The Virtual Democratic Convention Ignores Milwaukee At Its PerilRoundup
tags: Bill Clinton, Chicago, Democratic Party, urban history, Midwest, Richard M. Daley
Mike Amezcua is an assistant professor of history at Georgetown University and the author of a forthcoming book on the making of Mexican Chicago (available in 2021 from the University of Chicago Press).
This year, the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee has been disrupted by the covid-19 pandemic. The scaled-back convention remains “anchored” in Milwaukee but is relying on virtual and remote speeches given from other locations, with a very limited footprint in the Wisconsin Center itself. Even Joe Biden’s acceptance speech will be delivered remotely.
While this has dampened the prospect of tourism dollars, “Milwaukee is still going to be the setting for the biggest show on Earth,” said Steve Baas of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce. The Cream City also gives Democrats a combination of optics only the postindustrial Midwest can provide. By holding the convention in Milwaukee, a city that is facing severe economic and housing inequality, rampant gentrification and abusive and murderous patterns of policing of Black and Latinx peoples, the party hopes to align itself with two simultaneous narratives: first, that the party is in touch with the Midwest working-class base it seeks to regain, and second, that the party is in touch with multiracial America and the structural injustice that plagues it, a base it presumes to have firmly locked in.
These were the same narratives at play when the Democratic National Convention was last held in another Midwestern city: Chicago. During that 1996 event, Democratic leaders failed to reconcile how many of the social and economic policies they were promoting at the convention — notably welfare reform, crime legislation, border security and privatization — were harmful to Chicagoans. The Democrats of that convention displayed little compassion to its host city when they celebrated a platform that actually exacerbated the very racial and economic disparities that plagued urban areas like Chicago then and now. Unifying the party today will require bridging the division ushered in that year.
The 1996 convention was erected on the ashes of urban unrest that burned down portions of the city in 1968, the last time the Democratic National Convention had been held in Chicago. That earlier convention transmitted images of palpable volatility through the television screens of Americans who witnessed police beating antiwar protesters. Between 1968 and 1996, Chicago’s social conditions grew worse. Economic inequality and racial segregation expanded, largely as a result of federal and municipal disinvestment in housing and schools, unchecked banking and loan discrimination, and a restructured economy that failed to produce living wages. At the same time, deeply segregated Black and Brown communities were the focal point for decades of violent forms of policing.
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