Local Leaders’ Reactions to Sherman Park Unrest
Milwaukee has been through a hell of a lot this past weekend. We’re still trying to figure out what happened when a Milwaukee Police Officer fatally shot Sylville Smith after a traffic stop Saturday afternoon in the Sherman Park neighborhood, which led to outrage. As we piece together the circumstances of Smith’s death and its aftermath, local leaders have weighed in with their responses to the weekend’s events.
City of Milwaukee Common Council President Ashanti Hamilton
For generations, Milwaukee has been a city crying out for justice. But there is no justice in a mob scene, and the time is now to come together as a city and peacefully reflect on our problems instead of inciting more of them.
Accordingly, I’m calling on every Milwaukeean to practice nonviolence and restraint in the nights ahead. If you feel the need to make your voice heard, I would expect you to do it peacefully, and to obey the lawful orders of the police officers charged with protecting our lives and our property.
There is a process for investigating the police-involved shooting that precipitated this weekend’s unrest, and I would ask our residents to withhold their judgment until they have learned more of the facts in this matter. I am told there is body camera footage of the shooting, and that when it is shared, it will bring additional facts to light. We are pushing to expedite the release of this video and these facts as much as possible.
Make no mistake about it, the frustration and the anger that we’ve seen expressed—sometimes violently—are very real, and so are the disparities that created them. Our city is home to neighborhoods full of kids and young people who feel trapped without opportunity, without hope and without role models. They see a world that’s passing them by because of where they were born and the color of their skin.
We have struggled for too long just to begin to rebuild our city, and we will not stand by and let violence and incivility tear it all down again. The sort of unchecked rage and destruction we have witnessed these past two nights hasn’t put us any closer to finding solutions for our problems. Hurling bricks through windows doesn’t fix anything, but picking those bricks up and building something, as a community, might. I hope my neighbors will join me in seeking a peaceful solution to our problems.
Alderman Khalif J. Rainey
I need to be perfectly clear about these two things: while the residents of Sherman Park and Milwaukee’s impoverished neighborhoods have just cause for anger and frustration, absolutely nothing justifies the display of violence and incivility we’ve witnessed in our neighborhoods these past two evenings.
My plea to my neighbors is to do everything they can to stop the violence immediately. In a neighborhood where the opportunities for employment are so few and far between already, it is foolish and counter-productive to take out your anger on the few businesses that choose to operate on your block. Looting and burning won’t create opportunities to get a job and get ahead in life.
Yes, our neighborhood has problems. Yes, it is unjust that many of us are denied economic opportunities because of the color of our skin and the zip code in which we were born. Yes, too many of our young people are mired in frustration, hopelessness and crime. But you can’t fix the roof of a burning house.
We need to put down the bricks and put away the guns. We need to pick up some brooms and paint brushes and get to work. We need to get our kids off the streets and teach them to act out of love and hope instead of fear and anger. We need to stop creating additional problems and start seeking solutions.
If you’re angry, good; it means you’re paying attention. Once we’ve restored peace in our neighborhoods, I hope you will join us in the work of creating opportunity and equality for all of Milwaukee’s citizens.
We need peace, calm and healing on Milwaukee’s North Side, and I respectfully ask every one of my neighbors to join me in pursuing that goal.
Kalan R. Haywood II, Milwaukee Youth Council President and Sixth Aldermanic District Representative
Following the events of this past weekend, we all saw Milwaukee at one of its darkest moments. However, our love for our city and our zeal to ensure a brighter tomorrow obligates us to come together at this moment. All communities must do their respective parts. More so, the black Community must unify. To many onlookers it may be perceived that the black community came together this past Saturday night, but that is not the case. Saturday night was a manifestation of hopelessness, irritation and frustration. It is very true that with every action, there is a reaction. But not every action leads to a solution, and a solution is what we are searching for.
In order for the black community to make substantial headway in its endeavors, Milwaukee cannot and must not have another repeat of Saturday night. I am calling on everyone to gather that same energy, anger and motivation and direct it toward strategically addressing the root causes of the issues.
Collectively we have the power to right wrongs. However, we must use our brains, we must think. I encourage our city to step out of the shackles that have limited our minds and constrained our possibilities for far too long. The mission will be tough and the climb will be strenuous, but there has never been any great undertaking that hasn’t extracted its due portion of sweat, tears and labor upon the victor. I am calling on all of us, from the residents on the north side to the south side, Blacks, Whites, Latinos and Asians, the rich and the poor, to stand up and demand that we invest in the discussions, policies and actions that will produce the Milwaukee that we all can be proud of.
