Sylville K. Smith, 23, died at the scene last Saturday after being pulled over, attempting to flee the scene and then allegedly drawing a weapon on the police officer, another Black man.
After the shooting and within just a few hours, violence erupted on Milwaukee’s north side, a predominantly Black area known for its history of violence and distrust between the community and the police. Squad cars were demolished, a vehicle was set on fire, four officers were hurt, one teenager was shot but expected to recover, shots were fired, allegedly not by the police, fires were started resulting in the destruction of several businesses and 17 people were arrested.
City Alderman Khalif Rainey has connected the latest acts of violence to the ongoing tension between Black residents and the police, describing the area where the shooting occurred as “a powder keg.”
“The Black people of Milwaukee are tired. They’re tired of living under this oppression. This is their existence. This is their life. This is the life of their children,” Rainey said.
City officials have since invoked a curfew for teens while adding an additional 150 officers to the beleaguered area. And one has to wonder if the kinds of inequities and injustice heaped upon Blacks in Milwaukee mirror those which the Department of Justice has uncovered in Baltimore.
During a recent radio interview, one speaker said in order to heal the deep rift between police departments around the U.S. and Black communities, it would be necessary to change the perceived role of law enforcement officials from “warriors” to “guardians.” Easier said than done.
As James Baldwin noted decades ago in his legendary essay “A Report from Occupied Territory,” evidence has accumulated over the years that “the police are simply the hired enemy of this population.” Were Baldwin’s words prophetic?
Will Milwaukee become the new Baltimore, a city torn apart by violence and fueled by years of anger and frustration among many Blacks that have now reached their boiling point?
It’s time for police departments to be honest. Police management must confront the challenges facing an overworked, poorly trained force consisting of officers many of whom have persistently and unconstitutionally targeted and stopped Blacks for minor crimes, often conducting illegal strip searches and beating those who posed no imminent danger.
We extend our sympathy to the family of Smith and remain eager to hear the full report of what happened. But shouldn’t Smith take some of the blame for the unfolding of events – after running from officers and then brandishing a gun? Complexities abound. We await the truth.