Milwaukee, After the Fires

By Bakari Kitwana Aug 26, 2016

For a brief moment in mid-August, Milwaukee topped national headlines as the latest in a string of U.S. cities where unrest occurred in response to a police killing of a Black civilian. That civilian, Sylville Smith, was laid to rest this afternoon (August 26), with a eulogy delivered by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Smith, 23, was fatally shot on August 13 by a police officer following a traffic stop on the city’s north side. Police allege that Smith was armed with a stolen loaded handgun that he refused to drop when ordered. The family has said that Smith possessed a concealed-carry license. 

Citing safety concerns, the Milwaukee Police Department has not yet released the officer’s name. But the agency made his race—Black—public and placed him on administrative leave pending investigations into the shooting. Smith’s family has said that Sylville and the officer attended the same high school.

In the unrest following Smith’s instant death, police and reporters were injured, demonstrators were arrested and several buildings were torched. Mayor Tom Barrett eventually set a 10 p.m. curfew for people younger than 18 and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker threatened to bring in the National Guard. 

In advance of today’s funeral, Colorlines spoke to Milwaukee activists and community organizers who painted a different picture of what mainstream media has characterized as riots. They have been standing at the site of the Smith killing in Sherman Park and have staged protests daily since August 13. Here are their insights from the ground.

Shalina S. Ali, director of programs for TRUE Skool

On the climate of Milwaukee before Smith was killed: The people of this city are tired. They are tired of waiting for accountability for incidents that have led to the death of Black and Brown men in this city over the last couple of years. They are waiting to understand why funding for health care and other benefits have been cut and why raising the minimum wage so people can provide basic needs for their families is not considered a human right. Every day the people of this city are trying to survive. So, the uprising does not surprise me. It was simply a matter of time.
On moving forward: There is healing that needs to take place in the community. There are laws and systems that need to be dismantled. So many of our youth have already begun to seek education outside of our failing school systems, to acknowledge their power and to be the ones who dismantle these failing systems and heal our communities. I am hopeful for our future, and I will do everything in my power to support that. 

Ajau Butler, poet and activist, Heal the Hood

On the climate of Milwaukee before Smith was killed: The climate was fueled by oppression and regression. For years, Milwaukee has been ranked one of the worst places for police brutality. All an oppressed people need is a spark to ignite their fire.  

On moving forward: Moving forward, Black Milwaukee needs to put pressure on political leaders to control their race soldiers a.k.a.. the police. And I stand firm that Black dollars matter. We need to mobilize the Black dollar and use it to regain power in the ‘hoods. A gas station was burned down. What if 100 community members came together with $500 apiece. That’d be $50,000.

David Muhammad, assistant student minister, Muhammad Mosque #3

On the climate of Milwaukee before Smith was killed: When people say that Milwaukee has been a power keg for this type of unrest, it is reflective of the cumulative impact of trauma resulting from incidents of police-involved deaths over the years. With [millions of dollars] in settlements paid out [by the city], relations between the police and the community have been strained at best. You overlay this reality against a backdrop of hyper-segregation that is increasingly challenged by demographic shifts, to a younger, more Black and Brown city. Milwaukee, particularly the Sherman Park area, has been on edge all summer due to several flash points.  In late June there began to be tension over the large amount of teens in the park in the evenings that lead to clashes with Milwaukee County sheriffs deputies and police. Community activists and volunteers immediately stepped in to engage with young people in the park with little support from the sheriff’s office. Our local sheriff is nationally known for his divisive and inflammatory commentary regarding law enforcement and the Black community. It becomes a dangerous situation when this rhetoric manifests itself in the way his deputies carry out their duties. 

On moving forward: With the Sylville Smith killing, the prior tensions have met a new boiling point. Smith was a young man who was well known in youth circles, and was well known by the police. The police officer is also well known given his young age and connection to the community. So you have this perfect storm of poverty, racism, neglect and class because of a pervasive wealth gap that has further marginalized a generation of youth. For Milwaukee to fully recover, it will have to fix the social and economic disrepair that has plagued the Black community here for decades. We must be committed to addressing the root causes of the racial and economic disparities that exist in Milwaukee if we want to move forward.  This will demand a great deal of soul searching, agenda setting, and difficult truth-telling.

