In his first visit to the swing state of Wisconsin as the Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden earlier this month met with the family of Jacob Blake, the unarmed black man critically wounded by a white Kenosha police officer in front of his three children. Later, in ecumenical fashion at a Lutheran Church in Kenosha, Biden, a practicing Roman Catholic, sought to reach out to the crowd, and to a nation wrenched by yet another police-involved point-blank shooting of a Black man, by invoking the deaths and legacies of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy.
Biden reminisced about how, having graduated from law school when RFK was assassinated in June 1968, he came home to riot-torn Wilmington, Delaware — in the process of being occupied for 10 months by that state’s National Guard — and thought that Black and White Americans were unlikely to unite. Following the murders of “the two political heroes I had … Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy,” the former vice president started his career as a public defender. “Don’t tell me,” Biden said 52 years later, “things can’t change.”
“Healing” was one of the words most heard after the Biden speech. Those in the audience made clear they believed that only if Biden and running mate Sen. Kamala Harris of California are elected can Kenosha, and the country, return to normalcy sustained by the “good trouble” of the civil rights movement.
Missing from the public debate about the use of force by police is how law, order and the fight for social, political and racial justice played out in an approximately five-mile-square area of a once prosperous Midwest industrial town. The Trump visit on Sept. 1, with his showy basking following the riots, and fear-mongering, added to the spiral of divisiveness.
Kenosha helped give Trump a slim margin of victory in 2016 — he won the state by 23,000 votes — a win that can be traced, in part, to the healthy majority who years ago supported the Kennedys versus racist former Alabama Gov. George Wallace. The sitting president, who serves as a stand-in for the appeal of the Southern segregationist, hopes to repeat his surprise defeat of an encumbered Hillary Clinton from neighboring Illinois in a city once considered a reliably progressive and Democratic bastion.
The Blake shooting took place in an enclave in which policing is a microcosm of the challenges of personal security, the administration of justice and the rule of law in much of America. The piercing questions raised, together with the issues of fairness and diversity, put a new and urgent focus on the promises and failures of modern liberalism and U.S. democracy today. With a resonance that began its current crescendo with the fatal 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin by a private security guard and the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, such questions cannot remain unanswered, much less unasked.
“You’ve got coronavirus and you’ve got Kenosha,” CNN host Don Lemon told the world before Biden’s appearance in the city, as parts of the nation smoldered and Kenosha still burned. “A Rorschach test” for the entire country, Lemon said, “I think this is a blind spot for Democrats.”
Last week, civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton took aim at what, nearly half a century ago, was condemned as “elite bigotry.” Sharpton focused on those who promoted “defunding” the police in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd in police custody in late May.
“People living on the ground need proper policing,” Sharpton said, seemingly resurrecting Robert Kennedy’s dictum, “Fear not the path of Truth for the lack of people walking on it.”
Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old Illinois resident and Trump fan now charged in the shooting deaths of two people and the wounding of a third in Kenosha, opened fire during the third night of protests and looting that followed Blake being shot. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that one Wisconsin man who joined Rittenhouse and a self-styled militia was “immersed in White supremacist propaganda,” promoted anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and linked online to Nazi propaganda. On Aug. 26, the Wisconsin militia member claimed in a video that he and his associates had been told by police that counter demonstrators would be herded toward them and “then we’re gonna leave.” Two weeks ago, Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, defended Rittenhouse, saying, “We all do stupid things at 17.”
The week before the protest, militia members prohibited from possessing firearms because of past criminal convictions were arrested on gun charges after allegedly planning to come to Kenosha “to pick people off.” For those reasons, when Rittenhouse opened fire, questions about collusion with the police, and possible links to the White nationalist “boogaloo” movement — which federal authorities say is a domestic terrorist organization — are essential elements of this story.
In Kenosha, Biden said: “In the early days of World War II, Franklin Roosevelt told the country, “The news is going to get worse and worse before it gets better and better, and the American people deserve to have it straight from the shoulder.’”
