“We all just said we don’t want our community to be next,” said former Kenosha County supervisor Dayvin Hallmon.
But when Hallmon, who is Black, put his ideas into writing, he was met by silence from his fellow elected leaders. “It was completely ignored,” he said.
Kenosha this week became the latest American city to find itself at the center of the nation’s painful reckoning over systemic racism and police brutality. Like others before it — including Minneapolis, Atlanta and Louisville — the city has struggled with its moment in the spotlight.
Nearly a week after Blake’s shooting, authorities have provided only fragmentary explanations for what led to the incident, or why officers were at his apartment complex. Video recorded by witnesses to the shooting has circulated online, but no footage has been released by authorities and police body cameras won’t be required in the city until 2022.
And officials have repeatedly riled community members with comments suggesting they don’t fully grasp the anger that has brought thousands to the streets — and that has resulted in several nights of mayhem in which businesses were looted and burned.
The experience of the Blake shooting and its aftermath are “a wake-up call to the reality that we have systemic racism in our community,” said Roy Peeples, pastor at the Turning Point Life Church.
Lawyers for the 17-year-old charged with homicide after fatally shooting two men in Kenosha on Tuesday said he was there to protect local businesses that had been damaged in the unrest. In a statement Friday night, law firm Pierce Bainbridge said that Kyle Rittenhouse was acting in self-defense after he was “accosted by multiple rioters.”
“Police did not take Kyle into custody at that time, but instead they indicated he should keep moving,” the statement said, adding that he turned himself in later that night.
Nestled along the shore of Lake Michigan and considered an exurb of Chicago, 60 miles away, Kenosha and its 100,000-strong population is a mix of contrasts. A more populous and diverse city center is surrounded by more affluent, whiter, suburban and rural rings in the county, where shuttered auto plants mingle with million-dollar lakefront homes and high-end shopping.
It’s also in the part of Wisconsin that’s been called in a national survey one of the worst places for African Americans to live because of vast racial disparities in income and incarceration rates.
Peeples spoke at a news conference Friday along with top local leaders, who sought to make amends for comments made earlier in the week. Those included suggestions that two protesters killed Tuesday night were responsible for their own deaths because they were out after curfew, and that armed civilians were welcome in Kenosha.
The remarks by Police Chief Daniel Miskinis drew sharp criticism and prompted the American Civil Liberties Union to demand that he and Sheriff David Beth resign.
Miskinis said Friday that his remarks had been “misconstrued” and that responsibility for the shooting deaths rests “solely on the person who did that, not on the victims of this crime.”
But Beth — the county’s top law enforcement official — drew fresh ire by saying that he had not yet viewed the cellphone footage of Blake being shot. The video shows an officer firing at nearly point-blank range into the 29-year-old’s back, and its brutal nature has prompted expressions of outrage worldwide.
It’s not the first time Beth’s comments have caused trouble or weakened trust. In 2018, after five people were arrested for shoplifting at a local mall, the sheriff said “some people aren’t worth saving.”
“We need to build warehouses to put these people into it and lock them away for the rest of their lives,” Beth said at the time.
The remarks made a strong impression on Sharmain Harris.
“If we want to be an inclusive community, you can’t say that. I’m living proof,” Harris said.
The 31-year-old is a formerly incarcerated Kenosha resident who now works with young people going through the criminal justice system. Many, he said, have a distinctly negative view.
“It’s always in the psyche” of Black men in Kenosha that they could be pulled over or harassed by police, said Harris, who explained that he doesn’t ride in cars wearing a baseball hat or in vehicles with too many passengers, for fear of being pulled over.
Kevin Mathewson, who served on the Kenosha Common Council from 2012 to 2017, said he pushed during his tenure for the county to spend about $2 million to buy the cameras in 2017, arguing that they were needed to restore confidence in the department after the controversial police shooting of Aaron Siler.
A Kenosha officer shot Siler, who was unarmed, six times during an attempted traffic stop.
But Mathewson said a council committee rejected his amendment by a vote of 4 to 1, with opponents arguing that Wisconsin did not have statewide guidelines governing how the footage should be stored and catalogued.
The council instead approved a resolution calling on the Wisconsin legislature and governor to enact statewide standards.
Gov. Tony Evers (D) signed a law establishing those standards in February. But Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian said the budget delays the purchase of body cameras for two years, and that lawmakers would need to find other savings to move up that timetable.
To Mathewson, the delay is an example of how resistant the local government is to change.
“I thank God that someone was there shooting video of the shooting of Mr. Blake in the back,” he said. “But wouldn’t it had been better if there had been six different camera angles from the officers?”
