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Assembly lawmakers spar over Black History Month resolution

February 13, 2019

Assembly Republicans blocked an effort Tuesday by African-American lawmakers to recognize in a Black History Month resolution a black athlete and activist whom the GOP considered too controversial.

After debate, lawmakers eventually compromised by unanimously passing an amended resolution that struck the name of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick while recognizing the other prominent African-American leaders whom members of the Black Caucus included for recognition.

The disagreement Tuesday over the resolution, the second in as many years, prompted black members of the Assembly — all Democrats — to accuse Republican leaders, who are white, of dictating who African-Americans should be able to honor in their community.

“The biggest issue that we have as a Black Caucus is people choosing to pick our views for us as black people,” said Rep. David Crowley, D-Milwaukee, who called the Republican effort a “textbook example of white privilege.”

The disagreement follows a spat between Assembly lawmakers last year, when a Republican lawmaker had preferred a Black History Month resolution honoring all black residents of Wisconsin rather than a select few honorees. The Assembly eventually passed separate resolutions.

This year, the inclusion of Kaepernick, who is defined as much by his activism against racial injustice as for his time on the field, did not sit well with Assembly Republicans, who said recognizing the former football player would draw vitriol and drive lawmakers apart.

“We would hope they would have more consideration to say, ‘… let’s look at finding ways to come together rather than always looking for ways to drive us apart,’” said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester.

Kaepernick, who was born in Wisconsin, sparked national controversy by kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem at NFL games to protest police brutality and what he sees as oppression of African-Americans. He has also appeared wearing socks that portrayed police officers as pigs.

Rep. LaKeshia Myers, D-Milwaukee, said she supported adding Kaepernick to the Black History Month resolution because he is from Milwaukee, excelled in his profession, and took responsibility in showing his dissent, mirroring efforts from past black leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr.

“He decided to take on ownership of a problem that he saw, which was police brutality, and the fact that we hope everyone in this room recognizes, that black lives are important, and yes, they do matter,” Myers said.

Myers, who originally voted in favor of the resolution, later requested her vote be changed, calling the resolution “watered down.” Legislators may request their vote be changed after a roll call vote, but it does not affect the official tally.

“I refuse to ask for permission when honoring those who have made significant contributions to the plight of African-American people,” she said in a statement.

The resolution was originally circulated by Sens. Lena Taylor and LaTonya Johnson, of Milwaukee; and Reps. David Crowley, LaKeshia Myers, David Bowen, Jason Fields and Kaylan Haywood, of Milwaukee, and Shelia Stubbs, of Madison.

“It is beyond disappointing and offensive that Wisconsin Republicans are choosing not (to) respect the leadership of Wisconsin’s Legislative Black Caucus on this issue,” Stubbs said.

Among the several prominent African-Americans recognized in the resolution are former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; DPI Superintendent Carolyn Stanford Taylor; NFL coach James Caldwell; Milwaukee Bucks player Marques Johnson; Rev. Greg Lewis, chairman of Pastors United; Satchel Paige, the first African-American pitcher to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame; and former Milwaukee Chief of Police Arthur Jones.

The resolution that passed the Assembly recognizes Black History Month and the fact enslaved Africans first arrived in North America 400 years ago. It honors the contributions of African-Americans to American culture and industry and their role in the civil rights movement.

Republicans on the Assembly floor Tuesday attempted to bring up their own version of the resolution, striking the names of Kaepernick and Lewis, and replacing them with Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes and former Wisconsin Secretary of State Vel Phillips, but it went nowhere after facing Democratic opposition.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said the chamber on Wednesday will consider the Black History Month resolution the Assembly passed.

Tweet stirs controversy

At one point during the Assembly floor debate, a tweet — later taken down — from the account of Rep. Barbara Dittrich, R-Oconomowoc, stirred controversy.

“Colin Kapernick wore socks depicting police as pigs. Flags are flying at half-staff for a murdered policeman. Are you kidding me????,” Dittrich allegedly wrote.

Dittrich emphatically denied authoring or approving of the tweet, and said it does not accurately depict her views on Kaepernick.

“I would never send out a tweet like that as a lawmaker,” she said.

Dittrich added the only other person authorized to use her account is her aide, Keith Best, a Republican Party activist who could not immediately be reached for comment.

Best has previously been embroiled in a social media controversy. In 2018 he admitted to posting a tweet under the account of Rep. Tom Weatherston, R-Racine, who dubbed it “racist.” Best’s tweet had called voter ID opponents “the true racists.”

Dittrich said Best had assured her such incidents would not happen again, adding that she would consider disciplining Best if he admitted to posting Tuesday’s tweet.

Editor’s note: The story was updated to reflect the official vote for the resolution was unanimous. A legislator who asked that her vote be changed afterward did not alter the official tally, per Assembly rules.

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