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Kenosha history speaks to the tragic broader challenges of once-prosperous Midwest industrial towns in what used to be dismissively called the “Rust Belt.” Just below the line of sight, elite bigotry sometimes camouflaged as third-party moral obligations, facilitated Kenosha’s submergence into what civil rights leader Jesse Jackson called the latest example of a “national calamity … a city adrift in a moral desert.”
The city’s story is an intertwined saga of racism and bigotry, corporate looting, organized crime, ongoing police complicity and brutality (“a problem that goes back decades,” points out a reform-minded retired Kenosha police detective), and a possible road to redemption.
In a state once heralded for transparency and accountability, three decades ago a moderate Republican governor and the United Auto Workers had to threaten legal action against Chrysler, the company whose Kenosha operation included the largest car factory in the United States, after it had made an agreement to build cars in Kenosha for at least five years, then shut the plant down. It was a trauma exacerbated by Chrysler’s failure to pay millions owed to the state’s unemployment compensation fund.
Jackson’s history in Kenosha speaks directly to how important RFK’s “inclusive populism” could be today in besting Trump-like appeals. In the middle of the wrenching controversy over the automobile manufacturing plant closing down, in February 1988, Kenosha’s then-Mayor Eugene Dorff decried before some 2,500 people at a protest rally in front of the plant “the corporate rape that’s going on.” He then introduced Jackson, a Democratic Party presidential candidate.
“This country needs a spearchucker, and I think we’ve got him up on this podium,” Dorff declared, using a racial epithet. Later, after the story went nationwide, he said he meant to say “straight shooter.”
The “news” was about Dorff’s inexcusable gaffe; the deeper significance was the fact he and Jackson were on the same podium, fighting together. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have been the first to see that; Robert Kennedy, too.
The story of the Kenosha police is a complex mixture of individual heroism, episodic community involvement, militaristic fantasy and loyalty to the city’s (god)fathers.
Don Ameche, an Oscar-winning movie star, recalled the influence exercised by organized crime in the city. He said growing up as an Italian American left one open to a stinging prejudice that made him empathize with African Americans, comparing his situation to the racism in Florida people felt, following the acquittal of four police officers who in 1979 had beaten black motorcyclist and former Marine Arthur McDuffie, who later died.
“I was so petrified all the while I was a child that I didn’t know what I was doing half the time,” he remembered, talking about his father’s saloon in a neighborhood blocks away from the now-vacant lot where the auto factory once stood. “It was no fun living with someone who had a revolver in his trousers every day and a poison-tipped stiletto in the house. … I saw all kinds of types in my dad’s place, from bums to Mafia hoodlums.”
Ameche said, “Being an Italian in the town of Kenosha back then … was like being a black man in Miami today. I was totally ostracized.” Last week, fellow Kenoshan and actor Mark Ruffalo slammed the unfair Kenosha news coverage as “devastating” and said he supports the protests for social justice.
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In the mid-1980s, the Kenosha Police Department estimated that nearly 1,000 gang members lived in, and according to some in certain neighborhoods, terrorized a city of 77,685 people. In a 1987 study on gangs on file with the U.S. Institute of Justice, it was reported that, although they then represented 3.6 percent of the local population, Blacks accounted for 53.9 percent of local gang membership. No mention was made, however, about the role played by organized crime.
Two decades later, a supposed solution for the region’s stagnant economy promoted by Kenosha businessmen was the creation of a federally authorized Indian gambling casino, which would have been the third-largest in the country. The bookmakers’ bet came at a time when the state attorney general was warning not only that the casino might open the door to organized crime, but also that Wisconsin law enforcement was unprepared to deal with the problem.
The project, which never was built, led to “skeletons resurrected” — a phrase used by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel in 2013 — and included public corruption bribes and the ties to the Chicago Mob. It was the same kind of criminality then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy fought against 50 years earlier in Kenosha and numerous other cities. Few if any of the local leaders pushing the project were previously seen as staunch advocates of the rights or well-being of Native Americans.
