“God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!” – Lines from “Mary Don’t You Weep,” a spiritual and the source of James Baldwin’s classic title.
Sadly, I predicted the kind of violence and unrest that came to Milwaukee that fateful weekend of the Sherman Park riots.
I take no credit for prescience in this regard; I have never wanted more to be wrong.
I wrote a regular column in the Milwaukee Journal and the Journal Sentinel for 20 years that frequently touched on the often-tense relationship between the city’s African-American population and the police tasked with protecting them on a daily basis.
Two years ago, riots in Ferguson, Missouri, shocked the nation with an explosion of anger by African-American residents upset over a controversial police shooting of an unarmed black suspect, Michael Brown.
At the time, I wrote about that incident using Baldwin’s powerful words about growing unrest in the African-American community, from his blistering 1963 essay, “The Fire Next Time.” I wondered if such a thing could happen in Milwaukee, and how city officials would react to a similar circumstance. Wonder no longer; this time the fire came to Milwaukee, and we may never be the same.
The Sherman Park gas station and other buildings set ablaze will stand as landmark reminders of the riots long after the neighborhood has been cleaned up and painted anew.
The litany of controversial cases involving African-Americans and the Milwaukee Police Department goes back to Daniel Bell, a black man framed by police in 1958 after being shot and killed. After his arrest for fleeing a traffic violation, police officers were found to have placed a knife in his hand to justify the shooting.
His death led to a landmark civil rights case many still reference today in regards to police culpability in wrongful-death shootings by police.
In the decades after Bell, the pattern unfortunately continued. Too many cases of black suspects shot and killed or harmed by police, followed by angry young people boldly advocating against these types of shootings. And concerned residents who feel helpless when one official inquiry after another into a questionable incident ends with no charges.
Last Saturday night in Sherman Park was clearly a tipping point, with things taking a violent turn. The only thing surprising was that it happened in Sherman Park.
Sherman Park is a mostly stable central city neighborhood filled with well-kept homes, businesses and civic-minded residents who are a testament to an integrated place that could not be described as a “depressed ghetto.” But behind the bucolic appearance of some areas, Sherman Park is also home to the same troubling social indicators that plague poorer sections of the city: Too much unemployment, too much crime, too many mistrusting youth with nothing to look forward to in their future.
The news from Sherman Park spread on social media; most of the African-Americans on my Facebook and Twitter timeline expressed shock, disgust and anxiety as the evening progressed.
Again, Ferguson was a too-easy comparison.
The 2014 riots in Ferguson gave birth to a protest movement known as Black Lives Matter that took the wheel in several communities after similar events. In Milwaukee, Black Lives Matter demonstrators protested the 2014 death of Dontre Hamilton, a black man shot 14 times by a police officer in Red Arrow Park Downtown. The officer was fired but never charged.
Numerous protests for Hamilton held locally have skirted the potential of widespread civil unrest in scary ways. There have been tense confrontations, with highways blocked off by demonstrators and loud marches, always in the view of massive police presence.
Now the name of Sylville Smith has been added to the list of African-American men shot and killed by police.
The response by police chief Ed Flynn to the Sherman Park riot after Smith’s death has been restrained and a testament to level-headed law enforcement tactics designed to handle the demonstrations while respecting the emotions of the people.
The counterpart to that level-headedness is our own Milwaukee County Sheriff David A. Clarke, who has vociferously attacked Black Lives Matter as a hate group and insulted its supporters as lawless thugs.
Clarke, who has built a career as a right-wing pundit, has shown no inclination to work with city police or residents to deal with the deteriorating relationship between law enforcement and those who feel intimidated by police shooting suspects before arresting them.
Clarke’s self-serving rhetoric is part of the problem, not the solution.
I’ve tried to discuss the Sherman Park riots with white friends who live in the suburbs of Milwaukee and get most of their news from conservative radio. Many are confused why African-Americans seem to have such low regard for some police officers, and they criticize those who show up to protest after a shooting by police.
I have tried to explain the dynamic like this: In many white neighborhoods, the news that police shot a criminal suspect would be welcomed with the confidence that the cop must have just been doing his job.
That simply isn’t the case when African-Americans have suspicions about police ability to confront black suspects without using deadly force. They don’t trust all cops to have the judgement or training to deal fairly with black males, and they can’t help but wonder if their son, brother, father — or themselves — might be next.
The aftermath of the riot in Sherman Park will be examined with an eye on how to avoid things in the future – along with a troubling new perception that police officers themselves may be in danger. According to press reports, the officer who shot Smith has been threatened with violence on social media to the point where his safety has become a concern.
Some have been expecting the fire to come to Milwaukee for some time, but it’s in no way clear that its arrival will do anything to improve the situation here. More likely, it will just became another sad marker of a continuing battle between police and residents in Milwaukee – as in many areas of this nation.
It’s time for everybody to accept that the flames are a threat to everyone.