The Violent Protests in Milwaukee, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Here’s a portion of our news brief this morning covering the latest flashpoint in U.S. police relations:

The crowds [that set fire to buildings, shattered bus shelters, and threw rocks at police in Milwaukee last night] were reacting to the death of a man [Sylville Smith] Saturday afternoon, who was fatally shot by police after fleeing a traffic stop. Police said the man was armed, but the details of the incident are not yet clear. The police have not identified the race of the man or the officer who shot him.

A reader, Tim, contends that last night’s violence was partly due to nationwide activism:

As bad as the police sometimes are, the citizens in some of these neighborhoods are infinitely more ignorant (though thankfully not empowered to commit state-sanctioned violence). It’s too simple to blame BLM for this, but I think it’s fair to say that they’ve contributed. Because BLM seeks a broad base of political support among African Americans rather than an intellectual discourse, its leaders have failed to draw any distinction between justified and unjustified violence by police. Combined with uncritical coverage by most media outlets, this has helped to spread and reinforce the idea that any shooting of a black person (and only a black person) by police is itself a moral crime. Therefore, you get hundreds or thousands of people rioting in the streets before any relevant facts are known.

Here are the latest facts known, published this evening by the AP and (live updates from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel are here):

The man who was shot and killed by a Milwaukee police officer on Saturday … is seen on body camera footage with a loaded gun in his hand, officials said at a Sunday news conference. Sylville K. Smith, 23, was identified Sunday as the subject of a Saturday afternoon traffic stop that turned deadly when Smith allegedly ran from officers and then turned toward one with a gun in his hand. Both Smith and the unidentified officer who shot him are black, Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn said.

Flynn can be seen in this video (flagged today by another reader, Tom) that was recorded in 2014 following a public hearing held in response to the fatal shooting of Dontre Hamilton:

If you can’t play the video, below is the transcript of Flynn’s reply to a reporter who asked him, “What’s your response to some of the people who thought you were being disrespectful by being on your phone and not being attentive [during the public hearing]”:

Well, I was on my phone. And, yes, that’s true. I was following developments of the five-year-old little girl sitting on her Dad’s lap who just got shot in the head by a drive-by shooting. If some of the people here gave a good goddamn about the victimization of people in this community by crime, I’d take some of their invective more seriously.

The greatest racial disparity in the city of Milwaukee is getting shot and killed. Hello. Eighty percent of my homicide victims every year are African-American. Eighty percent of our aggravated assault victims are African-American. Eighty percent of our shooting victims who survive their shooting are African-American.

Now they know all about the last three people who have been killed by the Milwaukee Police Department over the course of the last several years. There’s not one of them who can name one of the last three homicide victims we’ve had in this city.

Now there’s room for everybody to participate in fixing this police department and I’m not pretending we’re without sin. But this community’s at risk all right. And it’s not because men and women in blue risk their lives protecting it. It’s at risk because we have large numbers of high-capacity, quality firearms in the hands of remorseless criminals who don’t care who they shoot.

Now, I’m leaving here to go to that scene, and I take it personally, okay? We’re going there and there’s a bunch of cops up there processing the scene of a dead kid. And they’re the ones who are going to be out there patrolling and stopping suspects and they have guns under the front seat. They’re the ones who are going to risk their lives to clean this thing up. Alright?

We’re responsible for the things we get wrong and we take action. We’ve arrested cops, we’ve fired cops, and so on. But, the fact is, that the people out here, some of them, who had the most to say, are absolutely MIA when it comes to the true threats facing this community. And it gets a little tiresome, when you start getting yelled at for reading the updates of the kid who get shot… yeah, you take it personal. Okay, now, no offense, I’m going up there now.

For more perspective on Milwaukee’s crime rate, this local news report was published on Saturday morning—hours before the fatal shooting of Sylville Smith:

Five men are dead after a series of overnight shootings in Milwaukee. “We had a horrible night last night,” Mayor Tom Barrett said Saturday afternoon.The shooting’s stretched from 6 p.m. Friday to 3 a.m. Saturday, a 9-hour span that saw 9 shootings, including the 5 deaths. The victims range in age from 21 to 36.

According to police, the first shooting happened around 6 p.m. on Sherman Blvd. That’s when a 33-year-old man was shot while driving near Sherman Park. “The police were right there,” said Barrett. “They were in Sherman Park, they could hear the gunshots.” [...] According to police, there have now been 81 homicides in Milwaukee this year. At this point last year, there were 94.

