Youth Empowered in the Stru1ggle (YES) in Milwaukee is celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. today, but they had to fight for it—today is an important day for them not just because of who they are celebrating, but also because of what they had to overcome to do it.
Mark Belling, a radio host on the right-wing radio station WISN-AM, attacked YES’s primary organizational sponsor, Voces de la Frontera (Voces). Claiming that Voces’s activities were political, he convinced the United Way, the Racine Community Foundation, and the Racine Unified School District, to pull out of this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration. Rather than be robbed of their day, YES students and their supporters kept on and figured out how to have the celebration anyway.
Christine Neumann-Ortiz, the executive director of Voces, wrote an op-ed in the Milwaukee Journal-Times putting Belling on the defensive. Robert Turner, a Wisconsin state representative for Racine County, followed suit and wrote a letter to the editor of the same newspaper. “Racine Unified should support these students for their accomplishments and reject criticism from talk radio personalities who are focused on the suppression of human rights, among other things,” he said.
YES students have been recognized for their exemplary organizing, particularly their non-partisan get-out-the-vote work. Faced with a new challenge, the students organized, drummed up more support and funding, and made Martin Luther King Jr. Day happen even without the supporters who caved to Belling.
Mark Belling is a well-known bigot in Milwaukee and right-wing provocateur—in 2004, he was suspended for using the slur “wetbacks” on-air. Frustrated by minority voter turnout even then, Belling said: “You watch the voter turnout on the near south side, heavily Hispanic, and compare it to the voter turnout in any other election, and you’re going to see every wetback and every other non-citizen out there voting.”
A month before Belling attacked Voces and YES, he called Derek Williams, a 22-year-old African-American man who died in police custody a “dirty, rotten thug.” In the same broadcast, he called mothers who sleep with their infants in bed with them “pigs of mothers who are too lazy to put their baby in a crib.”
While pressuring the Menomonee Falls School Board in May 2011, Belling referred to a member of the board as a “whore of the teachers’ union.” Earlier in 2011, Belling delved into age-old tropes about Jews, noting that many members of the “powerful opposition” behind the construction of a hotel in downtown Milwaukee were “Jewish.” One of the people he named as part of this opposition, in fact, was not. When local Jewish advocates responded, he said: “It has been me, and only me, that has actually called out some Jewish leaders for being insufficiently appreciative of just how much hate there is for them among many of their supposed allies in the Democratic Party.” He continued: “Not every reference to being Jewish is a shot or a slur. Some are mere statements of fact. Or, as Golda Meir once pointed out, we Milwaukee Jews will always be a family.” In 2007, Belling claimed that “even moderate Muslims seem to hate all Jews.”
Belling does all of this with the support of his employers at WISN-AM, who regularly pollute the airwaves with offensive material. In September 2011, WISN-AM received numerous complaints about an ad for a cigar bar (emails to the station were saved in the public file and obtained by Imagine2050). One listener described the ad as “a woman describing a sexual encounter that was not only graphic but extremely disturbing.” Another described the ad as “violent” and having to do with a “ghost story/legend of a rape of killing.”
Today, the students’ supporters are sending postcards to WISN-AM with this message:
I am distressed by Mark Belling’s attacks on Voces de la Frontera student leaders, parents, and community members as they honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. Youth Empowered in the Struggle (YES) should not be discouraged from celebrating this important day, or following Martin Luther King Jr.’s example every day by working on civil rights and voting rights issues in our community. Belling will not divide us—it’s time to take hate off the airwaves.
You can also support YES students by sending an email to WISN-AM station manager Jerry Bott at firstname.lastname@example.org with the same message. It’s time WISN-AM took hate off the air.