Due perhaps to largely unexamined class-based bias in national media coverage, short shrift has been given to an important dimension of the city’s history, one that helps explain the divisions in which Kenosha finds itself today.
Following the murders of Robert Kennedy and King, President Richard M. Nixon’s minions began in earnest to soak up Wallace’s voting bloc with “law and order” appeals to White working-class “hardhats.” Nixon’s political shop was already drawing fire for the coded racial appeals of a “Southern Strategy” designed to pick up White votes.
The undeniable personal racism of the next elected Republican President, Ronald Reagan, was revealed last year. And 40 years ago, in kicking off his 1980 general election campaign, Reagan praised “states’ rights” outside Philadelphia, Mississippi, where civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were abducted and killed by the local Ku Klux Klan in 1964, the notorious “Mississippi Burning” crime. (Christopher Gerolmo, the son of a Kenosha-born theatrical producer, wrote the screenplay for the semi-fictionalized blockbuster movie, “Mississippi Burning“).
Capturing the demeaning humor and actions against working-class police and others by people who considered themselves liberals following RFK’s death, one observer wrote a prescient academic essay entitled “Respectable Bigotry,” published in 1969, a work that goes straight to Trump’s appeal to White lower-middle and working-class voters, in Kenosha and elsewhere.
“An extraordinary amount of bigotry on the part of the elite … goes unexamined at Yale and elsewhere,” Michael Lerner wrote. “… Directed at the lower middle-class, it feeds on the unexamined biases of class perspective, the personality predilections … that support their views. … hidden bigotry … toward the lower middle-class is stinking and covered.”
The Democratic Party now represents what one critic recently noted was “technocratic liberalism more congenial to professional classes than to the blue-collar and middle-class voters who once constituted its base.” Such prejudice runs rampant in liberal corporate media, such as MSNBC and CNN, behemoths that are run largely by those who were students in the 1960s and 1970s and now home to numerous news analysts from the Reagan and two Bush administrations. (The father-son presidencies united extraordinary privilege with a “snobbish belief that the ‘right’ people should make decisions for the rest of us,” Andrew Graybill writes in the October 2020 issue of Texas Monthly. George H.W.’s 1988 Willy Horton campaign ad stoked racist fears. George W. presided over both a toxic second invasion of Iraq based on phony evidence and the failings of the larger war on terror, Human Rights Watch reported in 2005 and again in 2011.)
People can change, but elite media-endowed pedigrees are a double-edged sword in the political swamp. As Mother Jones’ Nick Baumann wrote 10 years ago: “The hard truth is that people in the national media lead vastly different lives than the Joe Sixpack they’re always talking about. Many media people went to fancy colleges, many of them come from upper-middle-class backgrounds, and almost all of them are in a different socioeconomic class than the average American.”
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Walter Reuther Central High School, one of six Neoclassical Revival buildings around Civic Center Park where many of the protests and rioting took place and a stone’s throw from Rittenhouse’s shooting spree, is named after the crusading president of the UAW. Reuther marched with King in Detroit, Selma, Birmingham, Montgomery and Jackson, and raised money for the civil rights leader both when he was arrested and when organizing the historic 1963 March on Washington. In 1960, John Kennedy considered making Reuther his running mate. (The UAW leader later made headlines marching alongside farmworkers’ union champion and RFK compatriot Cesar Chavez.)
Before it was Reuther High, the school was named after Mary D. Bradford, who was from 1910 to 1921 superintendent of schools and the first woman in the state to serve in such a position. Bradford presided over a time of great change and, like today, ethnic strife; from 1900 to 1930, the city of Kenosha’s population more than quadrupled, from 11,606 to 50,262. From 1900 until Congress ended immigration in the 1920s, nearly a third of that increase was from Southern and Eastern Europe.
Under Bradford, “special schools for foreigners” — almost all European immigrants — were created, as were ungraded classrooms and open-air schools meant to meet the needs of those recently arrived and the children of those not born in the United States. Kindergartens were established with special concern for “foreign-speaking” children. Medical services undertaken by the school district included inspections, vaccinations, barber clinics, showers and dental care.
