by Mikel Kwaku Osei Holt
I arrived at the rally for Derek Williams about 30 minutes into the program, but within minutes I realized I hadn’t really missed anything.
Unfortunately, I’ve been to dozens of similar community forums following allegations of police brutality, governmental insensitivity or blatant acts of racism or bigotry. In just about each case they followed a similar script: speeches filled with outrage and indignation, calls for investigations and justice, and motivational appeals for unity and civic action.
As best as I can remember, I’ve been to six or seven rallies that were sparked by the “questionable” deaths of a Black man (and one woman) by “Milwaukee’s Finest.”
Each case sparked similar outrage, but from a historical perspective, aside from millions of dollars in damages and an occasional new law or policy change, nothing of great significance has changed.
We can go back all the way to the Daniel Bell “murder” in 1958, which I covered as a reporter 20 years later when a guilt-ridden police officer confessed that Bell was indeed murdered and a weapon planted on him to cover up the crime.
Some say similar police misconduct–and racism–was behind the killing of Clifford McKissick a decade later. There were a half dozen other questionable deaths and assaults between McKissick and Earnest Lacy in 1981, the vicious beating of Frank Jude in 2004 and now Williams, whose gruesome death while handcuffed in the back of a squad car was videotaped and shown to millions on the internet.
Williams literally begged for police assistance, but his cries fell upon deaf ears. Originally, his death was ruled as being by natural causes. But the release, one year later, of the video prompted a reopening of the case and a determination that he was the victim of homicide. No police officers have been charged.
From that perspective, Williams’ death follows a pattern that is all too familiar to Milwaukeeans.
Indeed, I can remember only one other case during the past three decades in which local authorities have taken officers to task for misconduct and that was when former Chief of police Nan Haggerty fired or suspended nine officers after the horrendous, racially motivated beating of Jude by off-duty police officers.
But for every Jude, there have been numerous allegations of misconduct or questionable deaths that have been ignored or down played.
Remember the high profile alleged beating of Alphonzo and Khadijah Young?
Little came out of it; and what attention it did receive came about only because former alderman Michael McGee took the bold step of holding demonstrations outside the Southside home of the police officer involved who claimed the ring print under Khadijah’s eye resulted from her ‘falling into his hand’ as she was being put in the squad car.
I can provide a dozen other scenarios, but I’m sure you get my point, which isn’t just that Milwaukee has a history of racially charged actions by “some” members of the MPD against Black men, and women, but more so that they rarely result in any criminal charges or major policy changes. Moreover, the officers are usually protected by the system, and with very few exceptions, find sympathy or tacit support from the larger community.
(As you probably heard, four officers were indicted by the Milwaukee County District Attorney Tuesday for sexual assault for their roles in illegal strip searches (rapes) of Black suspects. This action didn’t result from Black protests, even though two of the officers under investigation were on the scene when Williams died.)
The inability of Black leaders and citizens to force systemic change on the police department after allegations of civil rights violations is not an indictment of the effectiveness of civil demonstrations or our political impotence. It does speak to, however, the entrenchment of a criminal “JUST-US” system that is reinforced by the unwillingness of the larger community to see through our prisms.
It also speaks to a uniquely local culture that is unwavering in its efforts to maintain a status quo that perpetuates a division between the haves and have nots, minorities and the majority, the powerful and the powerless.
That’s why it’s easy for me to predict what will happen in the Williams’ case. My assumptions are based on historical references (some of which have been noted in this column), political realities and an analysis of the local media which, after an initial empathy, settles back into a posture where they question the rationale of upsetting the applecart:
• A federal investigation. It’ll happen, but that doesn’t mean it will result in criminal charges of the officers who ignored Williams’ death pleas if that is what protesters are after.
• The resignation or firing of Police Chief Flynn. Highly unlikely, for several reasons, not the least important being his refusal to even consider it as a possibility, as he told Black “leaders” during a closed-door meeting.
• For those keeping scorecards, the mayor supports Flynn, as does the majority of the Common Council, Fire and Police Commission, the police union and the city dogcatcher. Only one or two Black elected officials publicly support Flynn’s firing, although nearly all note systemic changes are needed.