Meanwhile, more readers are debating who is to blame for the violence in the streets of Milwaukee last night. The first reader above, Tim, responds to another reader who claimed that President Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder are responsible for tense race relations involving police. Here’s Tim:

I don’t see how this is remotely Obama’s doing. On race, he’s been a nuanced voice—smarter and more constructive than those on either extreme of the spectrum. (I do think BLM and completely uncritical media coverage of it have been a factor, though.) I don't recall hearing inflammatory or dishonest statements from either Obama nor Holder regarding race. If Holder’s DOJ wanted to inflame racial division with dishonesty, they certainly had their chance with the Michael Brown shooting, and instead they exonerated Darren Wilson without equivocation. It’s not Obama or Holder who pushed the “Hands up, don’t shoot” narrative; it’s dishonest eyewitnesses like Michael Brown's “friend” and activists who’d rather have a martyr than the truth.

Another reader, Harvey, points a finger at another public official:

The Sheriff of Milwaukee County [David Clarke] spoke at the Republican National Convention. You know, the one where they promised to Make America Safe Again. Heckuva job, Clarkie!

Another reader retorts, “Police of the city of Milwaukee (who were those involved in this) and Sheriff of Milwaukee County are different political entities and different, though overlapping, geographical entities!” As this Politico profile of Clarke notes, “As sheriff, he has ultimate authority for law enforcement in the county, but in reality, his jurisdiction is limited—the freeways, the courts, the airport and the jail.” For his part this weekend, Clarke requested the mobilization of the National Guard.

For more on the sheriff, Maurice Chammah wrote a popular profile of Clarke for The Atlantic back in May. Money quote:

Clarke, an African American law-enforcement leader who favors cowboy hats and often appears atop a horse, fights crime in Milwaukee, the U.S. city that has been called “the worst place” for African Americans to live. He has become a fixture of conservative media. Glenn Beck presents the sheriff’s podcast on his multimedia juggernaut, The Blaze, and he is a frequent guest on Fox News. Clarke is also popular on Twitter, where he recently tweeted to his 127,000 followers that the young activists of the Black Lives Matter movement—he calls it “Black Lies Matter”—will eventually “join forces with ISIS.” He made sure to note, “You heard it first here.”

Back to some saner rhetoric, this next reader apportions blame to Republicans in Wisconsin:

It has to be understood that the state’s turn from good government haven to right-wing playground is rooted in the dynamics of having 6% of the population being black and most of it in Milwaukee. The systematic segregation that has damaged all other Rust Belt cities was magnified in Milwaukee because blacks with of their low numbers were unable to gain any political power. Thus a backlash developed in the ‘80s and ‘90s, which saw radicals gain a following and a vicious cycle of reaction developed and the entire political structure became devoted fear of blacks and Milwaukee.

The Milwaukee metro area is the only Rust Belt one that has not benefited from the manufacturing rebound centered around the booming auto industry and other segments of the medium to heavy manufacturing that was so prevalent there. The state essentially discouraged the tax incentive and promotion of industrial development model because whites did not want to work with or even see blacks. They didn’t want any factories that employed blacks. The growth of Wisconsin has lagged behind every other Midwest state.

Which, like these riots, have been a boon to the GOP, because it reinforces the vicious cycle of social disfunction in the Milwaukee area that causes only more rightest reaction, and so on and so on and so on. The Walkers and Ryans and the GOP there didn’t aim for this outcome, but they just as well should have because it does and it will continue to benefit them politically as the vicious cycles swills ever downward.

Are you a resident of Milwaukee and want to contribute to this debate? Please drop us a note. Update from a reader on Juleyka’s new piece, “The Milwaukee Police Department Knows It Needs Help”:

The absolute craziest thing about the Milwaukee riots is that the cop did exactly what he was supposed to do in order to protect the community. The community responded to a civil servant risking his life to protect them by burning shops and attacking people.

This wasn’t police abuse. It was a police officer protecting a neighborhood from a violent felon with a stolen gun. Five men were murdered the night before in Milwaukee, and four more were shot; that didn’t even draw protests, much less rioting. The one example of socially legitimate violence, on the other hand, saw destruction of property and attempted murder break out within hours.

Another reader replies, “It’s not about this latest shooting; it’s about everything that’s happened prior to it. I honestly can’t make it any more succinct than that.”