Just hours before Jacob Blake was shot by Kenosha police a year ago, Anthony Kennedy had ridden his bicycle right past the scene.
“I live a block away from where it all took place. I remember everything about that day,” said Kennedy, president of the Kenosha City Council. “It was a sunny Sunday and perfect bike riding weather.”
As he often did, Kennedy stopped at his daughter’s house nearby, where she handed him her cellphone. He watched a 19-second video clip that had been circulating on social media.
It showed Blake standing on the passenger side of an SUV. As he walked around the vehicle, two Kenosha police officers followed. One officer, Rusten Sheskey, pointed his gun at the middle of Blake’s back. As Blake moved to the driver’s side door, Sheskey used his free hand to grab him by the T-shirt and fired at least seven times.
Blake’s three boys, who were in the backseat, witnessed the shooting.
With the country still in the throes of outrage over the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police, Kennedy expected the worst. When he arrived at the chaotic scene, he tried to play peacekeeper and calm people down by telling them Blake was still alive.
He says now, “It was one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done in my life.
“I should have allowed them to feel the way they wanted to feel,” he said. “You have to do that.”
A year later, Blake’s shooting still resonates in this community of 100,000. After an inquiry by the Kenosha County district attorney, Sheskey was not charged and has been reinstated to the force. Blake, who remains paralyzed from the waist down and whose children suffer from PTSD, has sued the officer.
The rest of the Black community, meantime, continues to seek justice.
If there is any good at all in this tragedy, it’s that African Americans are finally being heard. But that’s not nearly enough.
This city needs concrete actions to address systemic racism, including more political power for Black residents, more trust between police and people of color, and perhaps most important, a sharper focus on the wide economic disparities between Black people and white people.
Black political power limited in Kenosha
Blake’s shooting ignited a powder keg of anger from African Americans in Kenosha who for years had felt ignored as they suffered from police brutality, inadequate housing, scant political representation and racism.
People protested for days, and some of those protests became violent. A dozen buildings were vandalized and burned, and two protesters were shot and killed by a white teen from Illinois during the unrest.
Kenosha is often compared to Milwaukee, but as Kennedy points out, Kenosha is very different politically.
Milwaukee has African American leadership in a number of key positions. The acting police chief, sheriff, county executive and school superintendent all are Black. Of 15 aldermen, seven are Black, including the Common Council president.
In Kenosha, Kennedy and Shayna Griffin, a registered nurse, are the only two African Americans on the 17-member City Council. Griffin was appointed in August 2020, just weeks before the Blake shooting.
“There’s not enough Black or minority political representation or participation,” said Kennedy, who has served as an alderman for 14 years.
Kenosha’s population is overwhelmingly white at 79.2% compared with 11.5% Black, according to U.S. census data.
In the wake of the violence, Kenosha’s leadership seemed to understand the problem. Mayor John Antaramian acknowledged that Kenosha had failed to include young people in community discussions, and a week after the Blake shooting promised to change that because “we have to learn, and we have to change.”
Over the past year, there has been more inclusive discussion. Antaramian brought together clergy members, community leaders and local officials for listening sessions to get public input on policing, including the use of force and hiring practices.
But it’s been slow going and an often frustrating process.
Diamond Hartwell, 26, a Kenosha native and human rights activist, is on a subcommittee focusing on police training. Her group is pushing to make sure all citizen complaints against police are tracked. For years, the department did not track a complaint unless a report was filed in person, she said.
But after making a proposal in May, the subcommittee has yet to hear anything from Kenosha leadership or anyone in the mayor’s office. Other subcommittees faced similar roadblocks, she said.
“I know it takes a while for things to happen, but it’s been over three months and we still have not heard anything. That’s frustrating,” she said.
‘Kenosha likes being racist’
Dayvin Hallmon isn’t sure real change is possible.
If ideas are not actually being considered, it’s a waste of everyone’s time, said Hallmon, a former Kenosha County Board member who fought to have Kenosha police wear body cameras.
