MILWAUKEE — After two nights of violent clashes between police and residents following a fatal police shooting of a young black man, Police Chief Ed Flynn stepped to the microphone late Monday night to declare a small victory.
“We’ve seen great improvement over yesterday,” Flynn said. The night had produced 10 arrests, but no rioting or property damage after officials instituted a 10 p.m. curfew. “This community is not interested in doing damage to where they live,” he said.
Milwaukee has become the latest U.S. city to see decades of simmering anger and frustration among black residents boil over into violence after a death at the hands of police.
Police say 23-year-old Sylville K. Smith was fatally shot about 3:30 p.m. Saturday after fleeing on foot with another man during a traffic stop. According to police, Smith had a gun in his hand and ran to a fenced area before turning to face an officer chasing him. Flynn has said an autopsy shows Smith was hit twice, in the chest and the arm.
But initially, residents had been told that Smith was shot in the back. Many here question whether the young man, whose family is well known in the neighborhood, would have raised his gun at the officer. After the shooting, violence erupted in the neighborhood, with several gas stations, an auto parts store and a beauty supply shop looted, some burned to the ground. The situation remained tense Sunday, when an 18-year-old was struck in the neck as gunfire erupted during a gathering of residents angered by Smith’s death.
Anger still hung in the air as dozens gathered Monday in the Sherman Park neighborhood near where Smith was killed.
“Right now there is a lot of emotion,” said Darrell Williams, a former principal in the Milwaukee Public Schools who is now an assistant superintendent in Beloit and had Smith as a pupil, as he caught up with former students at a cookout that Smith’s family held Monday to raise funds for the funeral.
“The first story was that he was shot in the back, now they’re saying he was shot in the chest,” Williams said. “Once the facts come out, that will ease a lot of the tension.”
Smith’s friends and family said Monday that they were enraged with how the media had portrayed him, specifically the focus on Smith’s criminal record — which includes several traffic, drug possession and weapons charges, with no felony convictions.
They described “Trill Ville” as a ladies man, who dreamed of getting out of Milwaukee and cared deeply for his 2-year-old daughter. As a child, he was known around Sherman Park as the neighborhood acrobat, climbing trees and perfecting backflips that were the envy of his playmates. As a young man, friends say, he enjoyed playing pickup basketball. He also, according to them, began collecting guns and obtained a concealed carry permit.
Police have yet to release the body-camera footage of the shooting, and family members said it has yet to be shown to Smith’s mother or other relatives.
“In the state of Wisconsin, it’s not illegal to carry a gun,” said Smith’s grandfather, who spoke on the condition that his name not be used because he is not authorized to speak on behalf of the family. “If it’s clear on the tape that he is raising the gun, then why haven’t they shown us the tape?”
The shooting has become the latest in a series of policing Rorschach tests that have further driven a wedge in a politically polarized nation. Those divisions mirror the national divide over the Black Lives Matter movement, which some see as the next era of a centuries-old civil rights struggle for black Americans and others perceive as a counterproductive, divisive distraction from more important issues.
That polarization over police treatment of black men occurs along partisan lines, polls have shown. And it is potent in greater Milwaukee, with its deep divisions between the heavily Democratic inner city and the almost-exclusively white, Republican counties that surround it.
In an analysis published in 2014, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found that partisan polarization in greater Milwaukee was more entrenched than in the rest of Wisconsin, and the state itself is more polarized than most other states. Unlike the areas surrounding many Midwestern cities — which feature a patchwork of communities, some that lean Democratic and others Republican — the region around Milwaukee contains entire counties that lean almost exclusively in one political direction or the other.
This city is home to the most segregated neighborhoods in the nation, as well as concentrated levels of poverty, unemployment and incarceration.
For activists and many black Americans, there are more questions than answers — why was Smith pulled over, why hasn’t the tape been released and was he really lifting the gun? To them, the unrest that followed Smith’s death was a predictable result of decades of unchecked urban decay that have plagued the parts of Milwaukee where black residents live.
“The reality is that there is no quick fix to what we’re dealing with,” said Howard Fuller, a longtime civil rights activist and former Milwaukee schools superintendent who lives one block from the BP gas station that was burned during the unrest Saturday night. “This is a city where there are 27,000 households that have an income less than $10,000.”
“When they ask me why is it that people would rise up when a dude with a gun gets killed by the police, what I try to explain to them is that this is just one incident taking place within a framework of Dontre Hamilton, Eric Garner, Walter Scott,” Fuller said. “The immediate reaction, no matter what the circumstances, this is another man who has been killed by the police. … It’s not just a reaction to the specific incident, it’s a reaction to the whole chain of them. And then you put that on top of the miserable living conditions. What do people expect is going to happen?”
For those inclined to be more sympathetic to law enforcement, the shooting appears clearly legally justified — since, the police say, Smith had a gun — and the distrust about the police narrative among local residents seems confounding. The unrest, they reason, is not the result of years of systemic oppression, white flight and segregation. Rather, the blame lies with the “failed” policies of the Democratic lawmakers who run the city.
“What happened Saturday night and again Sunday night had little to do with police use of force — it was a collapse of the social order where tribal behavior leads to reacting to circumstances instead of waiting for facts to emerge,” Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, a frequent Fox News contributor who spoke at last month’s Republican National Convention, wrote in an op-ed published Monday by the Hill. “The law of the jungle replaced the rule of law in Milwaukee.”