By Thomas E. Mitchell, Jr.
MCJ editor interviews more residents about what happened…and why…the day after the officer involved shooting of Sylville Smith and the unrest that followed
(Editor’s note: In the first installment of our “First Person” report on the day after the unrest in the Sherman Park neighborhood, we incorrectly identified Clarene Mitchell as the “Community/Public Relations director” for Wisconsin Jobs Now. Mitchell is the “Communications/Public Relations” director for the community-based organization. We apologize to Mrs. Mitchell for the error.)
Preface: On Sunday, August 14, the day after the police involved shooting of Sylville K. Smith that sparked rioting in the Sherman Park neighborhood and saw six businesses looted, burned and destroyed, including the BP gas station on the corner of Sherman and Burleigh, MCJ Editor Thomas Mitchell, Jr. and his wife Clarene went to the area to offer water, snacks and support to the residents.
It also gave Thomas Mitchell the opportunity to interview several residents about what happened and what needs to be done for the neighborhood, and the city’s Black community as a whole.
The following is the continuation of his interviews and observations of that day after the “riot”—a word many thought was inappropriate given the small area in which the “disturbance” (which many believe is more appropriate to describe what happened) occurred.
After thanking Martin for her time and comments, I notice a large group of adults, teenagers and younger children gathered on a side street between what’s left of the BP gas station and a Red’s Snapper Seafood restaurant that miraculously was untouched by the fire and smoke.
I approach two young men leaning against the wall of the Red’s Snapper talking to other individuals about what happened Saturday night and what might happen that evening.
After introducing myself and telling them I wouldn’t use their names in my story, both men begin talking. One of the men said he didn’t agree with the riot (or unrest…or disturbance as some call it) and the burning down of the businesses (especially the gas station), but what occurred “will get greater.”
I took his use of the word “greater” to mean there would be more and larger disturbances if nothing is done to focus attention, action and dollars on the Sherman Park neighborhood and the Black community in general.
“If we had more jobs, better health care…we don’t have it (because) their putting money in downtown, but not in the community,” said one of the two “brothas.”
“It’s more about frustration,” continued the other man who was taller than his friend and who grew up in the Sherman Park neighborhood. “The cops have been harassing us since we were kids.
“This is minor (what occurred Saturday night),” the first man interjected. “We could be downtown tearing their stuff up.”
“It’s a cry for attention…and a warning,” he continued. “What happened here is no different from other cities. When it’s us against the cops…it’s frustration.”
The taller man said he was speaking on behalf of the people who live in the neighborhood like him. “It’s my neighborhood. I’m out here cleaning up (after the night before), keeping my neighborhood clean and to instruct the youth.”
He took exception to the criticism from some observers who have said “some” Sherman Park residents were “burning down their own neighborhood.”
“Red’s Snapper and the pasty shop are Black-owned,” he notes, adding they and other Black owned establishment weren’t touched. “The Arabs and Koreans suck all the money out of the community.”
(Editor’s note: It was later revealed that one of the burned businesses—a beauty supply store—was Black owned, as reported by one of the local television news stations.)
Saying he won’t miss the gas station, the taller man stressed they didn’t burn down their neighborhood. “We burned down our “temptations” in the neighborhood: The liquor store, the hair store and the gas station.”
The man said he and his peers watched their parents “bust their butts” struggling and working to provide for them, only to have nothing at the end of their working days.
As a result, he added, the youth don’t see anything to gain doing things the way their parents did; it’s part of the frustration he noted earlier.
“There’s no hope over here. They (the youth) only know drugs, gangs, poverty and the police brutality of the Seventh District (police station).
“When you’re so frustrated and don’t know what to do, a person will blow their brains out ‘cause they don’t know what to do.”
“Jobs with low pay…work 40 hours and still have to decide if you’re going to pay rent or buy food!” the taller man continued.
As a result many youth and older residents will turn to the streets to make ends meet, only to wind up in jail or dead. “The youth don’t fear anything,” the tall brotha said. “These are real street n—– over here…this is a gang neighborhood. They’re not trying to hear about turning the other cheek.”
