An Exclusive Insider Report from Wisconsin
By Joseph Schulz
On August 23, seven gunshots rang out in the city of Kenosha, paralyzing a man, likely traumatizing his children and pushing my home state to the center of a national dialogue surrounding policing.
In a cellphone video of the shooting that went viral, two officers follow Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, with their guns drawn as he walks from the sidewalk around the front of an SUV to his driver-side door. As Blake opens the door and leans into the vehicle, Kenosha police officer Rusten Sheskey grabs Blake’s shirt from behind and fires.
The shooting sparked a series of protests throughout Wisconsin’s fourth largest city that devolved into violence, as storefronts and vehicles throughout downtown were damaged.
When unrest in Kenosha began overwhelming local law enforcement on August 24, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers deployed the National Guard to assist first responders. He also accepted federal assistance to help quell the unrest.
In the mayhem, two protesters were killed and another injured on August 25. 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, who crossed state lines from Illinois to Wisconsin with an AR-15 style rifle, was arrested the next day, and charged with first-degree intentional homicide and five other charges for the shootings.
While the protests are now more peaceful, Kenosha remains in the national spotlight as President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden both stopped in the city this week with starkly different messages.
Leading up to Trump’s visit, local officials feared it could fan the flames of division, and re-intensify the unrest. “From our perspective, our preference would have been for him not to be coming at this point in time," Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian told NPR on Sunday. "All presidents are always welcome and campaign issues are always going on. But it would have been, I think, better had he waited to have for another time to come."
During his visit on Tuesday, Trump did not meet with Blake’s family, refused to acknowledge systemic racism in law enforcement, accused the media of sensationalizing bad officer interactions and described the unrest in Kenosha as “domestic terror.”
"[The police] are under tremendous pressure. And they may be there for 15 years and have a spotless record and all of a sudden, they're faced with a decision,” Trump said. “They have a quarter of a second to make a decision. And if they make a wrong decision, one way or the other, they're either dead or they're in big trouble.”
When Biden stopped in Kenosha on Thursday, he met with Blake’s family, listened to input from the community and vowed to work towards ending systemic racism.
“We’re finally now getting to the point where we’re going to address the original sin in this country … slavery, and all the vestiges of it,” Biden said. “I can’t guarantee you everything gets solved in four years. But I can guarantee you one thing, it will be a whole heck of a lot better, we’ll move a lot further down the road.”
While Blake’s death put Kenosha at the heart of a larger discussion surrounding police reform — which began with the May 25 killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer — public opinion has largely split along partisan lines, due to rhetoric from conservative commentators and the President.
For example, several right-wing pundits and Trump himself came to Rittenhouse’s defense, portraying him as a vigilante who was acting in self-defense. "He was trying to get away from [protesters], I guess, it looks like," Trump said at a press briefing Monday. "I guess he was in very big trouble. He probably would have been killed."
At the same time, conflicting narratives of what happened before the video of Blake’s shooting have arisen. The Kenosha Professional Police Association claimed Blake “was armed with a knife and ‘forcefully fought’ with the officers who tried to subdue him. Civil-rights attorney Ben Crump, who is representing Blake, says Blake was de-escalating a domestic incident when police drew their weapons and Tasered him.
Governor Evers’ initial statement from the night of the shooting night expressed condolences for Blake's family, while also acknowledging that he didn’t have all of the facts. “While we do not have all of the details yet, what we know for certain is that he is not the first Black man or person to have been shot or injured or mercilessly killed at the hands of individuals in law enforcement in our state or our country,” Evers said.
Those inconsistent reports have led local law enforcement officials to decry Evers’ statements surrounding Blake’s shooting as “premature, judgmental, inflammatory and only add to the anger and divisiveness of an already dangerous situation.”
But Evers was not wrong. Black Americans are killed by police at more than twice the rate of white Americans. He was also accurate in terms of the sheer number of people killed by police in this country. 1,098 people were killed by police last year, according to mappingpoliceviolence.org, an advocacy group that claims to have “the most comprehensive accounting of people killed by police since 2013.”
While no one likes to see cities burn or businesses ruined, the refusal to acknowledge systemic racism, coupled with incendiary remarks from Trump and conservative pundits show a lack of fundamental understanding of the issues the nation has been facing since the 1960s.
In the late ‘60s, social unrest swept poor African-American neighborhoods. Buildings burned, stores were ransacked and in 1967 President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed an 11-person commission to determine the cause.
When the Kerner Commission released its findings the next year, it reported that white racism — in the form of bad policing, a flawed criminal justice system, inadequate housing voter suppression — was the cause of the social upheaval. “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal. White racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities,” the report said. “White society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”
In terms of the role policing plays in worsening racial disparities, the report said: “The police are not merely a ‘spark’ factor. To some Negroes police have come to symbolize white power, white racism and white repression. And the fact is that many police do reflect and express these white attitudes. The atmosphere of hostility and cynicism is reinforced by a widespread belief among Negroes in the existence of police brutality and in a ‘double standard’ of justice and protection — one for Negroes and one for whites.”
Most police officers are good, hard-working people who truly care about their communities, but we as a society must hold those who dishonor the badge accountable just as they are meant to hold us accountable. Just as we cannot judge every officer based on the actions of a few, we can not judge the majority of activists, advocates or protesters based on the actions of a small number of rioters.
But increasing transparency and training in policing alone will not alone fix systemic inequities in society that disproportionately impact our most vulnerable communities.
We need to be willing to look at both sides of an argument as we begin to rectify the inequities in our society because racism affects every system within our society — housing, education, employment, and more — and all of these factors are collective drivers of health outcomes.
To fix what is broken, we must help our most disadvantaged by providing a living wage, access to quality education and access to affordable healthcare.
When we go to the polls this November, we must remember to choose the candidates committed to solving these problems and providing equal opportunity to all Americans. If we don’t, we will continue to repeat that sad history.
Joseph Schulz is a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, where he studies journalism and Radio, TV, Film. He is a reporting intern at the Ripon Commonwealth Press, where he covers the Green Lake City Council, School Board and business. Schulz also serves as the managing editor of The Advance-Titan, the official student newspaper of UW Oshkosh, and as a freelance reporter for the Oshkosh Herald community newspaper. He will be graduating in December.