A Long Time Coming: Roots of the Milwaukee Uprising
The outpouring of grief and anger following the August 13 police killing during a traffic stop of Sylville Smith, a 23 year old Black man who became the latest victim of police related violence in the city of Milwaukee, can only be understood against the backdrop of systematic police violence, oppression, discrimination, and poverty. Milwaukee is the most segregated city in the country and the worst place for Black people as seen in virtually every social index from unemployment rates, multiple educational measures, and official poverty levels to rates of infant mortality and mass incarceration.
National news outlets widely reported the burning of several businesses in the Sherman Park neighborhood in Milwaukee’s mostly Black North side where Sylville was killed. Less publicized were the peaceful marches led by the Coalition for Justice, Milwaukee’s local organization in the Movement for Black Lives, founded by members of the family of Dontre Hamilton, an unarmed Black man shot fourteen times on April 30, 2014 by a Milwaukee police officer who was never charged for the killing.
The Family of Sylville Smith gathered in the area he was shot and killed. Photo © AP
Friction between law enforcement and the community members has been enormous and growing for decades here. “It’s been a long time coming” was a feeling expressed by many protestors and neighborhood residents as the protests erupted. True to form, Governor Walker and reactionary law-and-order Milwaukee county Sheriff David Clarke responded to the uprising by mobilizing the National Guard, ramping up the tensions that led to a second night of confrontations between protestors and police.
The police and National Guard behaved as an occupying force. A closed Walmart was turned into an improvised detainment center and the parking area around the Midtowne Mall used as a staging area for police. A stream of MRAPs, BearCats, Humvees, and other police vehicles crept through the city throughout the uprising. An orange construction fence was quickly erected around Sherman Park and the sidewalk surrounding it, making it impossible for local residents, particularly the disabled, to safely move about. A curfew targeting adolescents was enforced.
Milwaukee’s leading public officials deflected all criticism and instead blamed the victim and much of the community itself for the violence. Much was made of the fact that Sylville was armed, although there was no claim he had used or threatened to use his gun. This points to the hypocrisy of the local big business press, because Sylville had a Concealed Carry Permit to possess the gun, a “right” that pro-gun lobby enthusiasts like Walker and Clarke hold extremely dear.
Even before Sylville’s funeral Walker responded to the pressure generated by the protests and the national news reports about the desperate conditions in the city, rushing in with a plan to devote $4.5 million dollars to job training programs in the neighborhoods where the uprising took place. This is barely a drop in the bucket of what is needed to truly address the unemployment and other social issues facing the people of the north side.
For its part the Milwaukee City Common Council called for more police, longer sentences, boot camps for juveniles, and other repressive measures. Sheriff Clarke demanded funding for four hundred more cops. These plans go in exactly the wrong direction. They will do nothing to address the needs of the city’s Black and other people of color.
In fact, the calls for harsher police measures against a community that has suffered police violence, daily racial profiling, and astronomical levels of incarceration would markedly worsen life for Black Milwaukeeans. The Common Council Plan is silent regarding measures to address the desperate conditions facing working people of color in the city.
A protestor holds a sign saying, "For black people there is no justice in Milwaukee Wisconsin."
The unemployment rate for Black people in Milwaukee is fifty percent. Black children in Wisconsin are six times more likely than white children to live in poverty--the highest disparity ratio in the country. Milwaukee’s crumbling public school system, in desperate need of more funding, works particularly poorly for Black students. The state of Wisconsin as a whole has the country’s largest achievement gap between Black and white students, and ranks last in reading comprehension tests among Black fourth-graders.
Walker and the Republican dominated state legislature, along with the Milwaukee City Council and Democratic Mayor Tom Barrett clearly have other priorities than solving these problems. Since Mayor Barrett took office in 2004, expenditures on police has risen by 54%. The Wisconsin state budget now allots more funding for incarceration than it does for higher education. Wisconsin also uses a higher rate than the national average of private prisons, which have a well-documented record of being even more abusive than state and city owned jails and prisons.
In Wisconsin one in eight Black men have been incarcerated, while white males are incarcerated at a rate of one in eighty-one. In the 53206 Zip Code alone, which represents much of Milwaukee’s impoverished Black north side, a full 62 percent of all men have spent time in an adult correctional facility by age 34.
The Need for Independent Politics
Police violence against Black men, underfunded schools, lack of job opportunities, and mass incarceration are various fronts in a war that Democratic and Republican politicians in service to the 1% are waging against working people in general and Black and Brown people in particular. The killing of Sylville Smith and the protests in response are the latest skirmishes in that war.
While the response of state and local Democratic and Republican politicians to the uprising has been greater doses of the same policies that make life miserable for people of color and working people in general, Green party Presidential candidate Jill Stein calls for a Green New Deal that would guarantee work at livable wages for all, the end of mass incarceration and institutional racism, and Medicare for all.
Supporting independent candidates with such a program, along with the peaceful protests that the Coalition for Justice continues to organize, are the best ways to confront racist police violence and to begin to solve the problems exposed by the Milwaukee Uprising.