What is most revealing is that the general media, which has been at odds with Flynn over the last year, always follow a familiar pattern in which it initially empathize with Black outrage and anger, but eventually succumb to the least disruptive denominator, saying there needs to be policy changes, better training and sensitivity.
Some media will balance the latest fiasco against the overall tenure of the chief, which even most critics admit has been above average. He has, after all, lowered the violent crime rate, instituted community policing and modernized the department, they will say, theorizing Flynn’s firing won’t change the culture of the department, and represents symbolism over substance.
There is a grain of truth in that assessment, as we have seen a half dozen police chiefs since Harold Breier’s tyrannical rule was ended following the Lacy protest (the result of legislation by then State Senator Gary George that ended life time tenure for Milwaukee police chiefs), and yet these incidents continue to happen every two or three years.
Nonetheless Black anger is justified and even the symbolism behind the demand for Flynn’s head has merit if for no other reason than to send a message to city hall and the police administration that community/police relations will continue to suffer if nothing changes. And whether folks downtown want to admit it or not, when Black folks don’t respect or otherwise fear police, community policing suffers and crime increases.
• A work stoppage. Robin Shellow, the attorney for the Williams’ family, called for Black folks to show support for the Williams family and to simultaneous display their anger by not going to work on a specified day. There is as much chance of Black Milwaukeeans taking a day off to protest as there is of racist talk show host Mark Belling championing the call for reparations for slavery.
• Reestablishing city, county and state human rights commissions. The county has already reestablished its entity, although its effectiveness is open to question. The city may follow suit if for no other reason than to placate Black protesters, but many consider these bodies to be noting more than powerless placeboes.
• Restructuring the Fire and Police Commission. No way. Without support from the mayor (who is caught between a rock and a hard place) and the common council, that scenario is dead in the water.
• Amending police policy? Truth is, you don’t have to, but they will concede to that point for the same reason they will support the establishment of a human rights commission.
Truth is, there is already a state law that mandates that officers render medical assistance, and the commission can likewise suspend or fire officers for misconduct or neglect. As you may recall the commission used that authority in the Lacy death.
• A lawsuit against the city and MPD and city. That’s going to happen, and I have no doubt millions of dollars will ultimately be awarded to Williams’ survivors. That’s a significant victory, but it won’t negate similar occurrence until and unless there is a cultural change in the department that deals with judgment and attitudes.
As the indictment of four officers Tuesday, the insensitive and disrespectful decision to hold the mother of Darius Simmons ‘hostage’ for an hour as her 13 year old son lay dead in the street after being shot by an elderly White man and the initial ‘exoneration’ of the officers who let Williams die reveals, there is something wrong with the culture of the police department. And that starts at the top.
Sheriff David Clarke, who was the only law enforcement official to show up at the Williams’ rally, noted his officers know he would not allow such mishaps to have taken place. He has laid down the law at the Sheriff’s department, he noted, and instituted a culture where officers are always respectful and mindful of their public responsibilities and whom they serve. Those who stray are shown the bottom of his cowboy boots.
There is one strategy that has not gotten much traction but should be explored and embraced by Black leadership. Rev. Willie Brisco suggested the federal investigation be expanded to explore why Milwaukee is Milwaukee…as in the worst city in the United States for Black Americans (that’s the opinion of a national study, not my own).
Why does Milwaukee lead the nation in seven negative social indicators, including black male unemployment, incarceration, Black academic underachievement, teen pregnancy, and infant mortality, not to mention poverty?
Each of these indicators should be cause for concern and further examination. But combined, they beg for an outside investigation because our status borders on being criminal.
Something is amiss and no local official is willing to even discuss it beyond the superficial, so maybe President Obama, the United Nations or the Avengers should step in to investigate.
Is it apartheid? Coincidence? Or are Black people ourselves the blame?
Is there something in the Milwaukee water that shortens Black life, makes us afraid of work, our children dumber than white children, our women and girls allergic to birth control and our boys and men lacking in self control?
If we are not the blame, than what is?
A thorough investigation of the culture, business and educational climate of Milwaukee would not only spark a template for change and reconstruction, but could possibly get to the root causes of the Williams tragedy, as well as those I guarantee will happen in the future.
by Mikel Kwaku Osei Holt