The Kennedy brothers’ political “advance man,” Gerald “Jerry” Bruno, grew up just blocks from where Jacob Blake was shot. Bruno traveled ahead of John F. Kennedy for his fateful trip to Dallas in November 1963. He also stood next to Robert Kennedy in Indianapolis as Kennedy gave one of the greatest political addresses of the modern era the night King was murdered. He was one of the few able to say a personal “goodbye” to an RFK close to death after being shot at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, where he had just given a victory speech upon winning the California and South Dakota primaries.
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For years, the eight blocks that once were the workstation of more than 14,000 well-paid industrial workers in what was then the world’s largest automotive assembly line have stood barren. Their northernmost point is little over a mile from where Jacob Blake was shot.
Less than half a mile southeast is where what is called Uptown Kenosha made the news last month as rioters burned down many stores. One of the places torched was the old brick Danish Brotherhood Lodge, full of memories and one of more than 40 buildings destroyed, where my parents held their wedding reception 69 years ago and where we said “goodbye” to my father shortly after Trump was inaugurated.
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It was local Black leader Tim Mahone of the Mahone Foundation who welcomed Biden to Grace Lutheran Church, telling the former vice president that his presence would help the community heal. His mother, Mary Lou Mahone, was an indefatigable civil rights champion now buried with her husband at the Southern Wisconsin Veterans Memorial Cemetery not far from where my parents rest. My mother, Angelina Natalina DeRango, was the daughter of two Calabrese who came to the United States from Italy in search of a better life.
Most, though not all, of Kenosha’s Italian Americans trace their families back to the Italian province of Calabria, part of what used to be called “The Kingdom of Two Sicilies.” My grandmother, educated in Italian schools and who was 17 when she arrived, traveled through Ellis Island with her younger brother, to meet up with her father already in Kenosha, their mother and sisters having died in the 1918 flu epidemic.
When my mother was 14, she showed bravery and grit defending young Mary Lou, her high school “locker partner,” from the onslaught of racist taunts and invective of other students. There wasn’t any politically correct jargon in Mama’s response to those using the N-word and trying to pick a fight. “Well, at least her clothes are clean,” was the best shot mustered by someone who spent her life trying to get friends and family to “just get along.”
That was around 1940, but earlier, during the Great Depression, with her family receiving federal food rations provided by FDR’s New Deal, my grandmother had a rule: Anyone, black or white, who knocked on the door and was hungry was welcome to eat. Although I was later told that those administering the ration program could be strict and overbearing, no one called Nani a “welfare queen,” the race-coded term Reagan used in the 1970s to help propel him to the presidency.
Mama lived less than a block from her friend Jerry Bruno.
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With Italian Americans facing real prejudice, people had little recourse for justice. Going to the police for help was often fraught with possible peril, as Blacks, too, knew all too well, then and today.
Six years earlier, on Aug. 15, 1935, my grandfather, Achille DeRango, the owner of an Italian bread bakery in Kenosha, was murdered in a gangland shooting, apparently after he balked at being extorted by Calabrian organized crime, with “The Godfather” type false flagging in the media then meant to intimidate as well as protect who was really responsible for his death.
Mama found him in a pool of blood in back of the house where he was working late into the night; he passed away in a hospital hours later. When growing up, we were told that Nanu died as the result of a car accident. It wasn’t until nearly four decades after he was killed that I stumbled on the real reason while going through old newspapers. From what I was able to piece together, Kenosha cops knew who — a bootlegger and murderer with extensive criminal ties — killed him, but did nothing.
Fear evolved over time into poverty and family shame. The seemingly complete control exercised by the mob over the police meant my mother’s family never sought justice. Instead, the death was something kept in the shadows. The person who ordered the killing was himself killed in a gangland slaying in 1945.
