Summers of Strife

Although they occurred for different reasons, Milwaukee’s riots of the past and present have sparked similar tensions.

Midway through August, when disorder broke out in the Sherman Park neighborhood, anyone too young to remember the 1960s in Milwaukee might have missed the parallels to – and contrasts with – the 1967 riots, which left a much wider swath of the city smoldering and damaged. This time, the fires were smaller, affecting just a handful of businesses, but the tensions unleashed were no less explosive. – Matt Hrodey and Tom Tolan

July 30 – Aug. 3, 1967

Catalyst: Inner city residents felt trapped. Attempts to pass a fair housing law in Milwaukee to prohibit housing discrimination had failed.

Epicenter: Third Street and North Avenue.

Advance Warning: As riots raged in other U.S. cities that summer, rumors and threats presaged some kind of unrest in Milwaukee.

Deaths: 3

Injuries: 100

Arrests: 1,740

Police Response: At Mayor Henry Maier’s orders, rifle-toting police blocked streets and enforced a citywide, all-ages, 24-hour curfew, which was later relaxed to night hours only.

Curfew Duration: 9 days

Role of the National Guard: Members patrolled the streets alongside Chief Harold Breier’s police force.

Mayor’s Response: According to historian John Gurda, “No other big city mayor responded so swiftly and with such sweeping measures,” effectively enforcing a state of martial law.

Long-term Effects: Open housing laws were passed in 1968, after multiple marches, and Gurda sees Mayor Henry Maier’s crackdown as leading to an increase in white flight.

Aug. 13-15, 2016

Catalyst: The police shooting and death of 23-year-old Sylville Smith*, which strengthened existing concerns about police aggression toward blacks.

Epicenter: Gas station near Sherman Boulevard and Burleigh Street.

Advance Warning: Unrest hit other cities, but demonstrations following recent police shootings in Milwaukee had remained peaceful.

Deaths: 0 (Smith’s death is not included in casualties from unrest)

Injuries: 13

Arrests: 41

Police Response: Officers protected by riot gear and an armored personnel carrier primarily played a peace-keeping role. The 10 p.m. curfew imposed by Mayor Tom Barrett on Aug. 15 applied only to youth.

Curfew Duration: 1 week

Role of the National Guard: Soldiers traveled to local armories but were never deployed to the street.

Mayor’s Response: Barrett accused a small number of agitators of stirring up trouble, praised police restraint and vowed to rebuild the damaged areas.

Long-term Effects: Too soon to tell.

‘Summers of Strife’ appears in the October issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning October 3, or buy a copy at

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