Protests in Milwaukee After Police Shooting: ‘The People Are Fed Up’

Jaweed Kaleem and Matt Pearce, Los Angeles Times, August 15, 2016

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker put the National Guard on alert Sunday as Milwaukee grappled with the shooting of a 23-year-old black man by a police officer, an event that prompted fiery riots and gave rise to soul-searching among residents in one of the nation’s most segregated cities, even as details of the man’s death remained murky.

More than 150 police officers swarmed the small neighborhood of Sherman Park, the site of this weekend’s unrest, as protesters and mourners gathered through the evening Sunday amid the charred facades left from the night before. Firetrucks circled streets, ready to extinguish any new blazes, as protesters rallied in front of a police precinct and next to a park.

Late Sunday night, one person was shot and taken to a hospital as protesters clashed with police. A police officer was taken to the hospital after a rock smashed through the officer’s car window. Another car was set on fire but was later extinguished. Periodic shots were heard until around 1:30 a.m., when police retreated as protesters began to disperse. Police made several arrests.

The news of Sylville Smith’s death had spread on social media Saturday, prompting angry residents to set fire to a gas station and bank and throw bricks at police. At the makeshift candlelight vigil Sunday near where Smith died, family and community members shouted over one another about the devastating loss and the way protesters responded to it.

Sylville Smith

Sylville Smith

“I don’t care if he had a gun,” Kimberly Neal, Smith’s sister, said in tears. Police say Smith was armed, wouldn’t let go of his gun after a traffic stop and ran from police.

“I don’t care if the guy was black,” shouted a friend of Smith’s, referring to the news that it was a black officer who shot him.

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The sequence of events began on Saturday afternoon when police pulled over what they described as a “suspicious vehicle.” According to police, two men in it ran in different directions from an officer. One was armed and would not let go of his gun after being ordered to do so, police said, and was shot twice, in the chest and arm. The shots proved fatal.

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By Saturday evening, angry crowds had gathered and marched outside the police station in Sherman Park, on the main strip of Fond Du Lac Avenue, by businesses including a BP gas station and beauty salon that were set afire. Rioting quieted by early morning, and community volunteer groups came later in the morning to clean up.

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Speaking to reporters over the weekend, Alderman Khalif Rainey, whose district includes the site of the violence, said that the burning and other violent reactions were not justified but that he understood residents’ frustrations. Black residents are “tired of living under this oppression,” he said, adding that “nobody can deny that there are racial problems here in Milwaukee, Wis., that have to be rectified.”

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Brian Rothgery, an activist and former campaign volunteer who has done political canvassing in the neighborhood where unrest broke out, described the scene Saturday night as “tense and unpredictable.”

“I don’t know if you would call it a protest. People were pissed and wanted to smash stuff,” said Rothgery, 39, who heard of the commotion from friends and social media before leaving his home in Riverwest, about 45 blocks from the rioting, to observe.

“We spent 2 1/2 hours crisscrossing the neighborhood, watching the fires,” said Rothgery, who is white. “This is the heart of the black city, and it’s been hit so hard with deindustrialization, unemployment and institutionalized racism.”

Police said gunshots by protesters prevented officials from putting out fires at the businesses on Saturday. One officer was hospitalized after being hit in the head with a brick thrown through the window of a squad car, police said, and three other officers were reported injured. Two police cars were totaled and four were damaged. Six businesses, including the hair salon and an auto parts store, were damaged.

People in the crowd also chased off journalists with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, shoving and punching one of them, the newspaper reported. At least one car was burned.

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Smith had been in regular contact with police over the years, according to public records, including at least 32 mostly minor citations since 2010. The majority were traffic violations, including driving without insurance, not wearing a seat belt, reckless driving and driving with a suspended license. Last year, Smith was charged in a shooting with “recklessly endangering safety” and witness intimidation. Both charges were dismissed. Another case for shoplifting was also dismissed.

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[Editor’s Note: The tweets below provide more perspective on the riots in Milwaukee.]

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