A bogus controversy enables Madison to dodge real discussion about police and racism in schools. (Photo by Spencer Micka/Courtesy of Our Lives Magazine.)
The Wisconsin State Journal‘s Chris Rickert manufactured a fresh wave of outrage directed at opponents of police officers in Madison schools last week. Instead of pursuing the Journal’s usual tired perspective on the issue, Rickert chose to focus on new school board member Ali Muldrow in an article titled “Madison School Board member compares police to Nazis, youth jail to concentration camp.”
The wild claim in the headline was based on a single sentence from a lengthy public Facebook post Muldrow wrote on August 24 about the experiences of children and teenagers in jail. “I think that it’s important to talk about what it is like for the students who are arrested at school and end up in the Dane County Jail,” Muldrow wrote in part of the statement. “We would not talk about the role of the Nazis and act as if the experiences people had in concentration camps is a separate issue.”
To say that Muldrow was comparing the police to Nazis and a youth jail to concentration camps is either a mistaken reading of her actual comments or a malicious one. But that reading quickly became the basis for a rapid firestorm of coverage, both in local outlets and in the grubbier corners of right-wing online media. From a Channel 3000 editorial to follow-up coverage in other outlets to the requisite absurd political cartoon and even a letter to the editor calling for Muldrow’s resignation, few in local media seemed interested in actually taking a breath and asking whether the crudest possible interpretation of Muldrow’s remarks actually made sense.
It’s impossible to ignore Rickert’s own role in how Madisonians talk about race and policing—whatever he may actually believe or understand about the “urban affairs” beat to which he’s assigned, the former opinion columnist doesn’t seem to shy away from a trollish and at worst dog-whistling approach toward left causes and anti-racist activism in particular. Recall his comments on race from earlier this year: “Blacks in Madison aren’t being barred from lunch counters, to put it bluntly.”
I’m uncomfortable speaking for Muldrow, who is more than capable of speaking for herself, but apparently it needs to be said: she was comparing the connections between Nazis and concentration camps to those between police and youth jails, to illustrate a fundamental weakness in how people talk about the latter. Nazis were responsible for placing people in concentration camps. Similarly, kids don’t end up in jail by magic—police put them there. That’s why a conversation about what it’s like for kids in jail is relevant to the conversation about police in schools. That’s why it’s so frustrating when people act like the presence of cops in schools—even friendly cops—isn’t related to the presence of kids in jail. They are directly connected. (You know—like a pipeline.)
On top of the fact that she wasn’t making a direct comparison, it’s actually not absurd to at least note the similarities between the horrifying expression of anti-semitism in Nazi Germany and the racism of the United States. After all, they’re historically linked. While the extent to which the United States inspired the Nazis is debated, we know that Nazi lawyers studied the segregation of the Jim Crow era, state-level anti-miscegenation laws that banned marriage between people of different races, and the way that the United States legally classified Native Americans and other groups as non-citizens. The Nazis used what they learned to develop their own legal framework that helped set the stage for their persecution of Jewish people.
But if comparisons between America’s racism and Nazi Germany still seem far-fetched to white Americans, it might be because the United States has largely papered over the most appalling aspects of its history. As a country we have barely acknowledged, much less atoned for, the horrors committed during more than 200 years of chattel slavery. We are not exposed to the details of the violent reign of racist terror, disenfranchisement, and daily degradation that took place for over a hundred years more after that. What we’re taught in school barely scratches the surface. The fact that anyone might hesitate to count this 300-plus-year history alongside the most terrible crimes ever committed against humanity says more, in my opinion, about how determinedly the United States has avoided an honest accounting than it does about this history’s scale in horror or its impact on modern society.
And without a deep understanding of this history, most people don’t even recognize that it has found new expression today in the era of mass incarceration. Cops in schools—the school to prison pipeline that Ali Muldrow is rightfully fighting—is not separate from this, but a continuation of America’s ugliest days, a part of what Michelle Alexander famously called the new Jim Crow. And if you look at which group posed the biggest, most violent obstacle to ending America’s old Jim Crow policies—siccing German Shepherds on black school children marching against segregation, for example—it was the police, and it was less than 60 years ago. That police are again reluctant to make way for racial justice should surprise no one.
