Anger boils over in Milwaukee

August 16, 2016

Nicole Colson describes the factors underlying the days of bitter protests in Milwaukee following the police killing of 23-year-old Sylville Smith.

THE DEATH of yet another Black man at the hands of police--this time in Milwaukee on August 13--touched off nights of rebellious protests as crowds of people confronted officers and demanded justice.

The anger may have erupted over another police killing, but bitter discontent was years in the making--the result of systematic racism and discrimination that has left Milwaukee's Black residents in the position of second-class citizens.

On Saturday afternoon, Milwaukee cops shot and killed 23-year-old Sylville Smith. According to police, Smith was armed, and had attempted to flee a traffic stop. He was shot, they claim, after turning toward police with a gun in his hand and refusing an order to drop the weapon.

The encounter with police reportedly lasted less than 25 seconds. An autopsy reportedly indicated that Smith was shot in the chest and arm.

Smith's family denies that he had a gun in his hand when he was shot.

But police and the media immediately blamed Smith. Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn told reporters at a press conference that Smith was seen "acting suspiciously," and that the victim had a "lengthy arrest record"--which police later released to the media.

Protesters confront police following the murder of Sylville Smith
Protesters confront police following the murder of Sylville Smith (Tory Lowe)

But most of the 32 citations Smith had received from police since 2010 were for minor traffic violations, like driving without insurance and not wearing a seatbelt. The media made much of the fact that Smith was charged with "recklessly endangering safety" and witness intimidation in relation to a 2015 shooting--but few outlets mentioned that both charges were dismissed.

As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel conceded more than halfway through a report about Smith's "lengthy arrest record": "Online court records show Smith has one prior conviction for carrying a concealed weapon, a misdemeanor. The rest of the arrests did not result in charges or were dismissed."

FOLLOWING THE killing, dozens of people in the predominantly Black neighborhood of Sherman Park on Milwaukee's Northwest Side gathered at the scene of the shooting and began confronting police.

Later, some protesters set fires and threw rocks and bricks at officers who advanced on the crowd and attempted to push people out of an intersection. A police car and at least half a dozen businesses, including a gas station, a bank and an auto parts shop, were destroyed or damaged.

In response, Wisconsin's right-wing Republican Gov. Scott Walker activated the National Guard--though Guard troops did not appear to have been mobilized the following evening during a renewed round of protests.

Protests on Sunday night were smaller than the ones in the immediate aftermath of Smith's killing, but there were more reports of clashes between protesters and heavily armed riot police, and of property damage. At least one person was reportedly shot, though it wasn't clear by whom, and 14 people were arrested for disorderly conduct.

The media and political leaders were quick to declare the protests a spasm of mindless violence. But the anger driving the protests is a response to systematic violence, racism, discrimination and police brutality inflicted on Milwaukee's Black residents for decades.

For many people in Milwaukee, the issue isn't whether or not Sylville Smith had a gun in his hand, but whether anyone will acknowledge the relentless structural racism that permeates life for the city's Black population.

Milwaukee is one of the most segregated cities in America--if not the most. As the New York Times reported, it is a city where:

Black men are incarcerated or unemployed at some of the highest rates in the country, and where the difference in poverty between Black and white residents is about one and a half times the national average. There are barren lots and worn-down homes all over the predominantly Black north side, while mostly white crowds traffic through the restaurants and boutiques downtown, or inhabit the glossy lakefront high rises.

At the same time, decades of "white flight" have created a situation today in which African Americans are overwhelmingly concentrated in the city, while whites are concentrated in suburban enclaves. According to CNN, Blacks and Latinos account for 57 percent of Milwaukee residents, while the neighboring suburban counties of Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington are less than 2 percent African American and less than 5 percent Latino.

By every measure, Blacks in Wisconsin as a whole are doing worse than their white counterparts: they have the highest poverty rate and the highest unemployment rate of any state in the country.

Four out of five Black children in Wisconsin live in poverty, and the state's prisons incarcerate Black men at a higher rate than in any other state.

ALL THIS underlies the explosive protests in Milwaukee. As Sherman Park resident Sharlen Moore told the New York Times, "This isn't just, 'Oh, my gosh, all of a sudden this happened.' It's a series of things that has happened over a period of time. And right now you shake a soda bottle and you open the top and it explodes, and this is what it is."

For many people, the shooting of Smith recalled the 2014 police killing of Dontre Hamilton, a mentally ill Black man. Hamilton had been sleeping in a park when Officer Christopher Manney roused him and began to pat him down. Manney claimed Hamilton began to struggle with him--and so he shot Hamilton 14 times.

Manney was fired from the force after an internal review found that he had no reasonable suspicion to frisk Hamilton and that he did not follow proper departmental procedure--but the prosecutor declined to file charges against Manney for the death.

Describing the protests in the wake of Sylville Smith's killing, the Coalition for Justice, an activist group that formed in the wake of Dontre Hamilton's killing, said in a statement on social media:

The rioting and looting that occurred last night in the city of Milwaukee is a demand for justice on every level. We are one of the most segregated cities in the United States. We are the worst city for Black children to grow up. We are a city of inequities, of under-education, of unemployment, of oppression, of drug abuse, of violence.

What happened last night was a revolt and an uproar, not just a disturbance. The media has no problem to classify us at thugs, but have been reluctant to call a spade a spade. The people are angry. The people are fed up, and the people are demanding their freedom. The Coalition for Justice feels the pain.

THE RESPONSE of Milwaukee's political, business and law enforcement establishments has been to blame the victims of systematic oppression.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett singled out groups of young Black men for "deliberately trying to damage a great neighborhood in a great city." Police Chief Ed Flynn pointed the finger at members of a communist group who he claimed came from Chicago to "cause problems."

Meanwhile, Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke topped them all with his comment to Fox's America's Newsroom: "I won't be happy until these creep rioters crawl back in their hole."

Clarke, who is Black, became notorious after his bloodthirsty address at the Republican National Convention that celebrated the acquittal of six officers in the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore and excoriated the Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter movements.

Clarke has made other ludicrously bigoted statements, including saying that "[T]here is no police brutality in America. We ended that back in the '60s," "The Black Lies [sic] Matter movement will join forces with ISIS" and that Blacks "sell drugs and involve themselves in criminal behavior, instead of a more socially acceptable lifestyle: because they're uneducated, they're lazy, and they're morally bankrupt."

But the Milwaukee law enforcement establishment Clarke speaks for is one of the most corrupt in the country. For every 1,000 Milwaukee police officers, 36.7 are arrested for committing crimes, according to one report.

In his speech at the Republican convention, Clarke had the gall to quote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to the crowd. King, Clarke said, "spoke of the basic morality of the rule of law, provided that it is applied equally to both the wealthy and the impoverished; both men and women, and yes, the majority and the minority."

But a more honest memory of King's attitude toward the anger expressed once again on the streets of Milwaukee would have remembered these words, spoken a few weeks before the civil rights leader was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee:

I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last 12 or 15 years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.

Now every year about this time, our newspapers and our televisions and people generally start talking about the long hot summer ahead. What always bothers me is that the long hot summer has always been preceded by a long cold winter. And the great problem is that the nation has not used its winters creatively enough to develop the program, to develop the kind of massive acts of concern that will bring about a solution to the problem. And so we must still face the fact that our nation's summers of riots are caused by our nations winters of delay.

Today, people in the streets of Milwaukee--just like in Ferguson, Baltimore and elsewhere before them--are making themselves heard once again, and raising the question of what it will take to stop racism and police violence in America.

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