MILWAUKEE -- No one seems to know quite what to make of Mike McGee, alderman from Milwaukee's 10th ward: Is he a blast from the past or a sign of things to come?

Many say McGee is a hallway commando who appropriated the rhetoric of 1960s-style black revolution simply to advance his ego. Others say he is exactly what white Milwaukee deserved after decades of ignoring America's most deceptive ghetto, which looks from the outside like a typical midwestern community of sturdy old homes yet has the worst social disadvantages, from unemployment to teen pregnancy.

Whether his goal is to bring attention to desperate problems in the inner city or just to himself, one certainty about McGee is that he has mastered the theater of the absurd. Elected to the Common Council six years ago, McGee occasionally has created a stir by blowing whistles to disrupt meetings or wearing a bag over his head to protest some manifestation of racism. But that was merely rehearsal for this year, when McGee has worked overtime conjuring ways to befuddle and agitate the city's establishment.

In February, McGee announced formation of a Black Panther Militia that he said would direct violence against white elites in five years unless $100 million was invested in Milwaukee's black community. "I just drew a line in the sand and said, after 1995, anything goes," he said. "All's fair in love and war, and this ain't love." The militia might stage a terrorist strike at the Bradley Center or County Stadium someday, McGee threatened, or start rolling burning tires down onto freeways that carry white suburbanites through the predominantly black northwest side on their way downtown.

"I've been studying this," he said. "I've got 1,001 ways that we can completely disrupt white life in Milwaukee. It ain't going to take a lot."

Last month, upset at opposition to his request that Martin Luther King Drive have that name all the way through town, including the stretch traditionally called Old World Third Street, McGee claimed that rat poison had been injected into one of the products made on Old World Third -- Usinger's Famous Sausages. Mayor John O. Norquist, a liberal elected with McGee's support, reached a public conclusion that the councilman had "a demented mind." McGee responded by calling him "Mayor Norqwurst."

After that episode, McGee's council colleagues voted, 11 to 3, to censure him, a largely symbolic statement of disapproval.

This month, McGee found a bigger target. He threatened to bring his militia downtown last Sunday to disrupt the Great Circus Parade, a midsummer extravaganza of marching elephants, caged cats and clowns that attracts enormous crowds along main streets. "Be advised that the Black Panther Militia will not bring our children," McGee wrote in a memo to Ben Barkin, a public relations executive and a parade organizer. "I'm sure they wouldn't enjoy this parade. I don't think any children should be present -- things could get ugly."

The city obtained a court order restraining his militia from interfering with the circus parade, which McGee obeyed. In return, city leaders agreed to set up a committee to study racial inequity in Milwaukee.

The search for reasons behind McGee's behavior leads deep into the uncertain state of American race relations in 1990.

'It's a Survival Code'

One morning in June, after the rat poison incident, McGee sat in the office of his friend and benefactor, Jerrel Jones, the city's leading black communications executive, owner of the Milwaukee Courier newspaper and radio station WNOV. On the surface, they seemed like an odd couple -- McGee, 40, a longtime radical hell-raiser who served in Vietnam, dropped out of college and once was on the periphery of the original Black Panthers; and Jones, 50, a successful businessman with Republican ties who said his favorite American philosopher is First Lady Barbara Bush. But as they voiced frustrations on issues of race, they sounded like brothers in arms.

Milwaukee has the money to solve its problems, McGee said, but was more interested in creating a glistening downtown facade. "Animals in the Milwaukee Zoo had better food, shelter and health care than many of the city's blacks," he said.

Jones shook his head in agreement. By the year 2000, he said, Milwaukee probably will have a black mayor, "but by then the city will be a financial basket case."

"A black mayor, but no money," McGee said.

"And then they'll indict him," Jones said. "They'll give you a black mayor and then indict him for cocaine."

"Right!" McGee said. "With all the problems he'll face, he'll turn to drugs."

"No black man in America should be held physically or morally responsible for anything that he does in the United States," Jones said.