During the 1930s and 1940s Kenosha’s old West Side was the site of a Mafia war by members of the Milwaukee-based Balistrieri crime family and the Chicago Outfit in which local police mostly stood by without intervening in what otherwise was considered a relatively small town, as Robert Kennedy later found out. In “Little Chicago,” as Kenosha was called, omertà, the mafia code of silence about criminal activity and the refusal to give evidence to authorities, ruled. As late as five years ago, historian and author Gavin Schmitt, who wrote “The Milwaukee Mafia: Mobsters in the Heartland” reported, “The bulk of organized crime in the state today is centered in Kenosha … The Mafia is a candle that’s hard to snuff out.”
On May 17, 1961, Attorney General Kennedy appeared before a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee “in support of legislation to curb organized crime and racketeering.” Kennedy noted that it was necessary to “aid and assist local law enforcement officers in controlling hoodlums and racketeers, who in many instances have become so rich and powerful that they have outgrown local authorities.”
“If our bill is enacted, we will be able to prosecute the courier who carried the funds across state lines and in conjunction with the aiding and abetting statute (18 USC 2), we will be able to prosecute the person who caused the courier to travel — the kingpin,” Kennedy testified. “This example illustrates what we have found to be a pattern around the country where the apparently innocuous 10-cent numbers bet in a large city turns into tremendous profits in the hands of big time hoodlums.”
He added: “A race wire service has been provided in Wisconsin by Chicago hoodlums. … (T)ravel by the Chicago people to Kenosha and the Kenosha hoodlums to Antioch (Illinois) would violate the bill as travel to promote an unlawful business, thus permitting the interruption if not the destruction of the gambling empires.”
Kennedy was determined to energize a Justice Department previously unwilling to take on the influence of organized crime in government and in the economy. He had already made a mark fighting crime and corruption as chief counsel for the Senate “Rackets” Committee. His book, “The Enemy Within,” drew on the existence of a “private government of organized crime with an annual income of billions, resting on a base of human suffering and moral corrosion.”
In the aftermath of the gruesome gangland murder of a jukebox owner who refused to “pay up,” the Kenosha News carefully noted in an article on the Mafia’s reach in Southeastern Wisconsin that Kennedy had charged two years earlier that the city was a “training ground” for gamblers. “Local officials lashed back at Kennedy and said the charge was groundless.”
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Before breaking the news of Martin Luther King’s death to a mostly African American crowd in an already scheduled political rally in the inner city, Robert Kennedy was told by Indianapolis Mayor Richard Lugar that he should cancel his speech. The Indiana Republican worried his city, too, would be engulfed in rioting and could not promise he would be safe. Kennedy went without police protection to talk to an audience of hundreds, including Black Panthers and other radical groups.
By the time Kennedy was perched on a flat-bed truck to speak, the crowd knew the gunman was likely White and that King was wounded. In a short, improvised speech considered one of the greatest in the last century, Kennedy told the crowd that his family’s friend and political ally had been assassinated. He echoed the need for reconciliation of the type King had etched into history five years before.
“For those of you who are Black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all White people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling,” he said, the first time he talked publicly about his own brother’s murder in Dallas, with Kenoshan Jerry Bruno standing at his side. “I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a White man.”
He continued: “What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness, but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice towards those who still suffer within our country, whether they be White or whether they be Black.”
Indianapolis did not go up in flames, nor suffer the death and destruction that broke out in more than 100 cities as King was eulogized and buried.
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Part of Kenosha history goes to the heart of the questions concerning neo-Nazis engaged in acts of violence and provocation meant to take advantage of existing social, political and economic fault lines.
In the 1930s, Kenosha was a rallying point for German Nazi Volksbund demonstrations meant to cultivate support for Adolf Hitler while spreading hate speech. The effort was particularly important given wrenching internal divisions within the historically progressive German American community in Milwaukee, the city to the north where earlier the Russian-born Golda Meir, who in 1969 became the first woman Israeli Prime Minister, was a teacher and community organizer.
