Against all odds, Dominique Heaggan-Brown will be charged with first-degree reckless homicide in the shooting of Sylville Smith on August 13th. In the immediate aftermath, the police and mayor claimed there was unequivocal video evidence that Sylville was armed and pointing a gun at the officer. Later, once the unrest had died down, it was admitted that the footage wouldn’t “answer every question.” And now, Heaggan-Brown is charged, which is in addition to the unrelated charges of 2nd Degree Sexual Assault and Solicitation. It’s impossible to know how much the latter charges factored in the decision to indict on the murder charges. A cynic might wonder if the authorities decided he was an acceptable sacrificial lamb due to his other alleged transgressions. A different police shooting, that of Jay Anderson, with questionable video evidence resulted in no charges, and for some reason, far less notoriety. I’d be remiss if I didn’t also include another local story from last week about an officer involved death in which there’s clear video evidence of federal agents hitting a man with a car, and the agency in question claiming the man shot himself.
As welcome of a development as this Heaggan-Brown’s indictment is, it’s almost impossible to be optimistic for a conviction. If Michael Slager, who clearly murdered Walter Scott, can get away with it, what hope is there?
The shooting occurred four blocks from our house. The burned down gas station was seven blocks away. The trashed liquor store is two blocks away. During this, well-meaning but patronizing friends and relatives offered for my wife and I to retreat to the safety of the suburbs. How privileged we were to have even had that option.
Below is what I posted to Facebook the day after the shooting (and only lightly edited). The intended audience was those who were surprised or confused by the events, and any closet bigots I had on my friends list. It was my way of putting into words everything I wanted to express about the situation.
I post so rarely, but I thought an incident like last night warrants something, seeing as we live a mere six blocks from the events. That’s pretty close! We didn’t really notice anything amiss until around 9pm, when we saw redirected city buses on our street. Even then, it didn’t really register aside from absentmindedly noticing sirens, which isn’t uncommon on a Saturday night. At about 9:30pm our local neighborhood app alleged that the gas station was on fire. Standing on the balcony, we couldn’t hear anything. Right before going back in, I heard gunshots and later found out it was from someone firing into the air. Aside from that, and more sirens than usual, our immediate neighborhood was quiet. As a true testament to the, in my mind surreal sense of normalcy of our block, white women were walking their dogs early this morning as if there weren’t riots the previous night. I mowed my lawn in peace listening to a Neil deGrasse Tyson podcast as our cats relaxed contentedly in their catio. So we’re fine, and thanks for your concern.
But none of the above is really the purpose of my first FB post in, I dunno 2 years? I just want people to understand that this did not happen in a vacuum. It’s ridiculously easy for people (some, but not all closet or openly racist) to shake their heads at their perceived social inferiors and lament something to the effect of this not being what MLK wanted (I’ve seen white people say this (please note you shouldn’t say this)).
Did you know that Milwaukee is the most segregated city in the country? (https://www.thestar.com/news/world/2016/01/25/back-in-time-60-years-americas-most-segregated-city.html).
And that this segregation isn’t entirely accidental – and in addition to its historical legacy is still something that is happening? (http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/10/remember-redlining-its-alive-and-evolving/433065/)
It’s damn near impossible to convince some people that systemic racism is an actual thing, despite the wealth of scholarly research that emphatically confirms how persistent and insidious it is. Moreover, an understanding of this is tied to the founding of America and its abhorrent treatment of black people (among other classes of people, obviously). This isn’t ancient history – the end of the civil rights era didn’t magically usher in an era of pure equality and such thoughts are almost childishly simplistic.
This brings me back to my initial point about how the events of last night did not happen in a vacuum. Solely focusing on specific, discrete situations neglects the overarching systemic issues of historical institutionalized racism and the concomitant associated traumas (i.e. poverty; child abuse & neglect; substance abuse; transient living situations; familial incarceration; domestic violence; nonexistent access to effective schools, etc.). Dealing with any one of them is enough to shatter the hope of any child. Moreover, the aforementioned traumas are additive in nature and largely temporally ongoing events. I hope it sounds like these are exceedingly difficult things to overcome because they really are. Anyone invoking the “bootstraps” myth, or thinking how they’d totally turn out fine growing up poor and black is full of rancid shit. Even being able to move out of the hood to leave such problems behind is exceedingly difficult. I implore everyone who has any connection to Milwaukee to read the profound, heartbreaking book “Evicted” by Matthew Desmond, a Harvard sociologist who did the field work for the book in Milwaukee.
