Why Milwaukee Erupted
Wisconsin State Rep. Mandela Barnes says the police killing of Sylville K. Smith took place in a city where African Americans face enormous inequity, high unemployment, mass incarceration, and a failing education system
JAISAL NOOR, TRNN: Protests are ongoing in Milwaukee, with tensions flaring again on Sunday, August 14, with one person shot and a police officer injured. The Milwaukee area, where police fatally shot an African-American man on Saturday, 23-year-old Sylville K. Smith was shot by police while trying to flee from an officer who had stopped his car. After peaceful vigils by a small group of demonstrators earlier, Milwaukee police said late on Sunday night they had rescued one shooting victim who was taken to the hospital. It was not known whether the injured person was a protester.
One police officer was also hospitalized after rocks smashed a patrol car windshield, police said. They said they began attempts to disperse crowds after shots were fired and objects, including rocks and bottles, were thrown by some protesters. Several arrests were reported.
Aiming to reassure the community that the police acted properly, Chief Edward Flynn said on Sunday he had viewed video from the officer’s body camera, and it showed Smith had turned toward him with a gun in his hand after a traffic stop. Sedan Smith, who said he is the brother of slain Sylville K. Smith, spoke to local news station CBS 58.
SEDAN SMITH: It’s not us. It’s the police. It’s the madness that they spark up. This is what they encourage. This is what they provoke. This is what you get. Either you take it [inaud.] from someone.
NOOR: That was Sedan Smith, who said he was the brother of slain Sylville K. Smith, speaking to local news station CBS 58.
Now joining us to discuss this is Rep. Mandela Barnes. He’s serving his second term as state representative for Wisconsin’s 11th assembly district, which includes northern parts of Milwaukee, and parts of the city of Glendale. Thanks so much for joining us.
MANDELA BARNES: Yeah, thank you for having me.
NOOR: So describe the mood in Milwaukee right now. Another black man killed by police. Shots fired, people injured, officers injured last night.
BARNES: So the scene in Milwaukee is obviously very tense. And you have to look at the city of Milwaukee prior to Sunday. Milwaukee has got to be one of the most overloaded camels that you could ever imagine. And this is just one of many straws that helped to break that camel’s back.
I mean, we saw this for a long time. Milwaukee’s been a very tense place to live, because all the gross inequities, we look at us leading the nation in black [inaud.] incarceration. You look at the black male joblessness rate that is over 50 percent. You also look at other factors. You look at the poverty rate. You look at the black-white achievement gap, which is really an opportunity gap for our black and white students. All these factors, they didn’t happen overnight. So it’s not just one thing that actually led to what’s going on, what you’re seeing, the uprising in the city of Milwaukee. As leaders we’re really conflicted and challenged, because we hate to see our city burn, literally. We want to see people come together. But we also understand the frustrations of so many people who are dealing with a lot of this inequality that I just discussed earlier.
NOOR: And I wanted to get your response to another city leader, the sheriff. Sheriff Clarke. He said, the Milwaukee riots should be the last time the policies of liberal democrats are held up as anything other than misery-inducing, divisive, exploitative, and racist manipulation of the urban population. This is the African-American police chief.
BARNES: Yeah. So the word ‘leader’ is one that I use very loosely when it comes to David Clarke, because he has not displayed any sort of leadership. He hasn’t done that since he’s been elected. And in a situation like this, you look at even in Dallas, where police officers were literally targeted and picked off, you saw the police chief rise as a leader and work to unite the city. Our sheriff has gone and created even deeper divisions, which makes things even worse, intentionally ignored anything he had to say, because we know what avenue that’s going down. If I want to know Sheriff Clarke’s opinion I can just turn on Rush Limbaugh or something.
So what he’s saying is just more what he’s been saying before. It is my opinion that Sheriff Clarke couldn’t wait for an opportunity like this to arise, for him to further his rhetoric, and only position himself in favor of far-right wing supporters that he has now.
NOOR: So, Milwaukee’s, especially African-American community, has a long history with the police force there. In April 2014, Dontre Hamilton was killed by police officer Christopher Manney. Manney was not charged, didn’t face any criminal charges for the killing. And as part of the outcry from that, police were ordered to wear body cameras, which it seems like the officer involved in the shooting on Saturday was wearing a body camera. And there was just a study by Temple University that found the wearing of body cameras is actually associated with a 3.6 percent increase in shooting deaths of civilians. Can you comment about the attempt at reforms, and if they’ve had any fruits?
BARNES: So there are so many other reforms that need to be in place, I’m not sure that the entire police force even has body cameras yet. I know that was a work in progress for along time. I’m not 100 percent certain of the status of that. However, you look at Christopher Manney and the long history of police abuse in the city of Milwaukee and across the country, it takes a little bit more. You know, people say when there is police abuse, if there is civil action taken against the police department, the entire city pays for it. The taxpayers have to foot the bill.
And that’s what protects bad officers. And you know, there’s the argument that there are a lot of good officers. Well, they don’t work, they don’t expose, or work to expose, the bad officers. So that, in turn, makes them bad officers, by allowing this sort of culture to exist continually. And with that said, officers have to be hit where it hurts, and that’s in the pockets. When they see that there’s an actual recourse for bad behavior, that’s the only time you see things like this change.
And with the study that Temple’s doing, I’m not sure how conclusive that is, yet, because body cameras are so new, and some departments, a lot of departments, still don’t have those. So I’d like to see a little bit further down the line, maybe in about five years, what that data actually looks like. I’m actually very interested to see what the data looks like, even in the city of Milwaukee, to see what happens. And I’ll be very interested once the data is released, and I still think body cameras are a good idea, because it leaves very few questions about the events that actually transpired in a certain instance.
NOOR: And I wanted to get your thoughts on some of the parallels between Milwaukee and Baltimore. You know, both deeply segregated, divided cities. Things like incarceration rates, even life expectancy in Baltimore. If you live in an underprivileged area, you could live 20 years–your live would be 20 years less than a more privileged white area in Baltimore.
We had our own uprising after the death of Freddie Gray, and a lot of things were brought to the surface, but people feel like change has been too slow. Talk about the demands that people want in Milwaukee right now, and these problems stem back decades, even generations. What is the path forward?
BARNES: So I’ll start by saying there are so many studies that chronicle the city of Milwaukee is the worst place to raise black children, have a black family, to basically be a black person. So with that said, you look at the bigger issues, which are education. You look at issues of economics, and you look at issues of public safety, those are three huge issues that have been widely ignored for a really long time. And this is one hell of an alarm for the city of Milwaukee. For the entire country. Because there are still people who’ve had their heads in the sand, who didn’t think that something like this could happen in Milwaukee. Those have to be the most out-of-touch, most disconnected people that you can imagine. And it’s unfortunate that some of those people are in leadership positions.
The biggest demands are employment opportunities, making sure that there is access to education. The opportunity to feel safe without feeling, you know, surveilled, without feeling like you’re just being constantly policed. These are all things, basic things, that people are looking for, whether it’s in Milwaukee, whether it’s in Baltimore, or any part of the country or world.
NOOR: All right. Well, Rep. Mandela Barnes, thanks so much for joining us.
BARNES: Thank you.
NOOR: And we’re going to keep following developments in Milwaukee over the upcoming days and weeks. Thank you so much for joining us.
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