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Office of Violence Prevention Director Reggie Moore on the Sherman Park Uprising

‘We can’t ignore the root causes of someone’s pain’

Aug. 23, 2016
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It might be surprising to find a member of the Milwaukee Health Department trying to restore order in a crisis situation which the fire and police departments conceded for a time was too volatile for them. But the Office of Violence Prevention Director Reggie Moore isn’t your typical city official.

Moore, a community organizer who founded and led the youth-focused nonprofits Urban Underground and the Center for Youth Engagement before taking the city position in April, has taken on the tough task of finding ways to prevent violence in a highly racially and economically segregated city that’s too often rocked by shootings, human trafficking, domestic violence and tensions with law enforcement. Moore’s office takes a data-driven, public health approach to understanding the root causes of violence—exposure to violence in childhood, lack of education, untreated mental health issues—but on Saturday, Aug. 13, after a Milwaukee police officer fatally shot Sylville Smith following a traffic stop, this Sherman Park resident and his allies found themselves in the center of an uprising and worked to prevent more violence from breaking out.

Mayor Tom Barrett, who tapped Moore for the city position, said he appreciates Moore’s deep understanding of the city’s challenges and his ability to offer positive opportunities for young Milwaukeeans to create change. 

“He connects with many individuals and organizations that feel estranged from government,” Barrett said. “And he is able to do so in a way that enhances his credibility, rather than diminishes it.”

The Shepherd caught up with Moore last Thursday after a few long days in which he and his team had been addressing the Sherman Park uprising almost nonstop. Moore was upbeat and gracious as he explained his office’s efforts to craft a comprehensive violence-prevention strategy that the city can fully commit to in the years to come. But perhaps more important than the data, strategy and maps, his office displays a teddy bear from the wake of 9-year-old Za’layia Jenkins, who was killed in May by a stray bullet as a shootout waged outside her home. Jenkins’ death occurred soon after Moore began his work for the city, and it’s clear that the impact of violence on young people motivates him in his efforts to make Milwaukee safer. 

Moore’s office is setting up an online community hub for those interested in being involved in Sherman Park’s future. The site, shermanparkunited.com, will likely launch later his week. He also suggested reaching out to the Sherman Park Community Association, Parklawn Assembly of God and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee to help support the community.

Here’s an excerpt of our discussion with Reggie Moore.

Shepherd: You were at the site of the shooting in the Sherman Park neighborhood on Saturday. What were you doing?

Moore: Our work is focused pre-crime scene, but we have found ourselves involved in crime scenes. Even with the unrest I was out there from the very beginning for the first 36 hours. It was very clear that law enforcement was not going to be re-engaged for safety reasons, that the fire department was not going to be able to re-engage for safety reasons. But at the same time you still have a scene that was very risky and very likely to result in harm or death, especially when you have shots fired, you have fires burning, you have traffic flowing. So the role that we played was working with community volunteers, and I say that very informally—people I knew out there. It’s not like they filled out an application.

So we were out there doing traffic control, because there are people driving up on the scene and they’re obviously slowing down and there are a hundred people yelling and just-fired shots and they are driving through this and they have no idea. So we were helping people make U-turns and there was a situation where people were being attacked, so we were intervening in that and helping people, assisting getting clerks out of the gas station before it went up [in flames]. Those were things that we were paying attention to and that community volunteers who were out there were doing. 

Shepherd: What were your thoughts as the events unfolded? 

Moore: It didn’t come as a shock to me as someone who grew up in this community and looking at the trauma around the country. Looking at it from a violence-prevention perspective, I think I always go to the steps that could have been taken to mitigate the issue, but when you’re dealing with structural and systemic issues like that, there’s very little that could have been done besides a semblance of justice or repairing the breach that has occurred between public systems and the public, with law enforcement being the most visible touch point of the government in the community.

You hate to see property destroyed, but more importantly, hate to see the loss of life. There is no other public institution that has the power to take life. People often wonder, why is there so much outrage at this and why isn’t there more outrage about interpersonal violence? Well, I think when you look at interpersonal violence, people are held accountable. And there’s a concern about officers. Every case is different so I’m not making a judgment in this case, but I think that’s what the public is asking: Are our public institutions accountable if wrongdoing occurs?

