By Mikel Kwaku Oshi Holt
It took the better part of the morning to respond to all the e-mails and texts I received after my appearance on Charlie Sykes’ radio program Monday to discuss the “Milwaukee Uprising.”
There was so much to discuss—bubbles to burst, misinformation to correct and conclusions to assess—that I found it hard to contain myself during my 30-minute assessment.
Prior to my going on the air, host Charlie Sykes had laid out details of the unprecedented weekend of violence and mayhem.
The chaos began when a Black police officer killed an armed “street combatant” (my euphemism) who, according to police, refused to drop a weapon.
Police had confronted 23-year-old Sylville Smith and an acquaintance for a traffic stop near 42nd and Auer Avenue at about 3:30 p.m. Saturday.
Information about the shooting quickly spread over social media, and tempers and frustrations about a series of police shootings provided the match that ignited a powder keg that exploded into confrontations with police and businesses destroyed by arson.
Reportedly shots were fired at the 7th District Police Station, and bricks and bottles were thrown at police who tried to restrain a growing crowd near Sherman Park.
Lootings and vandalism followed, even as several groups called for peace, including Smith’s brother and sister.
(While a case can be made that the protestors were motivated by the killing, the same cannot be said of those who looted a cell phone store or Jet Beauty supply store, unless the former stole the phones to make calls to their attorneys and stole the weaves so they would look good during their court appearances.)
As violence escalated, over 200 citizens led by several community activists helped deflate tensions with a march for peace.
Former Milwaukee Alderman Mike McGee, Jr. was instrumental in helping ease escalating tensions.
When the smoke finally cleared (no pun intended) a half dozen businesses were completely destroyed, six police officers injured and one “bystander” shot.
Also, the National Guard was put on alert and Mayor Tom Barrett, who declared he had never seen such a scenario, put a curfew for teenagers into effect.
The national media was quick to call the Weird Weekend “a full scale riot.”
Conservative talk show demigods exploited the violence, apparently equating it to a slave rebellion orchestrated by lazy, immoral and violence-prone savages.
The national media lambasted local leaders like Alderman Russell Stamper and Khalif Rainey for comments about how institutional racism and the highest Black unemployment rate in the country helped fuel the flames of violence.
Sykes was more tempered in his analysis, although he too had issues with Stamper, questioned the rational of “rioters” destroying businesses, particularly an O’Reilly auto supply store that served and employed many from the depressed community.
He also noted the dichotomy of Smith, who had been accused of intimidating a victim of his reported violence, being the new poster child for supposed police misconduct.
Sykes also noted that while a riot ensued from the Smith killing, no community leader made note of the five Black victims of murder during the weekend who were also killed at the hands of other African Americans.
Sykes had plenty of ammunition (again no pun intended) for those who saw the events through a prism clouded by false perceptions and long ingrained fears of Black folks.
The talk show pundit, who is also the host of the popular Sunday morning television talk show, “Sunday Insight,” which I have been featured on for over 20 years, proclaimed that the “weird weekend’s” legitimate protests for police accountability was undermined by the senseless violence.
No doubt, the weekend intensified stereotypes and further weakened community/police relations.
I opened by declaring that the media should take the initiative and tell people to stop generalizing and using “absolutes” when discussing the events of the weekend.
I affirmed the obvious: the seeds for the explosion were planted decades ago and included socioeconomic factors that justified Milwaukee’s ranking as the “Worse Place in America for Black Americans.”
Milwaukee leads the nation in seven negative social indicators, including the highest incarceration rate for Black people, highest infant mortality, male unemployment and poverty rates. Milwaukee is also home to the lowest reading proficiency rate for Black fourth and eighth graders.
Comments Rainey and Stamper were merely a reflection of those realities.
Indeed, I noted that it will be Stamper, Milele Coggs and Common Council President Ashanti Hamilton who will bring a new paradigm to the table, with tree shaker McGee Jr. serving as a community liaison.
Look for State Senator Lena Taylor and recently re-elected state representative Jason Fields to assume leadership positions at the state level.
They will have their work cut out for them as some local and national media continue to fan the flames and paint with a broad bush when referencing Black Milwaukee.
Truth is, we are not a homogeneous group. In fact, as I explained to Sykes, there were three distinct sub-cultures that responded in varying ways to the Smith killing.
The first were the homeowners and middle class residents of the Sherman Park “subdivision.”
Many are middle age, educated and economically stable. They were repulsed by the violence and mayhem that has defined Milwaukee in recent years, particularly record killings last year of Black adults and children by Black “terrorists.”
This segment of the community, which makes up the majority of the area, vote, attend religious services and maintain aesthetically pleasing neighborhoods.
