It was an unusually warm Sunday afternoon for a December day in Milwaukee. A few hundred concerned citizens gathered in Red Arrow Park, a nice downtown pocket park with a skating rink and coffee shop. Outside this coffee shop is where, last spring, Dontre Hamilton was shot and killed by a Milwaukee police officer.
The sizable crowd converged to show solidarity with members of the African American community, to join in the chorus now heard ‘round the country: Black Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter... People listened attentively while members of the faith community spoke eloquently of the pain and hardship and beauty of being Black in America; the challenges of joblessness, the humiliations of systemic racism, the fear of the police. It seemed a bit odd that Milwaukee Mayor, Tom Barrett, and Milwaukee Chief of Police, Ed Flynn, also took the microphone to remind us of the need to work together, to collaborate, to listen to each other. On the surface, these exhortations seemed fine, but they left some of us a bit uneasy. Words at a high-visibility event are easy, but what are our city officials’ responses in proposals, actions, deeds? What is the role of our mayor and police chief regarding police brutality?
It is widely known and backed up with compelling data that Milwaukee is the worst place in America to raise a black or brown child. That’s why so many people are coming out to these events and marching in the streets. But it also begs the question: “What is being done over time about this? Why the sudden attention at a mediagenic event like this, when this creeping cancer of systemic racism has been affecting our city for so long?” It is a good thing to see our two top city officials come out on a damp Sunday to speak and to listen, but we must ask, “What are you doing about this?”
Early in the event, Mayor Barrett took the microphone and spoke of the need for mutual trust within the city, and said something a bit strange about the “…need to stand together even when there are upcoming decisions we won’t like…” so that “…we don’t tear our city apart.” What did this mean? Was this a candid statement of premonition or policy caught up in the moment, or merely a generic sense of foreboding that all mayors of big cities might be feeling right now? It isn’t clear how many people noticed this, but it was an odd statement to make.
Chief Flynn went on to say that “I make no excuses for my department regarding what has happened.” But no one is asking for excuses. People are asking for responses based on fairness, transparency, and justice which create consequences for murderous violence at the hands of the police. He also suggested that “trust is a two way street.” Yes, that is true, but nothing breaks down trust like random violence against people in the communities you are serving and protecting. After all, we were all there because they, the Police, have broken the bond of trust due to their actions and subsequent responses to those actions. Can those bonds of trust be rebuilt, and if so, how?
Everyone noticed that both the Mayor and Police Chief left the area shortly after they spoke. It is no doubt that they are busy men, though not too busy to go off to the side and talk to some police officers while speakers from the faith community took the mic. There were some eloquent and heartfelt words shared. Sadly, these were lost on the Mayor and Police Chief. It takes discipline and patience to really listen to what people are trying to tell you. If you speak, and leave, you foreclose that opportunity. That is a loss for everyone.
So we circle back to the questions: “What is being done? What is the role of our Mayor and Police Chief regarding police brutality?” These are the questions we need to be asking. And we need the Mayor and Chief of Police to acknowledge root causes, not merely engage vague homilies about reciprocation and trust. We need to break the prison pipeline for African American young men, which truly is a shameful statistic for the state of Wisconsin. We need to reinvest in urban jobs and economic districts, looking beyond the fancy condo projects that sit in already healthy city circles. We need to put real and long-term focus on the gutted corridors that were once thriving homes of a robust Black middle class. We need to significantly change the way that policing is done. We need to de-invest in the corrupt policies of militarization that are the outcome of the grim mindset that places the police as an occupying force in American cities with increasingly faceless and violent responses to even misdemeanors and disobedience. We need to invest in community relationships through building those very relationships, beyond predictable cycles of reactive responses to brutal incidents such as the murder of Dontre Hamilton, a man gunned down in Red Arrow Park for the crime of sleeping on a bench on the wrong afternoon where the wrong cop with a history of wrong decisions set a chain of actions in motion that ended with fourteen shots, a shattered family, and a community once again frustrated and angry at a story too often told.
Words and photos by Lane Hall & Joe Brusky of the Overpass Light Brigade