Wednesday night, in a show of community support not seen since that time 71 people signed a Change.org petition to book DJ Paris Hilton at every Summerfest until the apocalypse, a dozen people, three journalists, and two antsy toddlers gathered in the sweltering Bay View High School auditorium to hear a presentation from organizers of the People’s Flag of Milwaukee initiative. Ald. Tony Zielinski presided over the 45-minute town hall meeting, which was meant to gauge interest in adopting the People’s Flag—unveiled in June, after a well-run and highly publicized contest drew more than 1,000 entries—as the official flag of Milwaukee. It would eventually be revealed that all but two people in attendance had close ties to the People’s Flag initiative.
People’s Flag brainchild Steve Kodis made the presentation, which covered the general purpose of flags, the “five rules of good flag design” handed down to Moses on Mount Sinai, and that TED Talk in which podcast host Roman Mars called the official Milwaukee flag—adopted in 1954—a “hot mess” and one of the worst in the country. (Mars has never commented on the stir his talk has caused in Milwaukee, putting him in the same league as that guy who breezed into town and decided a random Shorewood sculpture was anti-Semitic. They’re like neighbors who take a dump in your bathroom and then leave.) Despite the heat, an uncooperative PA, noise from an industrial-sized fan, and a non-existent projection setup (a PowerPoint was screened via laptop only), Kodis ran through his presentation smoothly and confidentially.
Also speaking was the winner of the People’s Flag contest, Robert Lenz. Using a full-sized flag featuring his “Sunrise Over the Lake” design, Lenz discussed the symbolism behind the flag (the light blue bars represent the city’s three rivers and founding towns, the gold symbolizes our brewing history, the white represents a united city, etc.), and his hope that it could become a rallying point for for a forward-looking Milwaukee. Seen up close and in real life, Lenz’s People’s Flag was impressive: bright, bold, and eye-catching. It adheres to the “five rules of good flag design” and looks great on merch.
Next, Kodis and Lenz surprised Ald. Zielinski by asking him to read a letter from beloved Milwaukee historian John Gurda, who could not be present. With all the gravitas of the Academy reading a Lifetime Achievement Award acceptance speech from an absent Woody Allen, Zielinski shared Gurda’s thoughts on the People’s Flag initiative (“the most ambitious civic project in the city’s history”), as well as his disdain for the current Milwaukee flag, which he called “a time capsule from a dead generation.” Gurda, as Milwaukee well knows, is awesome, and will break your goddamn kneecaps if he catches you discussing Milwaukee history without his permission.
Following the reading of Gurda’s letter, Ald. Zielinski noted his constituents seemed to be “70-30” in favor of adopting the People’s Flag. He then asked for a show of hands. Roughly a dozen people raised their hands in support of the People’s Flag. Only two raised their hands in opposition: Milwaukee Record co-founder Matt Wild (that’s me!), and Shepherd Express music critic Evan Rytlewski, who showed up to the meeting wearing a Milwaukee flag T-shirt I totally bought him before an old episode of The Disclaimer. Then we were called up in front of the group to explain our opposition, because of course we were.
Rytlewski used his time to ask how many people had ties to the People’s Flag initiative (all but two), and to explain his belief that the Milwaukee flag should be kept as-is. Ken Hanson, organizer of the Greater Together initiative that has partnered with Kodis, agreed with some of Rytlewski’s points, but noted the People’s Flag movement—which has included diversity outreach and workshops for students—has led to a worthwhile conversation on the future of Milwaukee. Rytlewski wondered if the majority of Milwaukeeans cared about the flag one way or another, and claimed that online comments were overwhelmingly negative. Kodis noted that hey, come on, what do you expect from online comments? Members of the audience—some wearing People’s Flag T-shirts—agreed with Kodis and refuted Rylewski’s claims. Ald. Zielinski applauded everyone for the lively democratic debate, and explained that while adopting or not adopting the People’s Flag was “not uppermost on my mind,” he appreciated the discussion. When asked if I had anything to add, I replied “Nope!” and sat down.
Some issues went unaddressed. Throughout the People’s Flag campaign and Wednesday night’s meeting, the awfulness of the current Milwaukee flag was seen as obvious and self-evident. Is it? Is the current flag’s outdated and stereotypical depiction of a Native American a concern, or is the flag’s flagrant violation of the “five rules of good flag design” more important? Is discarding our quirky past in favor of a generic, “reinvented-rust-belt-city” vision that paints Milwaukee as home to “entrepreneurs, creators, and optimists” really a good idea? Despite the scorn of Roman Mars, is the People’s Flag a solution in search of a problem? Is replacing the current Milwaukee flag something Milwaukee truly cares about, or is it simply the pet project of the creative class? A lot of involvement and excitement (and press) led up to the unveiling of the People’s Flag, but will there be enough to convince city officials to adopt it? Yes, Wednesday’s meeting was held on a 85-degree weekday in the middle of summer (and Summerfest, to boot), but did its poor turnout point to potential future problems for the People’s Flag movement?
In the end, everyone in attendance thanked each other for their time and thoughts. People chatted, shook hands, and laughed. Kodis wondered how much credit he should take for Tyler Maas’ Milwaukee flag tattoo. Rytlewski was interviewed by CBS 58. It seemed Hanson was right: whether or not the People’s Flag becomes the official Milwaukee flag, this is a conversation worth having, and a movement worth following. We all love Milwaukee. We’re all filled with Milwaukee pride. We just have different ideas on how to show it—or fly it.