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The fire this time in Milwaukee

Alderman says city was a ‘powder keg’ ready to explode

The fire this time was in Milwaukee.

The nation woke up last weekend to news of yet another urban riot as a result of a questionable shooting by police officers of a black male suspect. The suspect was armed and fleeing from police, but the questions about the circumstances quickly fed an outburst of rage for residents on the city’s predominantly black north side that left a night of violence and arson in its wake.

Many were surprised that this midsize Midwestern city with a 40 percent African-American population had joined the list of cities such as Cincinnati, Chicago and Ferguson, Missouri, dealing with an often tense relationship between the police and the people who are being policed.

But many Africans-Americans like me who have lived in Milwaukee for decades had been expecting it for some time.

Milwaukee hasn’t been about Happy Days or Laverne and Shirley for at least 50 years now.

A litany of police shootings of black suspects under questionable circumstances over the years has resulted in numerous marches and protests that suggested to anxious residents that a belch of anger and violence was coming.

Milwaukee alderman Milele A. Coggs described the situation to me weeks ago, before the unrest was ignited last weekend.

“It’s a powder keg,” she said, a lifelong Milwaukee resident, using a term often mentioned by black activists to describe the state of things for her central city constituents. “For too many young people, there’s just not an outlet for their frustration and anger.”

The angry crowd that took to the streets to protest the shooting death of Sylville Smith, a 23-year-old black man, clashed with police and set numerous buildings on fire, starting with a local gas station that had been the scene of previous disturbances in the last few weeks.

The riot happened in the Sherman Park neighborhood, a tree-lined, bucolic-looking area with stable families and impressive homes, many of them black-owned. It was a surprise for those familiar with Milwaukee to hear Sherman Park mentioned by media in connection with such a troubling story.

Most of Sherman Park seems like an urban paradise within city limits, but it also has other areas exhibiting the kind of dysfunction largely linked to widespread black unemployment, crime and a restless group of young people who see police as an occupying army.

Police move in on a group of protesters throwing rocks at them in Milwaukee, Sunday, Aug. 14, 2016. Police said one person was shot at a Milwaukee protest on Sunday evening and officers used an armored vehicle to retrieve the injured victim during a second night of unrest over the police shooting of a black man, but there was no repeat of widespread destruction of property.

Police move in on a group of protesters throwing rocks at them in Milwaukee on Aug. 14, 2016. Police said one person was shot at a Milwaukee protest on Sunday evening and officers used an armored vehicle to retrieve the injured victim during a second night of unrest over the police shooting of a black man, but there was no repeat of widespread destruction of property.

AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps

The city’s mayor, Tom Barrett, was at the forefront during the riots last weekend along with several aldermen and community activists who urged calm and talked about the police shooting with as much transparency as could be mustered at the time.

Turns out Smith has a long criminal record; the officer claimed that Smith pointed a gun at him during the chase; the officer involved in the shooting was also an African-American man.

Little of that mattered once the riots began.

Chief of Police Ed Flynn has gained a national reputation as a white law enforcement official with more tolerance for groups such as Black Lives Matter than most. In recent years, Flynn has tried to work with the fiery young activists who have turned out in Milwaukee to protest against other shootings, most notably the death of Dontre Hamilton two years ago, in which an officer fired 24 shots at an unarmed Hamilton, who was lingering at a downtown coffee shop.

Since Hamilton, the Black Lives Matter movement has held rallies and traffic disruptions that always seem just a hair away from turning to catastrophe. Thankfully, it never happened.

By contrast, the Milwaukee County Sheriff is David A. Clarke, an African-American conservative elected as a Democrat, has made a national reputation for his right-wing opinions with a law-and-order vibe. Clarke is a vociferous critic of the Black Lives Matter movement and has offered no outreach to angry members of the black community other than simplistic theories about black-on-black crime and “liberal policies” that negatively impact the behavior of black people.

Clarke has waged petty battles with other politicians in town, refusing to provide the kind of united front that would benefit all of the people interested in addressing crime and violence.

The need to get all officials on the same page in regards to the aftermath of a riot that has placed the city in an unwanted national spotlight is vital in light of continuing tensions between residents and police.

Same script, different city

In the history of the city, almost no police officer has ever been found liable for the shooting of a black suspect after an official inquest investigation, a trend that continues to discourage any attempts to undergo police reform in a meaningful way.

The city is regularly mentioned in online articles about being considered “one of the worst places for blacks in the country.” Most understand that it’s the result of too many negative social indicators such as poverty, jobs, health care for infants and a disparity in the criminal justice system that makes it up to 11 times more likely that a black person is sentenced harshly than a white person even under similar offenses.

For most of the nation, Milwaukee is home to summer festivals on the lakefront and two major sports franchises, the Milwaukee Bucks and the Milwaukee Brewers. City leaders are focusing on improving downtown in major ways designed to step up the continued desire to become a magnet for visitors and younger residents.

Clearly, after the burning and chanting from Sherman Park hit the headlines, some of that may be in jeopardy.

For her part, Coggs has tried to be active with youth groups and neighborhood watch associations to monitor the mood of the streets of her predominantly black district. When she was young girl, Coggs, now 39, remembers when police officers in the city gave out baseball cards to inner-city children in an attempt to build better community relations. That program, since discontinued, was designed to improve how young people viewed the uniforms they saw in daily life.

“Whenever we saw a police officer, we would run toward them to get the baseball cards,” she recalled.

After the fire this time in Milwaukee, handing out baseball cards probably won’t solve this one.

Eugene Kane is longtime Milwaukee columnist, Temple U. grad and North Philly native who has never lost his attitude.