"Yeah, I agree," McGee said. "We all know that being a black man you are under a tremendous amount of psychological pressure," so strong, he said, that he understood why District Mayor Marion Barry could have turned to drugs. "In a way, I can almost condone it," McGee said. "I can. I can see why a black man cracks at one of those malls and just goes in there and starts killing white people. When you've got all these people conspiring against you, man, it's war."

McGee was asked if he lived by a moral code.

"My moral code is that I don't feel there are any laws that the United States has made that I'm bound to respect because I consider myself to be at a state of war," he said. "I consider the white structure to be the enemy. I live by a set of codes that are accepted and condoned by my community. I call them black laws. There are white laws, and there are black laws. The black code is set by black society and has standards passed down to me through generations that have been able to make it despite all the oppression. In other words, it's a survival code."

A few miles away, in his office on the fifth floor of what used to be the Schlitz brewery, Howard Fuller, 48, rose from his chair in a burst of anger and frustration when told what Jones and McGee said about absolving blacks for whatever actions they take. Fuller, a longtime black activist in Milwaukee now trying to change things from the inside as director of the county department of social services, has been cautious this year in comments about McGee.

He does not want the debate in Milwaukee to deteriorate into a shouting match among black leaders. To him, the focus should be on severe problems facing blacks, not on McGee's sideshows. Even when McGee called Fuller a "lackey" for the white establishment, Fuller remained outwardly calm. Now his voice choked as he paced his office.

"Absurd!" Fuller said of McGee's version of race-based ethics. "It's a sign of how much trouble we're in. The definition of whether you're on the side of the people has somehow become linked to how outrageous you can be in condemning white people. . . . We have to make ethical decisions. Anyone who's studied Malcolm {Malcolm X} knows the importance of self-responsibility."

Fuller walked down the hallway to a window looking west. Below, in a church schoolyard, he saw the playground where he developed basketball skills that carried him through Milwaukee North High and Carroll College in Waukesha, where he was the first black on scholarship. Beyond, in the middle distance, was the public housing project where he and many other successful Milwaukee blacks grew up in the 1950s and 1960s.

"There is a contradiction here that we're dealing with in America," Fuller said. "While more African Americans are now able to pass on to their children the American dream than ever before, at the same time the problems are greater than ever before. For all of our gains, at the bottom there has been an explosion of problems and negative behaviors. The contradiction is enormously frustrating for many of us because, to be honest about it, very few of us know what to do."

Fuller and McGee bleed from the same wound. One gets the headaches, the other gets the headlines.

Fuller searches for answers in commitment, focus and hope. "What was always here for me was hope," he said. "I never thought I couldn't make it."

McGee has concluded that violence, or the threat of violence, is the only response left. "All that hope stuff, man, 911 just came in," he said. "Hope's been dead in the black community since before it was born."

Community Deterioration

Stories about hopelessness in America's ghettos usually focus elsewhere, but the statistics are stunning in Milwaukee, where about one-third of the 650,000 residents are black. Here are just a few findings from recent reports by the Milwaukee Urban League and the Black Community Emergency Relief Task Force:

Milwaukee leads the nation in the percentage of its births to black teenagers -- 30.8 percent.

Milwaukee's black community has the highest percentage of single-parent households -- 43.8 percent.

Milwaukee has the most acute shortage of males in its black community. The black male population would have to be increased 42 percent to match the black female population. It ranks second nationally in the percentage of black males incarcerated.

Blacks in Milwaukee are five times more likely to be unemployed than whites, the greatest disparity of any large metropolitan area in the nation.

More than 75 percent of black males in the Milwaukee public schools have grade point averages below 2.0. Milwaukee ranked third nationally in suspending black students more often than whites.

Fuller contends the deterioration of Milwaukee's black community can be explained in part by the city's industrial history. The black middle class here, he said, was never entrepreneurial and thus was less capable of passing wealth and education values from generation to generation. "The middle class was comprised of families where both parents were working in the factories," he said. "When Milwaukee lost 25,000 manufacturing jobs" over the last 15 years, "it essentially wiped out the black middle class."

