This was bound to happen in the Milwaukee I know
Decades of neglect, segregation and violence have come home to roost
This isn’t the Milwaukee I know.
At least that’s what I am supposed to say. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said it. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist James E. Causey said the same thing. Various family members of mine, who’ve lived there for decades, probably feel the same way.
But I don’t. This is the Milwaukee I know, and that’s why I left at 18, never to return.
Saturday night, 23-year-old black male Sylville Smith was fatally shot by a (black) police officer on the north side of Milwaukee. The location of the shooting —44th Street and West Auer Avenue — is just minutes away from my childhood home; it’s another minute or so away from the house my mother still owns. Sherman Park, where two nights of violence have broken out leaving businesses burned to the ground and dozens arrested, is along the bus route I took to school every day during my four years of high school.
All the images you’ve seen on television and social media — well, not all of them — are places I’ve driven past or visited from my time in the city. I’ve filled up at that burned-down BP gas station before and I’ve sat in the car while my dad stopped at that now-destroyed O’Reilly Auto Parts. There’s a Checkers restaurant right next to O’Reilly that I’ve bought many orders of curly fries from.
For all intents and purposes, this is my city. I grew up here. I never waver when asked where I came from, and I proudly wear my Milwaukee Bucks apparel around my new home in Maryland. But, unlike the many friends and family members still there, I hate the place where I was born.
When I was 6 years old, a man was shot and killed right outside of my mother’s house. Fearing the safety of her three young kids, my mother eventually moved us to a house miles away, but still on the north side of Milwaukee, where most of the black population in the city resides. This is the Milwaukee where at least five police officers beat the hell out of Frank Jude because they could. The same Milwaukee, where I remember as a 13-year-old not understanding how a man could be beaten to death so brutally by a group of teens that his blood splattered to the top of a porch roof and his ear fell off. Growing up, outside of my nationally recognized middle school, I went to some of the poorest and poorest-performing schools in the state. My senior year of high school, my school was the first in the city’s history to have police officers — not safety officers — assigned to it full time. This same school was the reason behind a citywide cellphone ban a mere months before I was set to graduate. While I was more or less isolated from gun violence and the drug trade through my years in the city, I witnessed enough to make me, at age 17, decide I wanted to leave and never come back.
When I went off to pursue undergraduate studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2008, I was constantly told how proud I made my family to “get out” of Milwaukee. Despite them still having to live in one of the most segregated cities in America — and one of the worst for black people — they were ecstatic to see me branch out, even if it was just 70 miles away in Madison, Wisconsin. Since then, I’ve lived in Missouri, Connecticut and now Maryland, never spending more than a week in Milwaukee since 2012. Whenever I’ve visited — a Thanksgiving here, a Christmas there — I’m immediately taken back to my adolescence.
There’s the disastrous infrastructure that seems to leave every street as undrivable as an Iraq minefield, the boarded-up houses in dozens of pockets of the city and the poverty that’s so in your face you can smell it. Decades of job losses and recession have made the city all but uninhabitable, leaving many poor, uneducated … and imprisoned in a sectioned-off pocket of a city of almost 600,000.
Whenever I visit, I’m instantly reminded of the people who weren’t afforded the opportunities I was growing up. I grew up middle class — whatever that means anymore — with both parents and both sets of grandparents that each worked their ways into early retirement. I always had food, shelter and clothes, and I was even given a car at 17. We were by no means rich, but I never wanted for anything. But those I grew up around and went to school with were overwhelmingly poor. I couldn’t name a friend who didn’t get reduced lunch at school. My classmates — 90 percent of whom were black throughout high school — lived in worse neighborhoods than I did, and most came from single-parent households. My freshman class of high school was over 400 students. My high school graduation barely had 150 walk cross the stage. Facebook tells me that a majority of my graduating class didn’t go to college or didn’t finish, which isn’t the end all be all, but still.
I can’t tell aggrieved and oppressed people how to cope with a system that — like we just saw in Baltimore —strategically works against them, which makes my feelings that much more conflicted. Unlike many white people from the area, who only know one area of Milwaukee, I could see this “uprising” coming from a mile away. After Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, and what we’ve learned from each case, I knew Milwaukee was ripe for a pushback from its discriminated black community. I actually texted my brother and sister last Wednesday, the day the Department of Justice report on Baltimore was released, saying the “next police shooting in Milwaukee will probably lead to its own report, which will show the same s—.”
And it more than likely will show the same unconstitutional and illegal conduct shown by various police departments across the country. It’ll show a city ravaged by segregation and discrimination for decades. It’ll show a second-class citizenry in one of the nation’s largest cities.
But I’m over 700 miles away saying: This is the Milwaukee I know.