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Sausage Sizzles at Center of Milwaukee Racial Tension : Civil rights: An activist black alderman is censured in a product-tampering scare. His defenders say real issues are ignored.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a town where beer is champagne and bratwurst is caviar, the plump, German luncheon link has become embroiled in a bizarre racial dispute that is sizzling hotter this summer than a backyard barbecue.

The City Council Friday voted to censure Michael McGee, a flamboyant black alderman who has previously threatened urban guerrilla violence against whites, for his part in a product tampering scare last weekend.

Up to 80,000 pounds of bratwurst and other sausages were yanked from local grocery shelves after McGee claimed that he had been informed of a terrorist threat to inject rat poison into the products of a local sausage manufacturer, a company that had opposed plans to rename a downtown street after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

No tainted meat has been found and no charges have been filed in connection with the incident.

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The 11-3 censure vote, the first action of its kind in the council’s 140-year history, came after a week of mounting tensions that virtually paralyzed city government, as McGee traded insults with white city officials who accused him of concocting the poison story to get headlines and scare people.

Black leaders, meanwhile, rushed to McGee’s defense, demanding apologies from his critics and charging them with ignoring the serious economic and social plight of minorities in Milwaukee, a community rarely thought of by outsiders as a caldron of black-white friction.

At least 25% of Milwaukee’s 600,000 residents are black. According to a variety of government and private studies, the city is considered one of the nation’s most segregated and leads the country in such dubious categories as the disparity between black and white unemployment.

The tough-talking McGee, strutting through the council chambers in black military-style garb and wearing on his hip a holster containing a slingshot, greeted Friday’s council action with a mix of defiance, bluster and threats.

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“This means nothing to me whatsoever but it just confirms my statements about how racist this city is,” he charged during debate. " . . . In the black community, we’re opposed to violence as much as anybody (but) it seems to me the only thing white people understand is violence.”

As he spoke, supporters in the gallery erupted in applause. Among them were at least a dozen people clad like McGee in the uniform of his self-styled Black Panther Militia and waving signs that declared: “Milwaukee is a racist city” and “By any means necessary.”

Once a member of the original militant Black Panther group, McGee caused a stir in Milwaukee last February when he announced the formation of an updated version, which he warned would begin a wave of terrorist attacks in 1995 unless inner-city schools, job opportunities and other programs had made a dramatic turnaround. In interviews, he suggested his group could roll burning tires down freeways, lob bombs into the arena during Milwaukee Bucks basketball games and even take hostages.

More recently, he has been at the forefront of a drive to rename six blocks known as Old World Milwaukee Street. The section is part of what once was known as Third Street. Several years ago, all but those few blocks, which contain a turn of the century tourist complex of ethnic German shops and restaurants, were renamed for King.

Merchants on the street have resisted any name change, saying it would be an inconvenience and confuse tourists. The most prominent of the opponents is Usinger’s, a 110-year-old family-owned sausage empire founded by German immigrants. The main Usinger’s retail shop is on the street, but it sells its products in groceries throughout the metropolitan area.

On June 22, McGee delivered a letter to police saying that the previous day he had received a phone call about poisoned sausage from a group he identified as the Militant African Underground Squared, or Mau-Mau. In the letter, McGee disavowed any involvement in the alleged sabotage. “Any type of action like this I would only endorse after 1995,” he wrote.

Authorities said they’d never heard of the group and questioned why, if the threat was real, McGee would wait several hours and inform the media first before passing the warning on to police.

Mayor John O. Norquist defiantly stuffed an Usinger’s sausage into his mouth during a press conference in which he denounced McGee as a “demented” publicity seeker out to fan racial hatred rather than help the underprivileged.

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Nevertheless, the company ordered a precautionary recall of its package products from 150 area stores. Though he declined to give a specific number, company spokesman Evan Zeppos said the costs of the recall would be “substantial” both to Usinger’s and the public.

“We’re at the height of the barbecue season here,” he said. “People in Milwaukee take their sausage very seriously.”

However unnerving his manner, McGee’s tactics raise serious questions about the continuing gap, not just in lifestyles, but also in perceptions of blacks and whites. Critics attack McGee as irresponsible and divisive. Sympathizers, on the other hand, say it sometimes takes extreme pressure to get whites to take notice of black problems. “This is a very segregated city and we’re tired of being ignored,” explained Elizabeth Coggs-Jones, a member of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors and who is black.

But Alderman Thomas Nardelli, a white who voted for the censure action, said McGee’s antics only diverted attention from the causes he claimed to espouse.


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