Months after flames and unrest gripped Kenosha, Wisconsin, the decision by county officials to not charge the White police officer who shot Jacob Blake has renewed the city’s communal pain and racial divide.
The Kenosha prosecutor’s announcement this week that Rusten Sheskey and other police officers would not face charges in connection with the shooting angered Blake’s family and activists – but it wasn’t surprising.
“We expected it,” Blake’s father, Jacob Blake Sr. said Tuesday. “We understood what was going to come when they called in [the] National Guard” ahead of the decision.
Shortly after the August shooting, the small city of 100,000 people on the Lake Michigan coastline near Milwaukee became another epicenter for demonstrations calling for racial justice. Blake’s shooting happened just months after the killing of George Floyd and tensions in Kenosha intensified even more after an armed White teenager fatally shot two men and wounded another during protests in August. However, law enforcement and community members in Kenosha had already been at odds long before Blake’s shooting, according to Vaun Mayes, an organizer with Community Task Force MKE, a Milwaukee-based activist group that has joined multiple marches supporting the Blake family.
The Black community’s “relationship has always been rocky and (one of) high racial tension,” said Mayes, recalling a series of inflammatory comments made by Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth in 2018.
Blake was shot multiple times in the back on August 23 after officers were responding to a domestic incident. Blake survived the shooting but was left paralyzed from the waist down.
For attorneys representing the Blake family, the district attorney’s decision further destroyed the community’s trust in the criminal justice system.
“We feel this decision failed not only Jacob and his family, but the community that protested and demanded justice,” Attorneys Ben Crump, B’Ivory LaMarr and Patrick A. Salvi in a joint statement.
“This sends the wrong message to police officers throughout the country,” they added.
All the officers involved in the Blake shooting remain on administrative leave, the Kenosha Police Department tweeted late Tuesday.
Kenosha County District Attorney Michael Graveley said he has called on the US Attorney’s Office to do a parallel civil rights investigation that would be a separate investigation with its own conclusion.
Kenosha isn’t the only tinderbox, scholar says
Racial integration and inadequate police training helped turn Kenosha into a “tinderbox” last year, said John M. Eason, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has studied Wisconsin’s changing demographics.
Kenosha is one of Wisconsin’s most racially diverse small cities in a state that is predominantly White. The city’s population is 11.5% Black and nearly 18% Hispanic, according to US Census data.
The Kenosha County Sheriff’s Department is about 88% White, the Kenosha News newspaper reported last year.
“When you rapidly expand your police force and you don’t properly train them, the police are basically being used to corral the folks that are seen as invaders,” Eason said. “They are not there to protect and serve people of color in that situation.”
Eason’s research indicates many more cities across the United States are experiencing similar changes and tensions.
“This isn’t the only tinderbox,” Eason said. “We only think about really small rural farm towns or big cities like New York or Los Angeles but most of America is Kenosha: places that are diversifying rapidly as the country goes through a demographic change.”
‘We’ve been shown that we don’t matter’
The Kenosha County sheriff’s controversial statements about this summer’s protests were preceded by comments he made in 2018. Beth had addressed reporters in January 2018 following the arrests of five people for shoplifting at a Tommy Hilfiger outlet store in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin, and a high-speed chase that led to their arrests.
“I’m to the point that I think society has to come to a threshold where there’s some people that aren’t worth saving,” Beth said at the news conference a day after the incident, according to CNN affiliate WTMJ. “We need to build warehouses, to put these people into it and lock them away for the rest of their lives.”
At least four of the suspects were Black, according to jail records. The fifth suspect was a minor, the sheriff’s department said in a statement.
Days after he made the comments, the sheriff issued an apology saying he should have kept his comments “directed toward the incident” and should have not “allowed my emotions to get the better of me.”
When President-elect Joe Biden held a listening session with community members at a Kenosha church days after Blake’s shooting, Porche Bennett-Bey, an activist and lifelong Kenosha resident, talked about how gentrification has limited affordable housing and the unfair treatment that Black residents have faced for decades.
“We want to be treated just like everyone else. A lot of us get denied jobs because we mark those boxes Black or African American knowing we are overqualified for those positions,” Bennett-Bey told Biden.
“We want the same treatment. We are not asking to put us above anybody, we are not saying we matter more than anybody, none of that but for so many decades we’ve been shown that we don’t matter,” she added.
‘We are hurting’
Earlier in the week, businesses and government buildings in the city’s downtown were boarded up in anticipation of the charging decision and Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers sent members of the National Guard to the city to assist law enforcement.
The windows at Mike Bjorn’s Fine Clothing, a men’s clothing store in downtown Kenosha, had been boarded up since late August despite the store being fully operational.
“We thought Covid(-19) was bad, then you had in the riots down here and everything. Nothing’s easy this year,” said Brett Bjorn, the store’s owner.
Hours before the prosecutor’s Tuesday announcement, Bjorn said he hoped potential protests wouldn’t escalate to violence.
“You know we’re all in this together,” he said. “Don’t attack innocent businesses.”
Samir Audicho, who owns a Subway franchise in the area, said the city had been struggling with the Covid-19 pandemic when it took a “nosedive” in the aftermath of Blake’s shooting.
“We are hurting, not just me but everyone around,” Audicho said.
While protesters marched peacefully on the streets of downtown Kenosha, about 40 miles north of the city, the Marquette men’s basketball team wore black T-shirts to protest the decision and show its support for Blake, his family and the Kenosha community.
“We are extremely disappointed in the decision involving Jacob’s shooting and we will continue to use our platform to advocate and fight for racial justice,” the team said in a statement. “This is another reminder that just because racial and social injustice hasn’t received as much attention recently, doesn’t mean the need to fight against it has gone away.”
“I didn’t have hope,” Bennett-Bey, the local activist, told CNN affiliate WISN about the charging decision as a group of protesters marched to express their outrage Tuesday in near freezing temperatures.
CNN’s Adrienne Broaddus, Samira Said, Amir Vera and Brad Parks contributed to this report.