Before we talk about Seattle, a few words about Milwaukee. In February 1839—less than a decade after they’d dispossessed the Menominees and other local Native Americans—the settlers of southeastern Wisconsin had a problem to solve. Hundreds of farmers had staked out claims on land to which the federal government held title. Now Washington announced that much of this land would be sold at a public auction, opening the door to speculators and land sharks from Chicago and beyond. The settlers feared that they would lose everything they’d toiled for—that the free market would uproot their families just as they themselves had uprooted the area’s indigenous people a few years earlier.
Their response was to form “shark committees.” As the amateur historian Robert Wells gives the story, the federal auction, which was held in the village of Milwaukee, went like this:
Several muscular committeemen grabbed him and suggested politely that he had made a mistake. He insisted that he had a right to bid. They wasted no time in argument. Hauling him down to the river—someone had thoughtfully chopped a hole in the ice—they tossed him in. If he came back to bid some more, they threw him in again. After a while, even the most stubborn of the outside speculators was convinced and the settlers got their land at ten shillings an acre, with a limit of 320 acres per man.
This story leaves me with two equal and opposite reactions:
(1) Milwaukee today needs some of that old shark-committee spirit. The city has been astonishingly quiescent during the past three decades, as thousands of its high-wage manufacturing jobs have been relocated to Mexico, China, and other countries whose labor movements are tyrannized. Why hasn’t there been more resistance? And in the wake of Wisconsin’s famous welfare-reform program (nearly 90 percent of the state’s recipients have left the rolls), why aren’t there visible, angry social movements concerned with child care, health care, the sexist division of housework, and all the other issues faced by women in poverty? The audacity of the shark committees—their willingness to disrupt the social order, their refusal meekly to accept their fate—is in short supply these days in the city they founded.
(2) Thank God the shark committees’ style of mob violence isn’t tolerated in Milwaukee anymore. Which is to say: I’m grateful that the state suppressed the white racist mobs that tried to disrupt school desegregation here in the 1970s. I’m grateful that the state will try to arrest and prosecute anyone who goes around smashing windows, for political reasons or otherwise. Of course our justice system is profoundly unjust in some ways, but I also think it’s obvious that the state’s defense of civic order is a fundamental and necessary condition of a de...
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