I thank both men for talking to me and proceed to simply take in the scene around me. There are young and old, male and female, children with their parents milling around talking to each other, trying to short out what happened the previous night and what to do next.
The brother and mother of Dontre Hamilton are in the crowd with other members of the organization ‘Coalition for Justice.’ They’re talking to youth and slightly older adults trying to make a connection with them and their shared pain and anger at what happened the night before.
I run into state Rep. David Bowen and one of his staffers. During a brief conversation, he says the police officers of the nearby Seventh District station are “disconnected from the reality of life in the Sherman Park neighborhood.
As we talk, an older Black woman is holding up her Bible and walking through the mass of people, encouraging them to get right with Jesus, to heed His holy word and be saved. Few, if anyone is paying any attention to her. As the tall brotha I interviewed earlier said, no one is trying to hear about “turning the other cheek.”
I talk to a few other people I know about what happened and what might happen that Sunday evening. There is mention of Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke calling Gov. Scott Walker and requesting he send in the state National Guard to assist the Milwaukee police and County Sheriff deputies.
Though the Guard is put on stand-by status, they are not used. The MPD and Sheriff’s department work in concert (much to the chagrin of the sheriff no doubt) in keeping things quiet and relatively peaceful, though there were numerous arrests made that Sunday evening.
But there is no more burning of businesses. No shots fired by either side. A curfew is put in place for the Sherman Park neighborhood starting at 10 p.m. and Sherman Park, starting at 6 p.m. Though the curfew for the neighborhood is lifted, the park curfew, as of this writing, is still in affect…compliments of the sheriff.
An older, angry Black man is exhorting the crowd to “get mad!” to not be afraid of the police watching over the remains of the gas station (actually, they were guarding the safe that was among the rubble. The gas station owner and his sons retrieved it on Monday, loading it in a van…with the help of a reporter and cameraman from one of the local television stations).
Said the angry elder: “It’s said they put (Native American) Indians on reservations ‘cause they didn’t get mad!”
The elder was also critical of individuals who gathered in a prayer circle to pray for peace and the neighborhood’s residents.
“Get up off your knees and start doing something,” he shouted in the direction of the prayer circle. “It makes no sense trying to be quiet and nice.”
I note a sizable contingence of White people in attendance. Some were there individually, others with their families. They talk with Black residents they seem to know about what happened. Some are with their children.
I introduce myself to a young White male (who I will identify only as “D.W.”) who is a member of a prayer ministry team for a community-based ministry located on 30th and Chambers.
D.W. said he’s been in the community doing outreach since 2012 trying to fulfill the spiritual and physical needs of the community.
He stressed he didn’t come with any agenda, but only to listen to what members of the community had to say. He had been invited by a friend in a Bible study group to the Sherman park area to see what was going on.
D.W. said his mother’s side of the family grew up in the Sherman Park area. For a while his parents lived in the area of 50th and Burleigh before his dad moved the family further northwest to Wauwatosa.
D.W. said he’s overheard Black people in the crowd mumbling that the White folks will go back to the suburbs later that evening. “But I’m here every week. I’m not afraid. This (outreach) is what I do as an individual.”
D.W. was cautious with his words, wanting to know what I thought of the incident that lead to Saturday night’s “unrest” and what was going on around us that moment.
He admitted there is fear in the White community and that a lot of people (Black and White I assume) want reconciliation.
When I questioned him further on his thoughts, he would only say it was wrong to judge an entire group (of people I assumed) over one individual.
(Perhaps he was referring to some White people’s prejudicial views of Black people; that they judge the behavior of many by the actions of the few.)
“The policemen didn’t know his motivation,” D.W. said.
I assume he was talking about Sylville Smith and his “motivation” to be in the situation he found himself in before being shot by a Milwaukee police officer (who is Black).
“Good thing about America is you’re innocent until proven guilty.”
Was D.W. talking about the officer when he said that, or Smith? I don’t know and didn’t ask. I simply thanked D.W. for his time and walked away.