“Honestly, Kenosha likes being racist,” he said. “It doesn’t want to change.”
Marc Levine, a professor of history, economic development and urban studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, cites a series of statistics that illustrate why Black residents throughout southeastern Wisconsin are frustrated:
- Black poverty rate: In Kenosha, it’s 33%; in Milwaukee, it’s 33.4%, worst among the nation’s 50 largest metropolitan areas.
- Black male nonemployment: In Kenosha, 41.8% of working-age Black males (ages 15-64) are not working; in Milwaukee, it’s 43.8%, the third worst among the nation’s 50 largest metros.
- Racial income gap: Median Black household income in Kenosha is 54% that of a comparable white household. In Milwaukee, Black income is 42% of white income, worst in the nation.
- Racial earnings gap: The median earnings of a Black male worker in Kenosha are only 50% that of a median white worker. In Milwaukee, black earnings equal 50% of white households, worst in the nation.
- Incarceration rates: The Black incarceration rate in Kenosha County in 2016 was 6,079 per 100,000 population. That is 12 times the white rate. It is almost 80% higher than Milwaukee’s Black rate, which is third highest among the nation’s largest metro areas. The racial gap in incarceration is also higher in Kenosha than in Milwaukee.
Given the lingering impact of the pandemic and its disproportionate health and economic effects in Black communities, it’s fair to assume that things are not any better in Kenosha today, Levine said.
In June, Kenosha hosted its first-ever “Black Wall Street” event bringing together dozens of Black-owned vendors and businesses during the Juneteenth Day festival. Hallmon, who is Black, said more events like this are needed.
Last August, Kenosha officials declared racism a public health crisis, but Hallmon also wants a confession and an apology to Black residents for Kenosha’s racist history. Only then, he argues, can authentic healing begin.
It’s been done elsewhere. In July 2020, the Asheville, North Carolina, City Council apologized to its Black residents for the city’s role in slavery and discriminatory practices. As a result, the city created a reparations package in the form of increased affordable housing opportunities and business ownership for Black residents.
While forming committees and talking may make people feel included, Hallmon said until there is concrete action, Kenosha is “playing a game of Whack-a-Mole.”
Project around former Kenosha Chrysler plant has promise
One project that city leaders believe could help: the Kenosha Innovation Neighborhood Plan, a $1 billion project to transform a blighted area of the city around the former Chrysler engine plant.
The proposed innovation hub would seek to foster neighborhood opportunities in workforce training and education and to connect businesses, educators and workers. It could help fuel development and growth in the heart of the city, but there also are concerns from African Americans that the plan could spark gentrification, pricing poor people out their homes.
The master plan calls for the innovation center to modernize six surrounding neighborhoods: Lincoln, Columbus, McKinley, Wilson, Roosevelt and Uptown by using a science, technology, engineering and math approach. The goal is to create a space where neighbors can live, work and play.
“We have to get past the distrust,” Kennedy said. “Some (Black residents) believe that this movement was a result of Jacob Blake, but we have been working on this for years.”
Hartwell said Kenosha’s leadership should continue to focus on systemic injustices.
“In my lifetime, I have never seen Black people come together like this in Kenosha. We are active, and we want change all across the board. We have a lot of work to do, but we must be heard because our concerns are real. That’s why we marched. We want action now,” she said.
Now it’s up to the political powers to act.
Blake events planned for Saturday
On Saturday, Leaders Of Kenosha will host a “Justice For Jacob Blake Still” event starting at 11:30 a.m. at the Civic Center Park, 900 57th St., Kenosha. A rally will start at 2 p.m. followed by a 3 p.m. march.
Has Kenosha made any progress on racial justice issues in the year since Jacob Blake’s shooting? James E. Causey hosted a Listen MKE Live discussion Aug. 19 with activists and state Rep. David Bowen (D-Milwaukee). Listen MKE Live is a collaboration between the Ideas Lab at the Journal Sentinel; WUWM 89.7-FM, Milwaukee’s NPR; Milwaukee PBS and the Milwaukee Public Library.
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