(As a brief side-note, I’ve chosen not to bog down this already overlong post with sources, but these are easily found – one can certainly find counter-arguments, but I’d be stunned if they were backed by anything remotely considered peer-reviewed research (Breitbart, Fox News, memes, and your feelings don’t count).
The final topic I’ll address is the relationship between the police and the poor black community mere blocks from my house. It’s unfortunate (aside from the loss of life) that the proximate cause is going to be used by those who think that cops can do no wrong to disparage and dismiss legitimate social concerns. This too is connected to the historical relationship between black communities and police (again events like this don’t happen in a vacuum, yada yada). It turns out police have been pretty rough on black communities since its inception (http://plsonline.eku.edu/insidelook/brief-history-slavery-and-origins-american-policing). Certainly their relationship can best be described as abysmal up until the civil rights era. Important steps have been made since, but it’s nowhere near sufficient to repair generations of perfectly valid distrust. It’s long been thought that police kill a disproportionate amount of black people, but until recently nothing close to a comprehensive accounting existed. The Ferguson events changed that and its since been definitively confirmed thanks to the monitoring of nongovernmental entities, the ubiquity of social media and cell phone camera technology. The minuscule percentage of police that will even have to go to trial is something also not to be discounted. (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/dec/31/the-counted-police-killings-2015-young-black-men).
Police killings have long been overdue for their spotlight in the national consciousness and it is no longer ignored. Combined with prominent national killings, Milwaukee has had, among others Dontre Hamilton and Jay Anderson, that for whatever reasons didn’t achieve the same level of notoriety. The community that participated in the unrest yesterday is undoubtedly not unaware.
But, but police kill much more white people, you say! This is actually true. I view this primarily as an argument used by those who posit an unearned sense of white stoicism to police violence (“Hey we don’t get mad when they kill us!”). But it’s misleading and reductive to merely state that there are more incidents of police violence against whites than blacks, which is what one should obviously expect with whites comprising 64% of the population, while blacks comprise only 13%. In other words, a blanket statement of the gross amount tells us nothing statistically significant. As the aforementioned Guardian article states: “young black men were nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by police officers in 2015.”
I prefer not to wade into how often police violence is justified and how that can be determined. To my eyes, it’s philosophically murky. I will say I don’t have too much of an issue with an officer whose life is actually in danger using murder as a last resort. This undoubtedly happens. As for last night, the police claim and the media are reporting that the young man was shot while fleeing and armed – these are the only concrete details known. It hasn’t been disclosed whether or not the police knew who he was beforehand; why he was pulled over; if they knew or had reason to believe he was armed; where on the body he was shot (it’s going to look bad if it’s in the back) and if he pointed a gun at the officers. Hopefully the body cameras can clear this up. If not, there are many reasons for the police to obfuscate what really happened.
So as a thought experiment, and to conclude this long-winded (and no doubt little read) essay, I’m going to attempt to tie everything together. You have a community that’s been historically kept from achieving the American Dream that is sold ubiquitously in our entertainment and media. In Milwaukee, affluent communities are mere minutes away with a level of comfort, safety and material possessions the adjacent poor can only dream of. They are people who have experienced punishing traumas. They, or someone close to them, have experienced police abuse and misconduct that never involves the offending officers receiving consequences. This feeling is reinforced with events from around the country. A young man is shot by police on a hot summer Saturday afternoon in August. A crowd gathers. Friends and family of the victim come and are overwhelmed with emotion. Rumors spread about the manner of death. The veracity of the rumors (which may or may not be true) are irrelevant, as anger spreads through the crowd. The face of the state, the police, are standing right there. Maybe your anger and pain gets the best of you and you throw a brick through a cop car’s window. With that, the fuse is lit and the combination of everything I’ve written about comes to a head, and explodes. This doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
Or, hey, maybe black people are just inherently violent and destructive and stupid. That’s pretty easy to wrap your head around since it involves little to no thought and a complete lack of empathy.
I’m neither intelligent nor arrogant enough to claim I have answers. I don’t. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little worried – I’m not that naive. But overall, I guess we’re okay.