Mathewson, now a private investigator and security contractor, took a different approach amid the unrest that followed Blake’s shooting. Founder of “The Kenosha Guard — Armed Citizens to Protect our Lives and Property,” the staunch Republican posted a message on the group’s Facebook page urging people to “take up arms and defend” Kenosha “from the evil thugs.” Rittenhouse, 17, later drove 20 miles from his home with a gun, and after a confrontation with a group of protesters, allegedly shot and killed two people.
It’s not known if Rittenhouse saw the Kenosha Guard message, and Mathewson said he never intended for it to become a call to action for outsiders, especially teenagers.
“My call was a call for people to defend their lives and their property and their homes,” he said. “It wasn’t a call for vigilantism — it was a call to protect our homes.”
Though Mathewson’s call for police body cameras failed, Kenosha officers do have dashboard cameras. They don’t always use them properly, though, said Hallmon, who served 10 years as a county supervisor.
He said that twice he saw police pull a squad car to face the brick wall of a building and then lift the hood of the car to block the dash-cam as they searched suspects. When he raised the issue to his constituents, he said they were surprised he even asked.
“They said, ‘Supervisor Hallmon, you didn’t know about that?’ So this was a population of people where this kind of harassment and intimidation was so routine, no one really believed that they could do anything about it,” he said.
After the riots in Ferguson, Hallmon proposed that the Kenosha County Board of Supervisors adopt recommendations from Campaign Zero, an anti-police-brutality plan that emerged from the Black Lives Matter protests and that recommends reforms such as civilian oversight boards. The idea went nowhere.
Young, openly gay and at times during his tenure the only Black supervisor on the board, Hallmon said his proposals related to racial justice or equity were habitually ignored.
In an interview, Antaramian acknowledged Kenosha had made mistakes, but touted progress.
As mayor in 2000, he said, he called in the U.S. Justice Department to help the police department navigate reforms, including diversity training and limiting the use of chokeholds.
“We were looking at how we improve the relationships that we have, and there had been a number of issues that we felt we were not addressing with the Hispanic community and with minority groups,” Antaramian said.
The city will once again lean on the Justice Department — which has opened a civil rights probe into Blake’s shooting — for guidance in how to make reforms in the aftermath of Blake’s injury, he said.
“We are trying to do the things that we can. I doubt we can say we are perfect, but we are doing everything we can as we work through the things that have occurred here,” Antaramian said. “The community has become more strongly supportive of all minorities, and that is where we are heading.”
Peeples, who is Black, said he is hopeful the Blake shooting will ultimately spur the city to make needed changes. “We want to chart a better course for Kenosha so we can be a model for the world,” he said.
But for now, mistrust remains. So does confusion.
In a press conference Friday, authorities in Wisconsin addressed what happened on Sunday when Kenosha police officer Rusten Sheskey repeatedly shot Blake in the backMiskinis, the Kenosha police chief, said that Blake, while hospitalized, was placed under arrest on a felony warrant from last month in a domestic-abuse case. Miskinis then quickly acknowledged he did not know for sure whether that warrant had any connection to the officers’ response Sunday, the day of the shooting.
Patrick Cafferty, an attorney for Blake, said Friday that his client was no longer handcuffed in the hospital while he was being treated for the shooting, as he had been earlier in the week. Blake’s relatives say he has been left paralyzed from the waist down.
According to Wisconsin court records, an arrest warrant was issued for Blake last month on a third-degree sexual assault charge as well as a criminal trespass and disorderly conduct charge.
Cafferty said the warrant was vacated Friday but the case remained active. He said they intend to plead not guilty and “address the merits of the case at the appropriate time.”
The Wisconsin Justice Department, which is investigating Blake’s shooting, said police who encountered Blake were called by a woman who said her boyfriend was there and not supposed to be. They have not said whether Blake was the boyfriend in question. State investigators also have said the officers were attempting to arrest Blake, but did not specify why.
The state agency also said Blake acknowledged having a knife in his possession, and said investigators found one on the floor of his car after the shooting, but have not said whether any of the officers responding saw or knew about the knife.
Raysean White, the neighbor who filmed the shooting, said one officer had repeatedly yelled at Blake to “drop the knife” as they struggled for several minutes before the shooting. But White said he saw no indication that Blake was holding a weapon, and that Blake appeared to be trying to break free of officers, but not fight back, as they punched him and employed chokeholds.
White said that Blake was a regular presence in the neighborhood, playing with his kids, listening to music and barbecuing in the backyard.
The shooting, he said, had left him traumatized, the sound of gunshots haunting his dreams. And it has only solidified preexisting fears in the neighborhood of discrimination and bias.
“The Black community don’t like the police at all. They feel the police are racists,” he said. “There’s a lot of prejudice going on here.”
This story has been updated with more information on Kevin Mathewson.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated in one place that Jacob Blake is deceased.
Berman and Witte reported from Washington. Robert Klemko in Kenosha and Julie Tate and Jennifer Jenkins in Washington contributed to this report.