Beyond that, he said, black students were used as pawns in the integration of Milwaukee schools. "Until recently, the system never really gave a damn about the education of African-American kids, particularly poor ones," he said. The loss of jobs and an ill-equipped school system combined to create an economic wall that few blacks could scale, Fuller said, and as the wall seemed more imposing, social problems increased. The most troubling problem to him today, he said, is child abuse. "We're pulling kids out of horrible situations every day," he said. The number of cases in Milwaukee has doubled in five years.

"There is no doubt in my mind that, unless a change occurs in the economic foundations of our situation, it will be extremely difficult . . . to significantly alter some of the negative behavior patterns that most African-American people themselves vigorously oppose," Fuller said in a recent speech. "At the same time, there must be a push to establish positive messages and directions for our community."

Interviewing Recruits

On a hot summer afternoon, McGee arrived at a community center on Martin Luther King Drive to interview applicants for the Black Panther Militia. Fifteen men and women, from age 16 to 62, were ready to enlist. Next door, in the driveway of St. Gall Catholic Church, hundreds of blacks were lined up for free hot meals provided by suburban white churchgoers. McGee said he died a little every time he saw the daily meal routine. When he was younger, he said, he was in that line himself.

"I'm like a doctor," he said, explaining why he formed the militia, which now has nearly 200 uniformed members and several hundred adjunct members. "We all agree the patient is terminally ill. The black man is in danger of vanishing from the face of the Earth. I'm saying, look, we need some radical surgery. You become desperate. A drowning man will reach for a toothpick if it floats by."

The Black Panther recruits did not talk about staging terrorist strikes at the Bradley Center or rolling burning tires onto the freeway. Their motivation, they said, is to feel pride. The first potential recruit was Eddie Martin, 60, a Korean War veteran.

McGee: What is your reason for joining the Black Panther Militia?

Martin: All right, I'm interested in joining the Black Panther Militia organization because we need a semi-police force to protect our people. The need for a black organization, such as the Jews have, to protect our men, our women, our children and ourselves as black men. We must be recognized as men.

McGee and two lieutenants interviewed an 18-year-old who said joining the militia was "the only way we can get justice," then a 16-year-old who said he had been suspended from high school for distributing McGee literature, then three women ranging in age from 20 to 38. "You need me, and I need you," one said. Next came Donald Henry, 34, a tennis instructor, who said he found McGee's philosophy more relevant today than Jesse L. Jackson's concept of a rainbow coalition.

"What Jesse's doing is, he's for all, but in a sense he's for no one," Henry said.

Six more men joined the militia that night, including Frank Hildahl Jr., who took a bus to the interview from his apartment two miles away. Hildahl, 46, is blind. He said he wanted "to help upgrade the community."

The next morning, McGee toured four blood plasma centers on North Avenue. At each, he encountered dozens of black men waiting to be hooked to machines that extracted plasma for a $10 payment. The process takes about 40 minutes and leaves many men feeling dizzy. They are supposed to do it only twice a week, but many roam from center to center, giving plasma several times a day to acquire money for malt liquor and cigarettes.

"They milk these people," McGee said, his voice cracking. "They milk them like cows."

As McGee walked down the street, he encountered three men sharing a bottle. They were holding what McGee called "a 40-ounce convention."

"Got money for this from the blood bank," one said.

"Better than robbing and stealing," another said.

"Keeps the pain away," the third added.

In the auto-repair shops and bars of white ethnic south Milwaukee, McGee is the most hated of men. A popular item being faxed from place to place this summer is a racist version of a Black Panther Militia application form. There has been talk about forming a counter militia.

But generally whites here seem to feel that McGee is more of a publicity hound than a physical threat. "It sure doesn't help the community," said longtime publicist Barkin, a part owner of the Milwaukee Brewers baseball team. "You can't create a situation where people are loaded with fear and expect good things to happen."