I want to acknowledge that there are conversations to be had about when it’s appropriate to invoke Nazi Germany in conversations about modern day injustices. People wrote smart things about this topic just a few months ago, when New York Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez first began calling migrant detention centers concentration camps. We should discuss both the similarities and the differences between Germany and the United States, the Holocaust and the human rights abuses that the U.S. takes great pains to cover up.
But we should be very clear that Rickert’s reporting on the issue didn’t feed that conversation in a constructive way. In his article, he did quote Alan Klugman, interim executive director of the Jewish Federation of Madison, who said he was “very sympathetic to the plight of students who are incarcerated,” but that he had “difficulty equating what they go through with Nazi Germany.”
The majority of the article, however, focused on the hurt feelings of law enforcement, with Madison Police Department Chief Mike Koval calling Muldrow’s comments “defamatory rhetoric,” and Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney writing that “It’s unbelievable that anyone today would relate MPD or any other Dane Co (law enforcement) to Nazis,” in a since-deleted Facebook post. The president of the Madison Professional Police Officers Association, Kelly Powers, referred to Muldrow’s post as “universally insulting” and “ridiculous on so many levels.”
The article doesn’t attempt to engage with the rest of Muldrow’s points at all. Nor does it acknowledge the more conciliatory and nuanced parts of the Facebook post in question. “Cops can be great mentors and community members sure but they are the only people who have the power to arrest students and they target children with certain identities for the most severe punishments available that is a problem we can not ignore or afford to invest in,” Muldrow wrote at the beginning of the post’s final paragraph. What about that is defamatory or insulting?
If you look at the comments that followed when the Wisconsin State Journal shared Rickert’s article on Facebook, or the comments on an absurd petition to have Muldrow fired, most of them are about law enforcement, too. Concern for the Jewish community is light on the ground. The story didn’t offer much for people who care about whether or not Muldrow’s comments trivialized the Holocaust. It didn’t speak to people who are understandably wary of anti-semitism at a time when anti-semitism is on the rise. Stories like this mostly resonate with people who want to make sure the liberal snowflakes in Madison don’t insult the cops and that black women in positions of power in Madison are made to toe the line. Muldrow, on the other hand, engaged with people in the comments of her still public post. She eventually apologized for her comments, though who was actually owed an apology is, in my opinion, highly debatable.
Sadly, Muldrow’s comments—and to a much greater extent, Rickert’s noxious, inflammatory distortion of her comments—might cause some individuals who previously supported her and saw themselves as being in solidarity with anti-racist struggle in Madison to feel distant from her and maybe even distant from her cause. The thing to remember is that that’s by design. We shouldn’t be surprised that the story reported on Muldrow’s remarks in a simplistic way, or that leaders in law enforcement joined in with their own bad-faith interpretations and pearl-clutching.
Throughout the history of anti-racist struggle, the powers that be have always been happy to to sow the seeds of discord among anti-racist activists and organizers, or to disparage black movement leaders as extremists in the hope that white support for black leaders will fall away. In the 1950s and 60s, this looked like repeatedly painting civil rights activists with the (at the time) damning charge that they were communists or outside agitators. In 2019 in Wisconsin, it’s public hand-wringing over Freedom Inc. activists using swear words and accusing a black school board member of making reckless comparisons to the Holocaust. The folks who want to quash anti-racist organizing and maintain a racist status quo have been pulling the same tricks for years.
We shouldn’t fall for them. We should offer our solidarity and, if necessary, the benefit of the doubt to the person so many of us agree with and voted for. We shouldn’t let shit-stirring from a poorly reported story fracture growing, multi-racial support for de-carcerating and decriminalizing Dane County. This solidarity can’t just apply to Ali Muldrow, or other elected officials, either. The activists in Freedom Inc., who face more regular and more vicious smears, deserve it, too. Chris Rickert and the folks he whistles for will find fault with anybody who stands up to say what so many of us think: that police don’t belong in schools and kids don’t belong in jails. We just don’t have to listen.