Milwaukee. Photo by Jeffrey Phelps/AP
The police shooting of another young black man, this time in Milwaukee, has proved "a spark to a powder keg" that is the city's decades-long segregation, toxic racial climate, gross economic inequity, police abuses, and political leadership that not only ignored but often exacerbated those tensions. The death of Sylville Smith, 23, has provoked two days and nights of sometimes violent protests by a community that, said the brother of another police shooting victim, "has nothing. It’s a neglected community. To burn down something, to them, it meant, 'Do you hear us now?’”
The shooting and riots have put a spotlight on what has been called the worst place to be black in America, a city so segregated and divided from its suburbs that an old racist joke claims the city’s 16th Street viaduct bridge is the longest in the world because it links "Africa to Europe." Milwaukee's population of 600,000 is roughly 60% black and Latino, with a poverty rate of over 30%, dilapidated infrastructure, and little or no access to decent jobs; its suburbs are rich, up to 96% white and staunchly Republican - and Gov. Scott Walker is blamed for long working to keep it that way.
Saturday afternoon's shooting of Smith, which followed a traffic stop for "driving suspiciously," is mired in now-familiar conflicting stories that in themselves reflect the city's deep racial divide. The police say Smith - who was armed and had a conceal carry permit in an open-carry state - was shot by a reportedly 24-year-old black officer when he turned toward them with his gun; residents say he was shot in the back; no video has been released. Because those in power prefer a simple bad guy/good guy narrative that declines to recognize cause and effect when people are oppressed, police quickly cited Smith's "lengthy criminal record," which turns out to be a series of nine tickets and arrests for offenses ranging from speeding, driving without insurance and not using a seat belt to drug charges and one "recklessly endangering safety" shooting case that was later dismissed.
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Residents say the destruction and violent protests after Smith's shooting was an unfortunate but inevitable "warning cry" by a community whose voices have long gone unheard. Even as many community members turned out to clean up the damage from burned cars and businesses, the area's alderman insisted, "The black people of Milwaukee are tired." "They’re tired of living under this oppression," he said. "This is their existence. This is their life. This is the life of their children."
One of the most potent voices to emerge has been that of Smith's brother Sedan, or in the bizarre parlance of clueless CBS reporter Evan Kruegel, "a man claiming to be the victim's brother." Noting that Sedan has "promised not to use profanity" and citing the "innocent business owners who are now going up in flames," Kruegel asks the fierce and hurting Sedan, "What’s it going to take for you guys to be OK tonight and to stop this chaos?" Both here and in another stunning tearful interview - wherein he displays his brother's conceal carry permit and argues he was killed for being a black man with a gun - Sedan tells a hard truth: You've got a city rioting because "We’re losing loved ones every day to the people that’s sworn to protect us."
"It’s not me. It’s not us. It’s the police. This is the madness that they spark. This is what they encourage. This is what they provoke. This is what you get. You get a lot of people that’s hurt, and they can’t vent the right way. And, no, it’s not going to end today. I can’t tell you it’s going to end tomorrow. I don’t know when it’s going to end. But it’s for y’all to start. We’re not the ones that’s killing us. Y’all killing us. We can’t make a change if you all don’t change."