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Thursday, July 3, 2008

The McGee Delusions

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It’s been clear for some time where the majority of Milwaukee, as well as the major ty of the media, placed McGee. He was all villain, all-the-time, inflaming racial tensions by demanding those in power look at racial inequalities and injustices they would rather not think about or do anything about, thank you very much.

Those people couldn’t have been happier when McGee was arrested more than a year ago on federal and state charges of extorting money from inner-city immigrant business owners and making some kind of undefined threat against someone in a wire-tapped telephone call.

For a whole lot of people, the reaction to former Milwaukee Alderman Michael McGee Jr.’s federal conviction for extortion and bribery was simple. These are the people who see the world in black and white. They have been conditioned by movies and TV—and that allegedly nonfiction media cousin, journalism—to see people in simple-minded terms, as either heroes or villains.

They were happy McGee was jailed for more than a year without bail before getting his day in court, something that had never happened to other Milwaukee public officials arrested for misusing their offices for profit over the years. And they were just as pleased as punch to see him convicted.

But for those who knew and supported McGee—and for anyone else who appreciated someone prodding Milwaukee to do the right thing—the reaction was a lot more complicated than that. There was still little evidence presented publicly to justify the unequal treatment of McGee before the trial, which needlessly created a brazen appearance of racism and inequality within the criminal justice system.

That was especially true because the government evidence on the charges against him turned out to be overwhelming. McGee’s own words from wiretaps and undercover recordings made it almost impossible for a jury to reach any other verdict.

Even Calvin Malone, the public defender who was McGee’s attorney, said at one point in his closing statement that if the jury considered only the evidence presented to them, “Mr. McGee is guilty on all counts.” Unbelievably, Malone told the jury they should consider the possibility that recorded conversations that weren’t played for them would have contradicted the government’s case. But Malone himself played no such conversations for the jury.

After more than a year, Malone presented little defense, calling only three witnesses who testified to some good things McGee had done, but who were in no position to refute the charges against him.

Losing a Voice

On the “Morning Magazine” show I co-host on 1290 WMCS-AM, we took calls for three hours one morning in reaction to the verdict, many from people who had been strong supporters and even close friends of McGee. The reaction was primarily one of sadness over the lure of corruption and the loss of a bright, young leader who had the skills to become a politically effective voice for people with the greatest needs.

No one can publicly challenge the status quo of power in America without realizing he is painting an enormous target on his back. That is why it was baffling that McGee so recklessly created such a crowd of potential witnesses to his illegal activity, many of whom ultimately testified against him.

It’s true that one of the key government witnesses who connected McGee to a large number of Arab immigrant businesses lived in his own legal netherworld. He was referred to throughout the trial by several different names. But government prosecutions often rely on people who may have engaged in illegal activities themselves to go after bigger fish. And a public official betraying the public trust is always a big fish, whether he is a lightning rod for racial animosity or not.

The writer Dan Jenkins once described the delusional stages of drunkenness as first thinking you are “invisible” and then “bulletproof.” People who break the law often seem to experience the same delusions. In the end, McGee was neither.

But those people who are celebrating McGee’s downfall have some delusions of their own. They don’t recognize that McGee was needed not only as a voice for the powerless, but as a prod to the powerful in a community that is creakingly slow to try to solve any problem before it becomes a full-blown crisis.

Those on top never seem to appreciate how much their own futures and the future of their city are tied to the plight of those on the bottom. Crises in employment, education and crime in every major American city are rooted in hopelessness. Alderman Michael McGee Jr., like his activist father before him, tried to get Milwaukee to confront the hopelessness it inflicts on its own citizens.

The biggest delusion of all, now that McGee is gone, would be to think that we’ve taken care of what was bothering us.

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.