Last Saturday night, after police shot and killed Sylville Smith, 23, a young black man who Milwaukee police claim threatened officers with a handgun, citizens of Milwaukee responded by protesting, firing shots, and setting cars and buildings on fire. The protests continued Sunday night, where one person was injured by a gunshot. Police set a curfew on Monday morning to prevent further protests from occurring.
The sudden and angry nature of these protests in response to the death of an armed black male may be surprising to folks around the country. Uprisings and outcries that have occurred in Ferguson and Baltimore have typically followed the deaths of presumably innocent and unarmed young black men and women; however, if one contends with the sociopolitical environment of Milwaukee and Wisconsin, additional motivating and devastating factors behind the local uprising becomes clear.
Milwaukee has been deemed one of “the worst places to be black in America.” Back in 2011, Milwaukee high schools suspended black youth at a rate of 34%, compared to 4% for white students locally and a 23% rate for black high school students nationally.
Wisconsin incarcerates the most black men in the United States, and invests more funds in incarceration and private prisons than in higher education. Around half of all black men in their 30s and 40s in Milwaukee County have been incarcerated at some point. Further, Milwaukee is the most segregated city in the nation and nearly 40% of African Americans live in poverty.
This environment perhaps added to the tensions and anger of the Sherman Park community, located on the north side of Milwaukee, where most of the uprising took place. Certainly, anger and hurt over the loss of a loved one likely fueled this outcry as well.
Following the protests, the brother of Sylville Smith appeared in a YouTube video, displaying his own concealed carry permit. He tearfully lamented that it seemed as if the law and the protection of the Constitution did not extend to him or his family, or to black people at all.
In an interview, he further commented that his community is “losing loved ones every day to those who have sworn to protect and serve.”
While clearly the black community in Milwaukee has plenty to be outraged about, the extent of care for victims of police shootings does not have to stop upon discovery that an individual is armed, or is “no angel,” as some in the media referred to Michael Brown. Smith had a past and a record of run-ins with the law, and this fact may curtail feelings of empathy from some following this story. Yet, the anguish of losing a loved one, although they may have committed a crime, may still resonate within a community as it clearly does in Sherman Park and with Smith’s family. This anguish coupled with anger at an oppressive socio-economic environment in Milwaukee and the United States is clear fuel for an uprising.
The policing of black people’s feelings over who qualifies as a victim and who has a right to be angry must end.
Photo Credits: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel