As Milwaukee burns, America fails to listen
The violence in Milwaukee must be condemned, but the horrific conditions that have enraged the most segregated city in America must be addressed. And Donald Trump should stay the hell away.
In Milwaukee, a 23-year-old man named Sylville Smith was shot and killed on Saturday afternoon by a city police officer after a traffic stop and a brief foot chase. The officer followed proper procedure and turned on his body cam, which recorded the incident. Authorities say the video seems to confirm what the officer told his superiors: That Smith had raised a stolen semi-automatic handgun he was carrying and refused a command to put it down. Smith is an African-American -- and so, reportedly, is the officer who fired the fatal shot.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett is rightfully calling for a speedy release of the body cam video. But local officials have been mostly open and forthright about the case. From what we know so far, there's no evidence to suggest the use of force -- while always regrettable -- wasn't justified in this instance.
That didn't prevent a violent reaction from some Milwaukee residents, mostly youths and young men, who took to a street corner on Saturday night, hurled rocks and bricks at police, causing injuries to four officers, and then set six businesses on fire. There were 17 arrests, and sporadic gunfire. On Sunday night, during a similar rock-throwing demonstration, a shot was fired and a man was wounded. Tonight there will be a curfew in effect.
Tonight, I pray people will stay off the street. Violence is abhorrent. It's always wrong, and it never solves again. (Indeed, it wouldn't be appropriate even if Smith's killing had appeared to be completely unjust.) No matter what it feels like in the moment, lashing out with violence only does harm, in the end, to one's own community, their friends and neighbors. A visit to somewhere like 22nd and Cecil B. Moore in North Philadelphia, which still looks like something of a war zone some 52 years after a rebellion broke out at the intersection, is a reminder that riots only bring more disinvestment, more oppression, and more pain.
Tomorrow -- and this may be a lesser point, but Attytood is a political blog and I'm going to make it -- someone else needs to stay home: Donald Trump. As I write this, Trump is slated to come to Milwaukee on Tuesday not for a public event but a taped interview before an audience with the Fox News Channel host Sean Hannity, who has, among other things, compared the Black Lives Matter movement to the Ku Klux Klan. Trump is also scheduled to hold a rally in the Milwaukee suburb of West Bend. Like most of Trump rallies, the event will target a predominantly white audience. As the New York Times reported today, the Trump campaign's shunning of black voters has alarmed GOP officials:
But the 70-year-old white self-described billionaire has not just walled himself off from African-American voters where they live. He has also turned down repeated invitations to address gatherings of black leaders, ignored African-American conservatives in states he needs to win and made numerous inflammatory comments about minorities.
What's more, his rallies have sparked violence and unrest wherever he goes. Thus, going to Milwaukee when community leaders are appealing for calm is absolutely the worst thing that Trump could do. Frankly, I'd hope that any candidate -- Hillary Clinton, or anyone else -- would not appeal for votes in Milwaukee under this week's circumstances. But Trump, with his blatant appeals to violence and knack for stirring up tension, has re-written the rules. He really should stay home.
And then, the day after tomorrow? When I see images of burning buildings like I did when I woke up Sunday morning, I often think back to when Dr. Martin Luther King said when U.S. cities erupted in the mid-to-late 1960s. King was an apostle of non-violence who condemned burning and looting. But he also said, in his famed 1967 speech called "The Other America," that:
I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear?
In Milwaukee, America has failed to hear that -- a half-century after the victories of the civil rights movement -- this has stubbornly remained the most segregated city in the nation. That its political leaders have long resisted any meaningful housing reforms that would prevent African-Americans from remaining tightly packed in separate and unequal conditions on Milwaukee's north side, with substandard city services and failing schools. That the government officials who obliterated a thriving black neighborhood to build a freeway now won't fund an adequate mass-transit system to get folks to where the jobs are.
Milwaukee native Syreeta McFadden wrote for the Guardian that outsiders fail to see the pervasive way that mostly black Rust Belt communities are afflicted with the inability for poorer people to get to good-paying jobs in the suburbs because of lack of transit or housing discrimination. Of this weekend's uprising, she wrote:
I think there's an oversimplified narrative about what makes it right or wrong for a community that believes itself under siege to resist, act out, protest, riot. Some will undoubtedly dwell on Smith's arrest record. Americans will get behind victims of police violence if they appear to be blameless. There's a comfort in embracing a binary of "good" and "bad". One does not have to think too deeply about history, patterns, or injustices. One doesn't have to consider the policies that actually created the conditions for his pain. Smith's death was a spark to a powder keg built up decades before he was killed Saturday night.