Fabiana Guzman, Milwaukee Violence Free Zone, site supervisor at Bradley Tech

On the climate of Milwaukee before Smith was killed: All anyone needs to gain insight into the climate in our community is sit down and listen to a child. They can tell you better that people are fed up with the police brutality sweeping the nation. There is a serious racial undertone that has been kept quiet for years. Now, social media has allowed people to see it all, raw and uncut. The climate here in Milwaukee is angry, hurt, fearful and painful.  It will continue to be the same until real change happens.

On moving forward: We spend many hours, days, weeks and years fighting for opportunities to benefit our children. Moving forward, we need serious policy changes, more resources, and the funding that is appropriated to our neighborhoods needs to actually come through. Investing in our youth is so crucial. [They need more] opportunities to engage in community-building and jobs. We also need to do more than hear our children. Their concerns should be addressed with the real-time who, what, where, why and how. Real change begins with the adults changing how they view and interact with our young people.

Dr. Donte L. McFadden, interim director of the Educational Opportunity Program at Marquette University; co-programmer, Black Lens Program 

On the climate of Milwaukee before Smith was killed: The Sherman Park area [where Smith died] was known for its elaborate homes owned by various stratifications of the professional sector, whether in education, government or corporate. Owning a home in Sherman Park was a distant goal for my family, as we spent my formative years frequenting neighborhoods throughout the north side. The years 2008 through 2010 saw foreclosures throughout the United States, and Milwaukee faced its share of residents whose dreams of home ownership were diminished by subprime loans. Sherman Park was hit hard, as the decline in home ownership coincided with a manufacturing sector that vacated the city dating back to the mid-1990s, and an increasing disinvestment in public education. 

On moving forward: Economically impoverished neighborhoods in Milwaukee are identified nationally by their high rates of unemployment, particularly among Black men. Black men are also identified with high incarceration, notably in the 53206 zip code, where the percentage of Black men who have been imprisoned leads the nation. Further exacerbating these realities are sharp cuts in Milwaukee public schools, and increasing tensions between the Milwaukee Police Department and residents in response to deaths while in police custody. Criticisms have been raised about business owners and police officers who did not live in the community in which they profited or patrolled. An important step in moving forward begins with a candid conversation about their commitment to dismantle systematic practices that have amplified racial disparities for so long.

Sharlen Moore, executive director, Urban Underground

On moving forward: In order for us to move forward, we must bring marginalized people to the table to be a part of the solution and this must include the voices of young people. Milwaukee is a great city to live in, but we have a lot of issues that need to be resolved in order for us to have an inclusive community in which all people are valued. 

David Bowen, state representative 

On the climate of Milwaukee before Smith was killed: The climate before was traumatic as our community has witnessed the killing of Black bodies by police and vigilantes before the [latest] unrest. The day before anything happened to Sylville Smith, I reached out to Governor Walker publicly to request that his confirmed speaking role at a law enforcement support event called Blue Day be used to tell the law enforcement community that they should be loud in calling for accountability and partnering with advocates in the movement for Black lives. The day after the Smith killing, Walker unfortunately went forth unchanged in his position and told the law enforcement community what they wanted and not what they needed to hear. Luckily, days after the climate changed from one of despair to one of focus on monumental solutions. 

On moving forward: The best way to move forward is to give our community, one that has been frustrated beyond hope of seeing things actually change, a reason to live. We need a reason to see that this stubborn system can actually be reformed to respect and dignify the lives of Black people. Knowing how to demolish is just as important to knowing how to build. It’s essential we teach Sylville’s friends, a demographic also known as opportunity youth, age 16 to 24, how to organize against this system.

Bakari Kitwana is the executive director of Rap Sessions, which is currently touring the nation leading town hall discussions on the theme “Election 2016: Reform or Revolution?” He is the author of the forthcoming "Hip-Hop Activism in the Obama Era."