson: using our history to build our future

Reggie Jackson is the head griot at America’s Black Holocaust Museum. He is a historian, an educator and a prominent voice for social justice in our community, especially in matters of race and the community’s relationship with law enforcement and the justice system. Reggie has a great knowledge of what Milwaukee was like in the past, and how that has created the city we live in today.

Daryl: In your own words, what is a community activist?

Reggie: To me, a community activist is a person who takes up some particular issue in their community, regardless of what that issue may be, and then they work in a collaborative effort with other people to kind of resolve some of those problems.

D: What problems have you solved so far?

R: Well, I haven’t solved anything specifically, but I’ve been working with people that are working to help people in the city of Milwaukee overcome some of the racial disparities that they face by raising awareness of how we got to those places, looking at poverty in Milwaukee, looking at unemployment data, really looking at how we got to those places, how Milwaukee wasn’t always this way.

D: How do you contribute to helping the ongoing problems that we’re having here in Milwaukee?

R: Well, a big part of what I’ve been doing for the past year or so is doing presentations about the history of segregation in Milwaukee. I think that people have these misconceptions about segregation, how Milwaukee became segregated, so I started to do research on the development of segregation in Milwaukee and looked at how it continues to be the most segregated city in the country. I’ve been sharing that information in public presentations at different venues. I’ve spoken at a church. I’ve spoken at several libraries. I’ll be doing it in a couple weeks at Wauwatosa West High School.

So I’m really sharing this information to give people a better idea of how segregation developed. It’s not a natural thing. It’s not normal. It’s something that happened because people wanted it to happen. I share this information so that they have a better understanding of the parties that contributed to it, the entities that helped make it happen, because then you have a better idea of how to make sure that moving forward you can work to kind of break down some of those barriers. If you know exactly where they are, you have a better chance of working to make sure that those things don’t continue at the same level they do currently.

D: What do you think we can do to stop the higher rate of people of color being arrested?

R: It’s a big problem. Really, incarceration of Americans did not follow the path of crime. For instance, people tend to think that more people got arrested because more people were committing criminal acts. They thought that the crime rate was going up therefore the incarceration rate went up, but in fact, when the war on drugs started, the crime rate was actually going down… In 1970, there were about 300,000 people incarcerated in the country, and today we have 2.2 million people incarcerated, so a big part of why we have so many people incarcerated is because we began to focus more on crime. We began to write laws called mandatory minimum laws, in the 1980s in particular, so we began this boom of building prisons. We built more prisons in the 1990s than had ever been built in the whole history of the world, and so what we did, is we became an incarcerated nation.

Those prisons, people don’t think of the fact that those prisons provide thousands and thousands of jobs, and you’re not going to get any elected official to admit that they’re soft on crime or that they’re going to get rid of prisons because getting rid of prisons gets rid of jobs. What we have is a system that actually continues to replicate itself. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. We’ve built so many prisons. We have so many people incarcerated, that we have about 600,000 people a year who actually get out of prison. Here in the state of Wisconsin we have about 9,000 people a year that get out of prison. So these people get out, and they try to transition into their old communities, and it’s very difficult because of all the restrictions they have on them, particularly African Americans and Latinos, who were the primary growth in prison populations in the 1980s and the 1990s.

We had a huge increase in police presence in those communities even after the drug problems of the 1980s subsided. We continued to see a large police presence, we continued to hire more police officers, more district attorneys, and as long as you have police officers in the community, people are going to expect them to arrest somebody… People are beginning to see that it’s really done a lot of damage to a lot of communities, and so people are beginning to say, okay, what can we do to fix the problem? Some of the laws are beginning to change. There are some efforts that are going on and underway, but there’s still a lot that needs to be done because you have millions and millions of people who are either in prison or have been in prison that are on supervised release. Their lives will never be the same again, and the majority of those people are people of color.

D: What do you think about unemployment?

R: Unemployment is a huge problem in Milwaukee, and I don’t think people really understand the extent of it… There were huge disparities, especially for black men in Milwaukee. Upwards of 50 percent of black men in Milwaukee are out of work.

When you look at what unemployment does, it leads to people committing acts of crime to support themselves… So the unemployment problem in Milwaukee leads to lots of other problems. I remember when my family moved to Milwaukee in the 1970s, most of the adults I knew had a job, and once I got to high school I remember that a lot of those jobs weren’t available anymore and my friends’ parents were losing their jobs at some of the factories. When I look at Milwaukee now, I see a completely different place than it was when I was even a young person, and I really want us to get back to that place because it was a safe city to live in, it was a friendly city to live in, people treated each other well, and people were happy because they had good jobs. We need to recognize that we need to improve the conditions for people who are suffering the most in our community, invest money in these communities that are hurting and create jobs. That’s what people are demanding.

D: How do you feel about social justice issues in Milwaukee 50 years ago, and how do you feel about them now?

R: Well, you know, when we look back 50 years, we have the Open Housing Movement and Marches that took place in 1967 through 1968 in Milwaukee. That was a big part of what was going on in the city, 200 consecutive days of marching, people who had been fighting to open up housing in different parts of the city that weren’t available, for instance, the South Side of Milwaukee. There were no blacks living on the South Side. They were very actively engaged with community leaders and elected officials. Church leaders were very involved in getting grassroots movement together and voicing their opinion about these things, talking to city leaders, boycotting their homes, marching across the 16th Street viaduct for those 200 days, basically letting people know: We’re segregated. We shouldn’t be segregated. People should be free to live where they want to live, and that’s what their cause is about, fighting that. And here we are 50 years later. We’re still dealing with segregation as an issue in Milwaukee. People are kind of addressing it in a different way than they did 50 years ago, but people are still fighting to end segregation in Milwaukee, and I think there are a lot more issues that activists in the community are working on now that they weren’t necessarily working on at that time. I think it’s a much bigger group of people in terms of the diversity of the activists who are working.

We’re hoping as we move forward through this process that we see the same level of response from young people as we did 50 years ago. Young people were heavily involved in that movement, and we need young people involved in this movement as well.