Who was Dontre Hamilton?
Dontre Hamilton was 31 years old when he died on April 30, 2014.
Hamilton had suffered from schizophrenia and paranoia in the years leading up to his death. On the night of April 30, he’d fallen asleep on a park bench when he was approached by a Milwaukee police officer. The officer’s initial actions were later considered an “out-of-policy pat-down” by the Milwaukee Police Department. He’d approached Hamilton after responding to a call from some Starbucks employees who reported the sleeping man in Red Arrow Park.
The officer’s report of what happened next is of some debate, but he claims that, upon being awoken, Hamilton nabbed the officer’s baton and used it as a weapon, striking the officer.
During the scuffle, the officer shot Hamilton 14 times, killing him. Hamilton had been unarmed — save for the baton.
Individual officers often fly under the radar. Do you remember the name of the last cop who pulled you over? But whenever they get wrapped up in an investigation — especially one involving the death of a civilian — their names, faces and titles often become front-page news.
MPD officer Christopher Manney was the one who killed Hamilton four years ago. Formal charges were never brought against Manney, but he was eventually fired by then-Police Chief Edward Flynn.
In 2016, he told Fox 6 that he had been offered jobs to return to the police force out of state, but turned them down because of his own issues with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that he says developed as a direct result of Hamilton’s death.
Despite being fired, Manney still received retirement benefits, according to several media outlets.
Like most everyone else in Southeastern Wisconsin, filmmaker Erik Ljung became interested in Hamilton’s story. Starting a few months after Hamilton’s death, Ljung started filming the family and controversy that inevitably sprung up around them.
The project became the feature-length documentary The Blood Is at the Doorstep and earned Ljung a flurry of awards, including The Hollywood Reporter Critics Pick from SXSW 2017 and the Audience Award for Best Feature Film at the 2017 Milwaukee Film Festival.
“This is a movie that is always finding beauty in ugliness and manages to celebrate the former without forgetting the latter,” PopMatters said of the film.
Hamilton’s death is considered to be the final straw that led the MPD to begin equipping its officers with body cameras.
Advocacy groups have sprung up in the years since Dontre’s death. His brother Nate founded the Coalition for Justice, and his mother had a hand in organizing the Million Moms March protesting police violence in Washington D.C. in 2015 after founding Mothers for Justice United.
The family has been open about Dontre’s mental illness. “It’s something that nobody should die for,” Hamilton’s mother says in a public address recorded in Blood Is at the Doorstep. At the outset, both the police force and the Hamiltons emphasized Dontre’s schizophrenia, albeit with different intents: Flynn, speaking for the police force, called Hamilton, “violent” and “combative” as a result of his diagnosis.
Conflict was bound to arise.
More than 70 people were arrested that December, following Hamilton’s death, in a protest that shut down traffic on Interstate 43 in downtown Milwaukee.
The more widely publicized death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, occurred less than four months later on Aug. 9, 2014, expediting the spread of the #BlackLivesMatter movement that had started the year before after Trayvon Martin’s death in Florida. It came quickly and strongly to Milwaukee. More protests followed.
The LA Times connected Hamilton’s death to the Sherman Park unrest that came two years later. “The people are angry,” The LA Times reported the Coalition for Justice stating. “The people are fed up, and the people are demanding their freedom.”
The Hamilton family later settled with the City of Milwaukee for $2.3 million.
Dontre Day 2018
Dontre Day will be held Saturday May 5, starting at noon in Red Arrow Park, the same place where Hamilton died almost four years ago.
It’s not only a memorial to Hamilton, but also a call for the community to move forward past the tragedy.
“The day is not just to acknowledge Dontre, but the community who fought, cried and endured with us,” Nate Hamilton said at the 2017 rally, The Journal Sentinel reported.
The hosts say “this day has been used to strengthen the community by coming together in dance, music, poetry, love and respect. We strive to awaken the community to the work that is being done and needs to be continued in order to liberate black lives.”