I also issue a special charge to Milwaukee’s youth: I ask you to think before you act. I encourage you to think of what outcome you want to see and ask yourself if the action you are about to partake in will yield that result. Trust me, as your peer I understand that screaming voice that yells from deep inside your gut that tells you that no one is listening.
But I also know that if we lead by example, everyone will take notice. We have to be the change we want to see.
State Rep. LaTonya Johnson
Today, we call for calm in our community, but also demand action. Our city does not need a military intervention, we need a humanitarian response-- we need a surge of support for at-risk youth and their families, and we need to provide our law enforcement with the mandate and the resources necessary to reduce crime and improve community-policing initiatives. Most importantly, though, we need to listen to what the community is telling us—that they don’t condone violence and destruction of local businesses, but they also understand the deep well of anger and frustration that results from decades of declining opportunities and rising poverty that have been allowed to take hold in parts of our city.
Sunday morning, we saw hundreds of residents come out of their homes to assist in the clean-up of the neighborhood. Milwaukee showed that when we respond with action and with resources, there are people that are ready and willing to do whatever they can to restore their neighborhood’s vitality. As policy makers, we have the responsibility to ensure that our state government helps supply the tools we need to rebuild.
State Rep. Evan Goyke
Listening and understanding is often difficult in difficult times, but my hope is that we listen and seek to understand why the events over the weekend unfolded the way they did. We know that everyday too many people wake up in a world without honest opportunity and too many law enforcement officers are called to be more than resources allow. This is not sustainable. We must break this cycle by listening to the voices of those who have been ignored for far too long, as well as those sworn to protect and serve our communities.
Milwaukee is defined not only by acts of protest, but also by acts of healing. On Sunday I joined hundreds of my neighbors to work together in service, to heal, clean the neighborhood, and begin the process of positive and sustained change. I believe our community can grow and succeed together. I hope this weekend is a call that is answered.
Together Rep. Goyke and Rep. Johnson pledge to continue to work together to help heal the community. It starts first with listening and ends with legislative action in Madison. In the coming days, weeks, and months, Representatives Johnson and Goyke will be working on strategies to better improve community and police relationships and welcome positive, solution-based input.
Attorney General Brad Schimel
I am saddened by the senseless destruction caused by a handful of citizens in Milwaukee and appeal for calm. I know the vast majority of Milwaukee residents are law-abiding citizens who want and deserve safe neighborhoods and communities. This is evidenced by the citizens who spent today helping clean up the Sherman Park neighborhood.
I pray that the law enforcement officers and firefighters who are working to protect the citizens of Milwaukee will be safe throughout this ordeal and that no other journalists or innocent citizens will be further harmed.
The Wisconsin Department of Justice Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI), at the request of the Milwaukee Police Department, is leading the investigation of yesterday’s officer involved death. DOJ will work expeditiously to ensure a thorough and transparent gathering of the facts.
Congresswoman Gwen Moore
The fractured relationship between local law enforcement officials and the communities they are sworn to protect has become further strained by Saturday’s officer-involved shooting. There is still much to learn regarding this incident, however, we simply cannot close our eyes to the hostile environment cultivated by the flagrant racial inequality and segregation that has plagued Milwaukee for generations. We also cannot allow anyone to take out their aggressions on our local businesses and homes or take the law into their own hands.
I share the frustration of my constituents who feel they live in a city where justice is only afforded to some and not all. I also share the frustration of our local police officers who are desperately trying to uphold public safety in what they perceive as a caustic climate. We must find a way to strike a balance where we can peacefully point out the racial inequities in our society while recognizing the valuable role police play in our community.
As details continue to emerge about this shooting, I ask our community to remain calm and recommit to doing everything in our collective power to live up to our nation’s promise of ‘justice for all.’ Together, Milwaukee will weather this storm.
Alderman Bob Donovan
The mayor has announced a strict 10 p.m. curfew for anyone under 18 in the City of Milwaukee.
While I’m not at all interested in piling on to the mayor’s already full plate during this period of crisis in Milwaukee, I feel compelled to make it clear that although I support the curfew move, in my mind it simply doesn’t go far enough.
During the riots of 1967 a strict curfew for EVERYONE was enforced, and I honestly believe the current unrest and violence is no different. The all-out curfew was needed then (I know, I lived through it!), and it’s needed now.
