Milwaukee Agonistes

The 21st century’s rendition of the “long, hot summer” of 1967 has come to Milwaukee, WI.

We have seen destructive rioting in Ferguson, MO, and Baltimore, MD, as well as the rise of the so-called “Black Lives Matter” movement on the pretext of local police shootings of miscreants in the act of committing a crime or fleeing from the police. Now, the turn of Milwaukee.

The facts of the situation are as follows:

On the weekend beginning August 12, 2016, nine people were shot (five fatally) in the Sherman Park neighborhood of Milwaukee. All of the shootings occurred between about 35th Street and Sherman Blvd., centered on Burleigh. For the record, the weather had been very hot and muggy for days beforehand -- weather guaranteed to fray tempers and not conducive to cool-headedness.

At about 3:30 on Saturday afternoon, two police officers stopped a car at 44th and Auer (one block north of Burleigh) for a routine traffic stop. The two young men (both aged 23) in the car unexpectedly decided to make a run for it, and one of them, Sylville Smith, pulled a semi-automatic handgun as he fled. It was later determined that the gun and about 500 rounds of ammunition had previously been stolen from a citizen in Waukesha, a nearby suburb of Milwaukee. One of the police officers had to make a split-second decision, and decided that Smith presented a credible threat, so he fired his weapon, hitting Smith in the chest and arm and killing him. The other fugitive, who was unarmed, was caught and arrested. Both men are career criminals with lengthy records; both are African-American, as is the police officer who shot Smith.

As the evening wore on, crowds of protesters gathered at the site of the incident, and some 20-30 policemen in riot gear returned to the area in a vain attempt to maintain order. Though they did keep the crowds from spreading farther west into Milwaukee's largest Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, tempers flared amid shouts of “black power!” (truly shades of the ’60s) and calls to look for whites to kill. There were voices of moderation seeking to cool things down, but they weren’t heeded.

At about 10:15 PM, a filling station on the northeast corner of Sherman and Burleigh was set on fire. In the course of the evening, some 48 shots were fired, many stones and bricks were thrown at the police barring their way, and additional fires and other property damage was inflicted on a string of businesses between 35th and Sherman along Burleigh, including a branch bank office, a beauty supply store, an auto parts store, and a couple of liquor stores.

In all, before the night was out, four police officers were hurt, seven squad cars were damaged and two totalled, and six businesses were set on fire. Because of the continued shooting, firefighters were understandably reluctant to approach the blazes to put them out.

At about midnight, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett held a press conference at the nearby District Three police station in which, among other things, he called on parents of teenagers to get their kids off the streets and confined to home. Numerous reports have suggested that this was primarily a flash-mob phenomenon, fed by social media; many of the participants in the rioting were reportedly from outside the neighborhood.

On Sunday morning, Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke asked that the National Guard be mobilized to prevent the recurrence of anything like the Ferguson disturbances, and Governor Scott Walker responded to the request, after consultations with Mayor Barrett and Police Chief Flynn, by putting them on alert. At Barrett’s request, actual deployment was made contingent on a request from Chief Flynn, which has not been forthcoming.

As a result, crowds gathered again on Sunday night. There were additional reports of shots fired, and one person was shot a couple blocks south of Burleigh on Sherman; the police felt constrained to use an armored vehicle to extract the victim, who was taken to a local hospital. Again, showers of rocks and bricks met the police (one was injured and hospitalized), and again attempts were made to set fires but by all accounts it was less bad than the previous night. The police chief was very proud that none of his men were constrained to use deadly force in meeting the rioters.

Other local politicians have weighed in, including Alderman Khalif Rainey, who represents the area in which the rioting occurred. Rainey attributed the riots to the frustration born of the conditions prevalent in the inner city – poverty, lack of opportunity, poor public schools, and so on – and warned that the city is “one day away” from a major conflagration if those conditions do not change.

Which is precisely the crux of the matter. Rainey and his colleagues are Democrats, as is the mayor; indeed, Milwaukee’s last Republican mayor left office in 1908. Since then, the city has been governed either by overt Socialists (the last of whom left office in 1960) or by Democrats. Barrett, in particular, has been in office for a decade, and was previously a congressman before he decided to run for mayor.

In many ways, Milwaukee is a city in decline. The city’s population is approximately the same as it was in 1950, as more and more gainfully employed residents flee the city for the suburbs, where the property taxes are often lower, the public school systems are better, and public safety is more assured (though Milwaukee’s burgeoning crime rate is beginning to spill over into them as well). It is also the suburbs, increasingly, where the jobs are. In Milwaukee proper, block after block of abandoned and boarded-up buildings are mute testimony to the flight of the residents and the consequent decay.