A Conversation With The Woman Representing A ZIP Code Where Most Black Men Have Been To Prison

Rep. Gwen Moore discusses criminal justice and President-elect Donald Trump with The Huffington Post.

WASHINGTON ― Sixty-two percent of black men living in Wisconsin’s 53206 ZIP code have spent time in prison, a new documentary reports. “Milwaukee 53206” looks at how this incarceration rate ― the highest for black men in any ZIP code in the country ― hurts the people behind bars and their families, and how it also relates to high levels of crime and unemployment.

Incarceration rates have also affected residents’ ability to vote, a spokesman for Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.), the congressional representative for the 53206 ZIP code, said Friday.

“Felony disenfranchisement has played a role in our elections for years but it’s unclear just what kind of impact it’s had,” he said. “One of the issues we saw in this election was a lack of clarity from state officials to constituents regarding the requisite materials needed to obtain a voter ID. Scott Walker’s discriminatory voter ID law has been tied up in court battles for years. A federal court held that it unconstitutionally targets low-income communities of color, but ultimately the Supreme Court let it to go into effect for this election cycle.”

Moore herself sat down with The Huffington Post on Thursday to reflect on the election, the film, mass incarceration, policing and criminal justice.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) speaks during the final day of the Democratic National Convention.
Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) speaks during the final day of the Democratic National Convention.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP

What’d you think about the film?

I’m happy that the movie is entitled “53206.” I don’t know if that’s the result of someone’s brilliance or laziness to come up with a title. But I think it’s important in terms of policymaking to realize that you really can focus on a spot and say, “We’re going to do something about this.”

Another thing I thought was really compelling was the appearance of the city of Milwaukee police chief and his declaration, which is absolutely true: One of the problems with mass incarceration is that society has decided to leave all of the social ills at the feet of the police department. There’s been some sort of decision ― conscious or otherwise ― to say if there’s housing problems, problems with jobs, food security, we can abandon that because we always got this criminal justice system to pick the pieces up.

They also demonstrated how difficult it was for incarcerated people to be reintegrated into the community.

What have you done personally to combat not only the issue of mass incarceration in the state and in your ZIP code, but also the fact that Milwaukee is the most segregated city in the country?

I vehemently fought against private prisons. I was in the state legislature and I would see grown white men ready to come to blows, ready to fight over who was going to get the next prison slated to be in their district.

Meanwhile, I’m from Milwaukee and we don’t want no prisons in our community. And these white folks were ready to go to blows over it because of the economic development. We’ve lost jobs in communities where there were paper mills, where there was shipbuilding ― and these jobs have been replaced by the exodus of black men out of Milwaukee into prisons.

How could criminal justice reform be stunted by a Donald Trump presidency and a red Congress?

When I think back on the ‘94 Crime Bill ― and I wasn’t here when it happened ― but when you’re working on something like this, there’s give and take. Republicans say, “OK, I need this piece, you need that piece.” And that’s how you construct a bill.

There are people who are here who are smarting from that experience and they’re being very cautious because they know we have Trump administration. You can sit there and negotiate everything you want but then the Appropriations Committee decides what to fund and what not to fund. So you can have a Second Chance Act authorized with no money in it. You can have a Violence Against Women Act authorized but underfunded. You can fully fund building prisons. You fully fund minimum mandatories and the 1 to 100 cocaine disparity, which President Obama has recently started letting prisoners out.

I met one mother in Sanford, Florida ― the place where Trayvon Martin was killed. She was just thrilled, she had just gotten the news that her son was going to be one of the ones whose sentences had been commuted by President Obama.

What was that moment like for you?

As a mother of two black male children, I got to a point where I was angry with myself. This is America and you gave birth to not one, but two, black male children. What were you thinking? You must have been tripping when you did this, knowing the peril that they were in.

So from one black woman to the next, it was a moment that I shared with her as another black mother of an African-American man. And to see how the system is just geared toward punishing ― and I think there’s economic incentive to do so.

Former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton stands with (from left) Geneva Reed-Veal, Annette Holt and Rep. Gwen Moore after attending a forum on gun violence.
Former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton stands with (from left) Geneva Reed-Veal, Annette Holt and Rep. Gwen Moore after attending a forum on gun violence.
Patrick Semansky/AP

Policing plays a huge role in our mass incarceration problem. Do you think policing could change at all under Trump?

He’s shared a lot of stuff with us. He thinks stop and frisk is fine! Rudy Giuliani thinks it’s fine. And I don’t know where they’ll land in his administration. According to him, a lot of things he said and did were just Hollywood and bluster and now he’s going to be presidential.

If stop and frisk was just part of the dog whistle he knew he needed to put out there to get all of the angry white men to come out of the rural areas to vote for him ― we don’t if that was just something he said to get elected. So a lot of us are trying to be hopeful.

There have been reports that Sheriff David Clarke could end up in the Trump administration. What are your thoughts on that?

It was pretty obvious that he wasn’t going to seek re-election as a Democrat when he appeared at the Republican convention. All of his rhetoric around Black Lives Matter ― [saying things like] black lies matter and blue lives matter ― I assumed he was done with his charade as a Democrat. And that he anticipated going into the Trump administration or a contract with Fox News.

We’ve always had people like David Clarke in our community, this is not an anomaly and I think that it’s very likely he’ll be offered something. President-elect Trump has rewarded loyalty, rewarded people who have been there with him and he needs black people to be in his administration, just for how it looks. Ben Carson has said he’s not joining the administration, so I think that increases the prospects that David Clarke will have an opportunity.

I’ve upset Sheriff Clarke because I thought, in my mind, that an African-American who’s achieved that level in rank in the law enforcement community could have been very helpful with this conversation. And he chose to just be with the alt-right group.

Hillary Clinton didn’t do as well as Obama did in Milwaukee. HuffPost reporter Sam Stein wrote an article saying that state campaign operatives for Hillary Clinton wanted more black surrogates on the ground in the city but, for some reason, that didn’t pan out. So what happened in Milwaukee? Why do you think turnout was lower for Clinton than Obama? And should the campaign have focused more on white working class voters than they did?

I feel very very bad about Wisconsin going red. I feel some personal responsibility for that because I didn’t feel that our Senate candidate was going to be able to do it. I felt like I would’ve been the perfect candidate.

And she only lost by 27,000 votes and it was 41,000 under votes ― these people would’ve come out and voted for me. And if I would have gotten the exact same votes that Russ got, I don’t know. Maybe I wouldn’t have prevailed but Hillary would’ve.

Support HuffPost

Popular in the Community