On Aug. 8, 1937, the Volksbund carried out a ceremony — replete with 400 attendees jammed into the local German American Club; there, on the outskirts of downtown, goose-stepping marchers in brown shirts waved swastika banners. One of my mentors while growing up, Dalton Johnson, a University of Wisconsin dropout after he decided he wanted to organize labor unions, was an anti-fascist leader in the counter demonstrations that sometimes led to street fighting. On that day, he helped lead 100 anti-bund demonstrators outside in a rainstorm, some chanting, “Kenosha wants no Hitler!”
The relevance of the episode goes beyond the role played by vigilante Rittenhouse and his unaccountable far-right militia colleagues, and focuses on the complicity of the Kenosha police. Some of its members told the Antioch, Illinois, teenager and his would-be lethal Kenosha Guard colleagues, “We appreciate you guys, we really do.”
Another frightening point was captured by comedian John Oliver in “Last Week Tonight” when he compared them to those promoted in Hitler’s Germany in 1940. Oliver focused on the controversial comments made by Kenosha Sheriff David Beth in 2018 about a crime allegedly committed by five young African Americans.
“Let’s put them in jail. Let’s stop them from, truly, at least some of these males,” he said, “going out and getting 10 other women pregnant and having small children. Let’s put them away.
“I’m to the point where I think society has to come to a threshold where there are some people that aren’t worth saving,” Beth said then. “We need to build warehouses to put these people into it and lock them away for the rest of their lives.”
Such arguments for letting young, out-of-state Whites commit murder walk slam into the wall of a case involving a 17-year-old Black woman. Chrystul Kizer of Kenosha, who killed a 34-year-old rapist who trafficked her and others, then sat in jail for two years while awaiting trial for first-degree murder. The Kenosha district attorney, who went public to criminalize the adolescent girl’s behavior, later wrote about her on Facebook: “I cannot condone vigilante justice.”
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Campaign advance man Jerry Bruno’s personal history ties the city’s progressive history with today’s news.
Bruno’s parents came to the United States from Cosenza, Italy, near where my grandparents were born. Bruno was one of seven children in an impoverished family, and he dropped out of Bradford High in the 9th grade. He enlisted in the Navy at the end of World War II and later worked as a forklift truck driver at American Motors.
Bruno met William Proxmire, who up to that point was a mostly unsuccessful politician, at one of Kenosha’s many bars. Bruno volunteered with Proxmire’s statewide campaigns while working at “the Motors,” until “Prox” was elected Senator in 1957 to replace the hated Sen. Joe McCarthy, who had died. Bruno immersed himself in local and state politics for five years, and, as he wrote in 1971 in a book co-authored by RFK speechwriter Jeff Greenfield, spent eight weeks on the picket line during the bitter UAW strike at Wisconsin’s Kohler Company plumbing plant — the longest labor action in U.S. history. He learned the ropes well, prompting Proxmire, who later gained fame as a budget hawk and a steadfast supporter of federal government whistleblowers, to hire him as senior staff in the state.
When John Kennedy came to Wisconsin to campaign in Milwaukee’s Polish-Catholic wards, it was Bruno who served as his liaison. In 1959, Bruno had been brought by Proxmire to Washington, where he ran into Kennedy, who recognized him immediately and invited him to his home for breakfast in Georgetown.
Even before becoming a senator, Robert Kennedy crossed the globe seeking answers among those both high and low in all walks of life.
“John and Robert Kennedy sized you up very quickly,” Bruno remembered in his book. “If there was something about you that they thought OK, then your background and education and all the rest really didn’t matter.”
JFK came to Kenosha twice when he ran for president, going on to win all 36 precincts in the general election against Nixon by a nearly 2-1 margin. On Nov. 13, 1959, Kennedy met with UAW Local 72 members in an uptown restaurant. On Feb. 16, 1960, in a visit worthy of mention in Kennedy aides Kenneth O’Donnell and David Powers’ 1970 book, “Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye,” he was accompanied by his wife, Jacqueline, and showed up unscheduled to a labor union meeting at the Union Club across Civic Center Park from Bradford High (an epicenter of the August riots). He then addressed an overfilled auditorium of more than 1,300 people at the American Legion Hall.