And we need a much firmer hand tonight with the protestors so that order is restored. We have the resources, and the National Guard has been activated by Governor Walker. I believe it’s time to deploy and utilize those Guard members and to make the arrests when needed to protect officers and citizens.
Over the years we have allowed far too much leeway with individuals protesting without permits. These individuals are engaged in unlawful assembly and need to disperse or be arrested.
Honestly I cannot in good conscience stand by and say nothing and watch one more night of our officers being pelted by bottles, bricks, and rocks (and possibly shot at with bullets!), and them just standing there taking it. Seriously, how many more nights are we going to allow our officers to be punching bags?
(And now we are hearing that individuals are coming up from Chicago to instigate violence and confrontations with our officers; all the more reason to get a better handle on these protests.)
We cannot be proactive until an all-out curfew is enforced. I sure hope I’m wrong, but the 10 p.m. curfew the mayor just announced does not sound like it will be at all effective.
With all due respect mayor, we should be more proactive because we owe it to our officers and their families.
ACLU of Wisconsin Executive Director Chris Ahmuty
The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin has been working to improve police community relations in Milwaukee for years. The major focus of our work has been to try to hold police accountable to constitutional standards, including ensuring equal protection and refraining from unreasonable searches and seizures.
The ACLU of Wisconsin urges local leaders to heed the cries for solace, help, and change from residents, young and old. The family and friends of the deceased resident, Mr. Sylville Smith, deserve everyone’s respect and sympathy. Both Black and white residents of Sherman Park deserve to receive professional, unbiased police service to help keep their neighborhood a good place to live. Young people, who feel that law enforcement is occupying their park and neighborhood and treating them all as suspicious, deserve to be heard before violence occurs, so that change will make a difference in their lives now.
Although civil unrest, such as throwing bricks or discharging firearms, is not protected expressive activity, residents have and retain their constitutional right to engage in free speech and to peaceably assemble to demand changes they believe will improve their lives, including better police-community relations. They will be critical of police when there is a fatal shooting by a police officer. Law enforcement should not respond to such criticism by escalating or militarizing the situation. Law enforcement must be sure to distinguish free speech and peaceable assembly and allow it to occur unless there is a clear and present danger of an imminent breach of the peace.
Replacing tension with trust also requires transparent interactions between residents and law enforcement. Law enforcement should not offer a narrative that prejudges the issue by denigrating the character of the victim while withholding the facts surrounding the events leading to the shooting. One way to demonstrate that residents and critics are being heard is to take steps to assure the whole community that the investigation into Mr. Smith’s killing will be comprehensive, unbiased, and transparent. Therefore the ACLU of Wisconsin calls upon MPD and the Wisconsin Department of Justice to release the full dash cam video and audio and the full body worn camera video from this incident.
Good police community relations can result in a decrease in crime and better conditions for residents. Trust between police and community members is essential. Unfortunately in Milwaukee, including the Sherman Park neighborhood, tension between many residents and police has existed for a long time and appears to have increased this summer. Law enforcement and city leaders must work to restore that trust.
Representative JoCasta Zamarripa
Like many Milwaukeeans, I am disappointed, disheartened, and still in disbelief about the rioting that occurred this weekend. I never condone violence, and I implore Wisconsinites to recognize the good in our state's largest city, which was exemplified on Sunday morning when Milwaukeeans like my colleagues, Representatives Evan Goyke and LaTonya Johnson, their neighbors and constituents helped clean up the damage done to their near north side community.
This terrible situation should force all of us to reflect on the circumstances that led our community to this point. The truth is, there are racial disparities in our law enforcement, justice and correctional systems. Consider the fact that African-Americans are much more likely to be shot by police than their white peers. African-Americans were 31 percent of those killed by police in 2012, but they make up just 13 percent of the population of the United States. One study showed that between 2010 and 2012, African-American teens were 21 times more likely than white teens to be shot and killed by police officers. And although African-Americans aren’t more likely to use, buy or sell illegal drugs, they are disproportionately arrested and imprisoned for those offenses and face longer prison sentences than white offenders.
I say this to provide some perspective. Violence against people and property is abhorrent, and I hope that those who perpetrated it are brought to justice. I am frustrated and angry, as are many of my constituents, at the sight of the burned buildings on Milwaukee’s near north side. However, I’m also frustrated and angry at the continuing racial disparities in our criminal justice system.
Condemning violence is necessary, but doing so without being willing to honestly discuss the factors that brought us here is irresponsible. It’s time to move beyond the archaic politics of city versus suburbs and find solutions to our city’s, and state’s, problems.