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Standing Up for Democracy

Aug. 28, 2013
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Bradley Manning
It’s a cruel irony that Pfc. Bradley Manning was sentenced to 35 years in federal prison for revealing information the government wanted to keep secret from the American people about wartime atrocities while presidential and vice presidential perpetrators of atrocities such as torture and waterboarding walk free.

But citizens also should know about a proud moment in history when Milwaukee stood up against a previous government attempt to use espionage laws to suppress political dissent and free speech.

Manning was charged and convicted under the Espionage Act of 1917, passed when the United States entered World War I.

Among the very first people ever convicted under that law were Victor Berger, a Milwaukee newspaper publisher, and four staff members of The Milwaukee Leader, a national socialist newspaper published here.

In March 1918, Berger and his four employees were arrested and charged with sedition, inciting rebellion against the government.

Their heinous crime? Publishing anti-war editorials. Like many Eastern European socialists, Berger, the intellectual leader of the socialist movement that governed Milwaukee for four decades, opposed U.S. involvement in World War I.

Most people today understand why the U.S. eventually entered World War II against Adolph Hitler and Nazi Germany in 1941. They’re probably much less clear on why the U.S. went to war against Germany’s previous government 24 years earlier.

The arrest of Berger and his staff was just the beginning of that historic blot on democracy. The five Milwaukeeans were tried in December 1918, before a tough federal judge in Chicago named Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

If that name sounds familiar, it’s because he later became the first commissioner of baseball. He was charged with cleaning up the game after the 1919 Chicago Black Sox scandal when White Sox players threw the World Series after being bought off by gambler Arnold Rothstein.

Landis wasn’t exactly a pillar of integrity himself. He refused to recuse himself as judge even though he’d publicly accused German Americans of “reeking with disloyalty.”

Berger and the others were quickly convicted and Landis sentenced them each to 20 years in prison at Leavenworth. Hey, today it could have been 35.

There’s a happier ending, though, or as happy as can result from a travesty against democracy and a free press.

While Berger was awaiting trial on those federal charges in November, Milwaukee elected him as their U.S. Congressman. But when Berger showed up in Washington in January to be sworn in while appealing his conviction, Congress refused to seat him.

A new election was ordered and something remarkable happened that should make anyone who believes in democracy very proud. Milwaukeeans re-elected Berger by an even greater margin than they had before.

Again Congress refused to seat Berger and Milwaukee was without an elected congressman for two years. By 1922, however, the U.S. Supreme Court had overturned Berger’s conviction. He was elected again and served three terms.


Exposing War Crimes Isn’t Treason

The courage of our Milwaukee predecessors in standing up for democracy against the government’s abusive use of espionage laws is needed today more than ever.

Back in journalism school, we learned one of the most important jobs of journalism in a democracy was to reveal important information the government tries to hide from its own citizens.

That puts journalism squarely on the side of Manning, Edward Snowden and anyone of conscience who sees war crimes committed or massive unconstitutional surveillance of citizens and risks his own freedom to inform the public.

When our own government uses national security as an excuse to hide war crimes and unconstitutional acts from the American people, exposing that isn’t treason. It’s patriotism.

But some corporate journalists today have actually come out in support of government secrecy over the public’s right to know.

They’ve attacked journalist Glenn Greenwald, who publicized Snowden’s revelations about massive government spying on American citizens, for being an “activist journalist,” as if that were a bad thing.

The best journalists have always been activist journalists. Investigative reporting is activist journalism. Reporters see corruption or injustice and expose it to actively try to bring it to an end.

Watergate was activist journalism. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein actively succeeded in bringing down a president for running a burglary ring out of the White House and unconstitutionally using the power of government to punish anyone considered to be a political enemy.

The saddest moment in the Manning trial was when the defendant, fighting for his life against a possible 90-year sentence, said he now wonders how a lowly private first class ever could have believed he could change the world for the better by doing what he did.

Despite the draconian imprisonment of Manning for revealing truth the government didn’t want citizens in a democracy to know, idealistic young men and women in this country should never stop believing that no matter who they are they can change the world for the better.

Because they can and they do.


Would white supremacists, neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan pose the same threat they do now if a mainstream Republican were president instead of Donald Trump?

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