Robert Kennedy visited Kenosha once, in 1966, while campaigning for the re-election of a Democratic congressman who had won in the Lyndon Johnson landslide two years before. Speaking to the crowd at the Carthage College field house north of the city, Kennedy was mobbed by fans when he climbed atop a car to say a few more words, a young man pulling off one of the New York senator’s shoes in the process.
Following his death, another key RFK aide, his former Justice Department assistant, John E. Nolan Jr., was key in promoting whistleblower protection in cases of particular interest to Bruno’s former boss, Proxmire, including one that went all the way to the Supreme Court in Nixon v. Fitzgerald.
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Two years ago, marking the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s death, Richard Kahlenberg of The Century Foundation think tank wrote a brilliant analysis, “The Inclusive Populism of Robert F. Kennedy.” The report gave credence to the greatest civil rights leaders’ belief about the possibilities and promises of a true, multiracial, working-class coalition. The study foreshadowed much of what remains wrong in the 2020 campaign and what the Democratic Party would need to do to win. Kahlenberg noted that in the last presidential elections, many White, working-class Obama voters voted for Trump.
“Martin Luther King Jr., who personally experienced hatred in White working-class communities in his fight for civil rights, nevertheless argued that the push for greater economic equality could provide the potential ‘for a powerful new alliance,’ ” Kahlenberg wrote. “Speaking of lower-income Whites, King suggested, ‘White supremacy can feed their egos but not their stomachs.’ ”
“Kennedy wooed working-class voters across racial lines with a patriotic populism that blended compassion for the underdog with tough-mindedness about the way the world works. His appeal was a liberalism without elitism, and a populism without racism. … Progressive policies,” Kahlenberg concluded, “can have broader appeal among working-class constituencies if they consistently emphasize class interests, signal inclusion by extending civil rights remedies to class inequality, and adopt policies that respect the legitimate values of working-class people.”
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The issue most in need of reflection, as shown by the tragedy in Kenosha in which Jacob Blake was a victim, is not how successfully a personal torch has been passed to a new generation of the Kennedy “dynasty.”
Rather, it is the health and welfare of the Kennedy legacy within the Democratic Party and real purpose of those who portray themselves as politically correct flame-keepers but act more as corporate gatekeepers.
“On the ground, it is certainly feeling more violent, feeling more unsafe in unsafe communities,” Sharpton noted as the hot summer neared an end. “We need to reimagine how we do policing. But to take all policing off is something a latte liberal may go for as they sit around the Hamptons discussing this as an academic problem.”
Robert Kennedy would not have walked away from Sharpton’s attempt to lance calls for “defunding the police.” He would have embraced it. A year after Kennedy’s death, Michael Lerner took note of an elite bigotry that helped shave White working-class voters from the ranks of the many who had been a mainstay of the RFK coalition.And as biographer Jack Newfield noted, many supporters of Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy, Kennedy’s principal Democratic opponent in the primaries, attacked Kennedy’s focus on crime issues. Kennedy’s only 1968 loss, on May 28 to McCarthy, may have been due to a focus on organized labor. Newfield, too, saw a schism: “McCarthy backers,” Newfield wrote, “usually lived in low-crime expensive suburbs or luxury apartment buildings with two doormen and elaborate surveillance systems.”
Polls say that Trump’s racist appeals are gaining less traction this year than they did in 2016. Understanding what happened in Kenosha can be key not only to who will win in November, but also to the fundamental issues of governance in what will surely be difficult years ahead — policing to be sure, but also real social and economic justice.
As Joe Biden of working-class roots might say, “Here’s the deal.”
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Martin Edwin Andersen, a decorated national security whistleblower from the time he worked at the Criminal Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, in 1987 broke the story of Henry Kissinger giving a “green light” for Argentina’s notorious “dirty war,” the subject of his book, “Dossier Secreto.” His human rights and national security whistleblower case against the National Defense University is now before the International Criminal Court in The Hague. He is a former special correspondent for Newsweek and The Washington Post.