Is the Milwaukee ‘People’s Flag’ Finally Official?

Is the Milwaukee ‘People’s Flag’ Finally Official?

Short answer: no.

Those who fly Milwaukee’s “People’s Flag” may have to wait at least until the end of the year before the prefix can be dropped from the banner’s “unofficial” qualifier.

During a meeting at City Hall on Thursday, members of a Common Council committee voted to strip down the proposal to legitimize the popular “sunrise” flag and send the question of a redesign to the Milwaukee Arts Board.

“Flags really do have power,” said Steve Kodis, leader of the people’s flag movement and self-described “flag guy,” as he plead his case to the council’s Steering and Rules Committee. “I believe Milwaukee is a great city, and I think it deserves a great flag.”

While he had hoped Thursday would bring his team one step closer to their final goal, the initiative screeched to a halt when Ald. Bob Bauman took the floor and explained his skepticism, raising questions in regard to total cost and widespread city approval. In addition, he argued, the process for designing and replacing the official city flag should rest with the appointed members of the Milwaukee Arts Board.

“Of course, this is a democratic issue, this is a city government issue. There has to be process,” Kodis said after the meeting.

Bauman introduced a substitute measure to send the question of flag replacement to the board, with a friendly amendment added that the board report back to the council by the end of December.

Laura Vanderbilt and Tom Bamberger display the official Milwaukee flag at a MilMag Live event in 2017; photo by Moriah Bame

“This resolution does essentially three things,” Bauman said. “Number one, it asks the arts board to make a recommendation on the threshold issue if we need a new flag. I think that should be discussed separately. There may be differing opinions on that. Number two, if there is a judgement there should be a new flag, then the question becomes what should it look like. Then the arts board would be instructed to develop a process for considering options and considering designs and making a recommendation of one. And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, most significantly, what’s it going to cost? No one seems to bother with cost.”

The motion passed 6 to 2, with Ald. Khalif Rainey, a sponsor of the measure to make the people’s flag official, and Council President Ashanti Hamilton being the only two dissenters.

“People already own the flag, regardless of what we do today,” Rainey said in response. “I think for once, it’s an opportunity for us to actually be in unison with what the people of Milwaukee are doing.”

Milwaukee Brewing MKE IPA Pint GlassIn the nearly four years since Kodis set out to replace Milwaukee’s official dated, messy, barely-known baby blue banner — a venture that included the city-wide design contest and voting process that ultimately led to the proposed new flag — Kodis has seen the “Sunrise Over the Lake” banner pop up everywhere around the city: flying on rooftops and porches, plastered across the MKE brewery’s IPA bottles and cans, and even being re-appropriated into the Milwaukee Brewers logo.

“I had no idea that Milwaukee even had a flag,” said Cheryl Neumann, who was in attendance with her husband, Bob, as a show of support for Kodis’ proposal. “But we’ve had [a people’s flag] flying on our front porch since you could buy one.”

The Neumanns were among nearly two dozen citizens who came to City Hall and witnessed Kodis’ presentation, which also included remarks from its creator, Robert Lenz. Lenz, a local graphic designer, spoke to the flag’s deeper meaning, which calls for a hopeful, more united future for the city.

“I obviously have tremendous bias, but it’s so clear,” Kodis said. “Not everyone’s going to love it, not everyone loves everything… But I think we just continue letting people own it the way they have the last few years. There’s nothing more we can do. The people already own it.”

Ald. Michael Murphy, who chairs the arts board, says he’ll talk to Bauman to get some “clarity” on what exactly the arts board is charged with doing, before taking up the subject. Murphy says he’s personally a fan of the “sunrise” design.

The People’s Flag was selected in online voting in 2016. In all, 1,006 designs were submitted in an effort led by Kodis and others, and a committee of five people culled them down to about 120, and then to 50 semifinalists. That group then picked five finalists, and let the public choose the winner out of those five. Lenz’s “Sunrise Over the Lake” won – a decision announced on Flag Day in 2016.