The acquittal in Sylville Smith's death shows that too little changes in Milwaukee, despite protests
Milwaukee has had a history of really bad relationships between its native black community and police. A midwestern city that is often overlooked for its legacy of anti-black racism and rampant discrimination that has shaped neighborhoods, Milwaukee is home to 238,000 African Americans — 40% of the city’s total population — and has been surviving loops of economic recessions for longer than it cares to admit. Industrial jobs that once were the heart of the town all but disappeared starting in the early 1980s. Its school system has re-segregated, and the city masks the phenomenon under a proliferation of charter schools. Black men in Milwaukee County have the highest incarceration rates in the state of Wisconsin: the state has incarcerated 62% of all males under the age 34 from the 53206 zip code, just ten block shy of Sherman Park, where Sylville Smith was killed by police last August.
On Wednesday, a jury acquitted former Milwaukee police officer Dominique Haeggan Brown of all charges in Smith’s death. But the death of Smith set off three days of unrest last August in Milwaukee’s Sherman Park neighborhood, in Milwaukee’s North Side.
"Where’s the justice? Where’s the justice?" cried Sedan Smith in a video shared in the hours after the death of his brother, Sylville. His grief is visceral as he looks directly into the camera, raising his hands before falling into the embrace of a friend. "We don’t have any constitutional rights because of the color of our skin."
He was right, and many of Milwaukee’s African-American residents felt it keenly.
As a Milwaukee native, born and raised on the north side, it was surreal to witness the level of rage and destruction in the protests after Sylville Smith’s death — in part because many of us had wondered for years when it would finally happen. Days later, a local news affiliate reporter asked Sedan Smith to comment on the protests in Sherman Park. "This is what you get. You get a lot of people that’s hurt, and they can’t vent the right way," Smith told him. "They can’t no longer depend on the police to be here to protect us like they say they’re going to do. So this is what you get."
This is what you get after Ernest Lacy, a 22-year-old black man who died in police custody in the summer of 1981, the earliest case of a black man killed by police in Milwaukee that I remember. Lacy was approached by three white officers that July, wrestled to ground and placed in a police van, in which he died. The officers were never charged. Back then, Milwaukee’s police department was still under the iron thumb of Harold Breier, who had been chief of police for nearly 40 years, and whose leadership of the department was notoriously hostile to civil rights activism. (Breier had, for example, instructed officers to not wear badges while monitoring a series of protests in 1967 for open housing ordinances in Milwaukee, so that they couldn’t be identified for police brutality.)
This is what you get when, in the years since, none of the many cases of excessive force or fatal civilian encounters with police yielded any charges.
This is what you get after Derek Williams, who was apprehended in 2011 and complained of not being able to breathe. His pleas, captured, on video, were ignored by officers, and he died 15 minutes later after his arrest.
This is what you get after Christopher Manney shot and killed Dontre Hamilton in Milwaukee’s Red Arrow Park in April 2014. Hamilton, who had suffered from a mental illness, was unarmed. Manney did not face any criminal charges (but was fired in 2015 for failing to conform to department procedures).
This is what you get. This is also, at least in part, how Milwaukee’s black residents have forced any real change, historically.
In 1958, Milwaukee’s black community protested the police shooting of 22-year-old Daniel Bell. Police shot Bell when he fled a traffic stop for a broken taillight, and covered up the case by planting a knife on the scene to justify their actions. It took Bell’s family 30 years to learn to truth of the circumstances that lead to his premature death at the hands of police. Bell’s family sued the City of Milwaukee. In 1984, a federal court awarded the family $1.6 million.
But Bell’s death was nonetheless the spark for the local movement for civil rights for Milwaukee’s growing black community. Milwaukee’s black community came together to protest, and then sustained its efforts to secure civil rights, resulting in the desegregation of the city’s schools and a campaign for desegregated housing, which culminated in 1967 and 1968, where the NAACP Youth Council and a white Catholic priest led marches through the city’s white neighborhoods for 200 days.
But so, too, has discrimination sustained itself, whether in police killings of black men, the immense eviction rates of black and brown people documented in Matthew Desmond’s book Evicted, or the aforementioned resegregation of the city’s schools.
"We in this police department and the police profession know we have inherited a social history of which we can’t always be proud," said current Chief of Police Edward Flynn at a community meeting in a 2015 episode of This American Life. "The police have often been in the middle of great conflict and not infrequently, been agents of social control to preserve a status quo."
While Flynn’s approach toward restoring trust between black and brown neighborhoods of my youth is welcome, the fissure remains. In 2011, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel report discovered that black drivers are seven times more likely to subjected to traffic stops than white drivers. Flynn is, for this and other reason, still loathed, and challenged to acknowledge racial bias as a factor in individual incidents.
Days after the riots in Sherman Park, for example, my brother-in-law’s youngest brother returned home visibly shaken. He had just been stopped and frisked by police as he was walking home from work in the ethnically diverse neighborhood of Riverwest, on Milwaukee’s east side. He told me that it was the third time it happened to him that month.
The residents of Milwaukee will likely pivot, in the wake of this verdict, to plead for investment in public institutions that address the dearth of opportunities available for African-Americans — and, in particular, for African-American men — in Milwaukee. But for Smith’s family, any effort to change the circumstances for African-American men in the city that defined my childhood will come too late: they now join families nationwide seeking justice and reparations for the life of loved one prematurely eclipsed by a policeman’s actions. Sometimes, no matter how much we protest, too little seems to change
The legacy of civil rights activism that agitated for desegregation of the city’s schools and housing ordinances lays at the root of many of the social, economic and political problems Milwaukee faces today. To police, the overlap of police-to-civilian contacts and high concentrations of poverty, many of which are disproportionately black and brown people, leads to them being labeled "high crime areas." The absence of sustainable job opportunities in these communities are also connected to the reality that many of these jobs exist outside the city limits — in largely white areas — which requires a robust, but non-existent, public transportation system.
Once many of the white families fled Milwaukee, suburban communities that were predominantly white in composition resisted any transportation expansions that would’ve enabled the fluid movement of city residents. And now, black and brown drivers are frequently subjected to traffic stops in communities that historically were and remain culturally homogenous and white. And it is in those contacts, too, where individual dramas of implicit bias play out between white and black residents, and between black residents and police officers.
These norms are built into the urban fabric of America’s most segregated city. I don’t know if hearts and minds will bend toward life-affirming justice and equity, or simply, if a traffic stop has a 50-50 chance of being fatal, depending on the color and character of driver or officer. History repeats before it corrects.