Shepherd: Was there a tipping point where the violence wouldn’t have broken out or was it festering and it was bound to happen? 

Moore: I think the issue that drew the crowd, that frustrated the crowd, was the length of time that the [state Department of Criminal Investigation] investigation took. It was more of a procedural issue. Because law enforcement, from what I saw, didn’t react aggressively to the crowd that had gathered. But they also didn’t answer the questions that the public was asking in that situation. The state had controlled the crime scene.

Shepherd: We actually know very little about what happened between the officer and Smith. How much information do you think should be released early on? 

Moore: I think the more detail the better. Erring on the side of transparency without compromising the investigation I think is important. I think if we are going to repair and sustain trust between public institutions and the community, transparency is important.

Shepherd: Are you doing anything to reach out to the folks who were involved Saturday night or Sunday night?

Moore: We have a trauma-response initiative in District 5 and although this happened in District 7 there’s definitely consideration of reaching out to some of the people in the park who may have witnessed things or have questions. There are children in our city who are seeing this. They don’t have the political analysis or the social analysis to understand it. They just see a gas station, and if you live in the neighborhood, they see the gas station they may go to on fire.

Shepherd: How do you explain to young people what’s going on?

Moore: I’ve always tried to keep it real with young people about what’s happening in the world. They’re experiencing it and they have a lot of questions, whether it’s race or gender issues, identity, policies. Especially around the ages of 13 or 14 they are starting to recognize, they see situations on TV—Michael Brown or Tamir Rice [African American youths who were fatally shot by police]—those are the things they see and the world they are growing up in. And they see Donald Trump on TV and hear things that he’s saying in a world of diversity and connection.

I think it’s important for young people to understand that the world that they were born into doesn’t have to be the world that they die in, figuratively and literally, in the sense that they can change the world by changing their neighborhood, by being creative and using their imagination and really being socially conscious and evolved.

Shepherd: What can you say to the young people in the city who are maybe thinking there’s no place in the community for me or why should I bother doing good, or even, how can I help?

Moore: What I would say to the young people in that neighborhood is that it’s their neighborhood. We should really try to understand the reasons why it may not feel like it is. And if they do feel like it is their neighborhood, we need to ask them what kind of neighborhood they want to live in. I don’t know if anyone has asked them that question. And if we do ask, we have a responsibility to listen and to act and to support them as they build the neighborhood they want to live in.

Shepherd: How is your office going to be involved in what happens next in the Sherman Park neighborhood?

Moore: Heavily, heavily. We are funding an initiative called Safe Zones, which is occurring in Garden Homes and Franklin Heights. We are looking at having the ambassadors from the Safe Zones in Sherman Park for the rest of the summer. We are looking to support the neighborhood association by building a virtual hub for people to donate and to coordinate activities so people are planning things in the park and there’s a way that people can sign up and volunteer and make contributions to support activities in the park.

The city itself is aggressively working with the business community to figure out what kind of resources and support it can provide to businesses in the area to rebuild. From a city perspective, I think there are all hands on deck to try to help restore Sherman Park not just to what it was, but to greater than what it was. One of the things we are looking at is trying to garner resources that young people in the community can also determine. For example, if there’s the matter of redesigning the park, what do they want to see in the park? What about other things in the neighborhood or environment that they want to see that don’t exist? We want to make sure that they are part of the process as well and it’s not just adults dictating what’s happening in that area. 

Shepherd: What do you want Milwaukeeans to do in the aftermath of the unrest? 

Moore: I think they need to come there, if they do nothing else. You can’t just watch it on TV. And the best way to connect with people is to serve. It’s not to criticize, it’s not to critique or to sit removed. It’s really about rolling up your sleeves and getting engaged. And also doing it from a place of humility. Service should be about humility and not about coming in and sort of saving this community. 

This community has a lot of pride, a lot of infrastructure and a lot of beauty. Sherman Park is representative of the entire city. We can’t pretend that Sherman Park is some unique neighborhood in terms of a negative way. But the frustration and the pain and the despair—there are families in all of our neighborhoods who are struggling with a significant amount of poverty. When you have the loss of life, the outrage and the pain that comes from that is completely understandable. I’m not excusing the destruction of property. But we can’t ignore the root causes of someone’s pain.

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