They engage politicians, advocate for systemic change through the system and often participate in marches headed by groups like Pastor United or MICAH.
The second group consists of millennials and other members of the Hip-Hop generation.
Many don’t recognize (or understand) the civil rights battles previously fought and are frustrated with the world they live in as Black victims of a system of social and economic apartheid. They view racial profiling and intimidation by police as evidence of a military state intent on keeping us in our place and separated from the “good people.”
This group serves as the foot soldiers for the Coalition for Justice and other groups that have been consistent in pushing for more police accountability.
They have kept the heat on police for the questionable killings—by police—of Dontre Hamilton in Milwaukee, Tony Robinson in Madison and most recently, Jay Anderson in Wauwatosa.
Lastly, there is a third group consisting of ruffians, gang bangers and terrorists who burned down the businesses not as a form of protest but as an excuse to vent and steal.
Many, if not most of these “citizens” grew up in a culture of poverty that is defined by poor educations, dysfunctional families and limited opportunities.
I would guess that Smith was a byproduct of this subculture, as his history includes numerous contacts with the criminal justice system.
Area pastors and civil rights groups—a dying breed in America—appeals to the first group. McGee and Stamper connect to the second.
Snoop Doggy Dud, T.I. and Al Capone are the mentors for the third.
One reason for the current state of affairs and the explosion over the weekend was because “Black Lives Don’t Matter” to a large segment of the White community, including local politicians and civic leaders who have turned a blind eye to our community’s plight.
That’s not to say they are responsible for feeding our children or providing us with new cars, but they can knock down the barriers, improve the schools and spend as much money on removing lead out of the laterals that are poisoning our children as they do in providing transportation for White east siders to get downtown.
While millions of dollars are going to a trolley, and half a billion dollars in downtown redevelopment, the Black community is watching while our community falls down around us.
The mayor rescinded the MBE program and the governor cuts millions from the school budget.
And maybe somebody can explain to me why Black supervisors are blocking funding for the new office of African American affairs.
It is easy to dismiss those atrocities, to ignore the wall of apartheid that sections off our community, or to lump all Black people into one category.
But the reality is racial profiling is common, community/police relations—despite some bright spots—remains strained, and the “poison and poverty industry” (missionaries making money off our poverty, giving the poor ice cream and rent-a-televisions instead of opportunities to empower themselves) is status quo.
If you want to use an absolute—a generalization—it would be that Black people are frustrated and exasperated. For too long has the system alienated and ignored us.
I said on the Sykes show that it was not a matter of if an explosion would take place, but when. In fact, I was surprised it took so long.
If there is a light at the end of the tunnel, I told Sykes, it is that the weekend’s less-than-almost-riot has brought national attention to our plight, and with it an opportunity.
Stamper has already started a process to earmark more funding to the central city, and also introduced a proposal to expand Black business opportunities.
A byproduct of the “Milwaukee Melee” was a long over due change of the guard, new leadership emerging that will prioritize solutions to “some” of the myriad of problems facing our community, including job creation and innovative solutions to the educational system and business development.
Under Ashanti’s leadership, a new contingent of Black elected officials will hopefully take advantage of the Black eye (pun intended this time) Milwaukee has earned, and pick up the spoiled fruit laying on Burleigh Street and make apple sauce and lemonade.
After the conclusion of my analysis, Sykes said I was being overly optimistic. He’s heard it all before, promises unfulfilled, optimism crushed by status quo control of the system.
Hopefully he’s wrong. And there will be a light at the end of the tunnel and not an oncoming train.
I gotta hope for the best. I’ve been through this many times in my 40 years as a journalist, activist and agitator. The current legion of Black politicians—at least those who are not controlled by special interest or who view their role as complainers instead of problem solvers—are of a new generation.
I’ve mentored several and have trust in the pragmatism and independence of several elected last week.
Obviously, any new agenda by elected officials must be coupled with a grass root effort to deal honestly and openly with the cultural nuisances that undergird our plight.
We need new voices that hammer the importance of two parent households, spirituality, and communalism, all of which are traditional Africentric concepts.
Community leaders like Rev. Greg Lewis, president of Pastors United, must stress how a dollar touching three hands before leaving our community will lead to jobs and economic stability.
Forget the rhetoric about Black unity, or ALL Black people must do this or that.
You will never see all Black people doing anything. It is always the core group that moves another or us in one direction. Let’s focus on that truth and move forward.
My optimism may be deflated in the months ahead, but if it is, there is a great likelihood that there will be another Wacky Weekend in our future, and as the great writer James Baldwin once said, “the fire next time…”