When I was a kid living in the Milwaukee neighborhood of Sherman Park in the early 90s, things were different.
The neighborhood was one of the most perse places in the city. My brother and I played with the lawyer’s kids across the street, and we swung on the swing of the photographer next door while he cleaned his classic Excalibur. The East Indian kids living opposite us were some of my best friends growing up. Their dad was a bank examiner and their mother was my brother’s English teacher. We hung out with the Latino family two doors down after their daughter Elizabeth’s Quinceanera. There were a few police officers’ families per block in the old neighborhood and a few judges and an alderman too. Most of them were Black.
I have good memories of the people and that street. The community was perse and connected. But you could see it coming.
Even when things seemed good, there were problems with the police. I distinctly remember my brother telling my mother and me about his friend who had gotten picked up and beaten by the cops. I asked him, “What did he do?” My brother simply said in his matter of fact way: “Nothing.” As a kid I wasn’t really aware of such things. Looking back, it’s all too clear.
Milwaukee has always been block to block, Grant and Sherman being relatively stable and the surrounding streets a little less so and so on. Now when I drive through the neighborhood, that stability is there on one street and completely gone on another. Many big, formerly beautiful homes sit empty and foreclosed; the businesses up and down the major streets sit even emptier. Most of those police officers, lawyers, and alderman don’t live in Sherman Park anymore, and the industrial largess that sustained so many in the city’s manufacturing heyday is long gone.
“Wouldn’t you stop a Black guy standing at a bus stop at six in the morning?” the officer said. I hung up in disgust.
Sherman Park was the epitome of a stable, largely Black neighborhood. Now it has been turned into something resembling a police state. The neighborhood is pided between the 3rd and 7th Police Districts, which according to their own reports make the most stops and use the most force of any district in the city. As one local internal affairs officer told me over the phone a few years back when I complained about being profiled, “Wouldn’t you stop a Black guy standing at a bus stop at six in the morning?” I hung up in disgust.
The sight of families going on walks together in the summer has been replaced by multiple cop squads stopping grandmothers driving beat up minivans and teenagers getting their first cars torn apart and searched by police. The bowling alleys are gone. The Boys and Girls Club in Sherman Park now closes at 5pm — before most kids can get there. The ice cream trucks have been replaced by police in unmarked squad cars who the community calls “the jump out boys.” They rough up random kids, search them (often without permission), and jump back in and drive away as if nothing happened. I met a kid who gets stopped by the police multiple times every single week. He’s not an exception. Police harassment of young Black men in Milwaukee is the rule.
Sylville Smith’s shooting death by police in Sherman Park has revealed to the world a larger crisis that has been growing in Milwaukee for the past 20 years. An out-of-control train about to hit the end of the line.
For the people who live in Sherman Park, it was always there. They’re livid that there seems to be no police accountability when Black men are shot down in the street under suspicious circumstances. They’re right to be angry, and they’re right to focus on and demand immediate transparency as well as accountability after due process has been satisfied.
He’s not an exception. Police harassment of young Black men in Milwaukee is the rule.
The specifics of Mr. Smith’s innocence or guilt aren’t the issue for this unfairly burdened community. They’ve been alienated and abused for years by the police who were supposed to be there to protect them. Mr. Smith’s shooting death shines a light on the broken trust between the police and the community, a trust that was broken by police over time with disregard, disrespect, and use of excessive force.
What’s happening in Milwaukee today is what happens when civil liberties are slowly choked to death in full view of state and local governments that have rejected transparency and public oversight. The only wonder is that it didn’t happen sooner. Now that it’s come to a head, we must demand the changes in policing that will rebuild some semblance of the public trust and protect the people of city.
The park I grew up having barbecues and playing baseball games in is at this very moment surrounded by barricades and armored vehicles. The children who live in Sherman Park today deserve a childhood free from police harassment and excessive force. When they become adults and elders they deserve the same freedom. To give them that, to give the whole community that, we need to demand an end to racially biased, unjust, and unaccountable policing in our city. We saw it coming. Once it came, it never left.
The motto of Milwaukee Police is “Be a force.” The question is, “For what?” Let’s put a stop to police harassment and brutality once and for all.