The temptation is to lump Saturday’s fatal police shooting of a Milwaukee motorist together with the urban unrest that has seemingly engulfed the United States since police officers shot and killed an unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, in a St. Louis suburb two years ago this month.
But Milwaukee is a case all of its own in the country’s unfolding urban morality play. Of all the things that this lakefront city is known for—German breweries, the 70s television show "Laverne and Shirley," and the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer—you can add this: in both word and deed there is no worse place in the U.S. to be Black.
In August of 2011, a few days after Congress passed a deal to end the debt-ceiling showdown that brought the nation to the brink of credit default, a conservative Milwaukee talk-radio host named Mark Belling had this to say about Gwen Moore, the first African American elected to Congress from Wisconsin, who had missed the debt-ceiling vote, she said, because she’d been unable to negotiate the massive crowds that had assembled for the return of a lawmaker who’d been wounded in a horrific shooting:
“She’s been in the Congress now for about 10 years. During that time, she ... has managed to be known for absolutely nothing,” Belling said, according to an account by the New Republic Magazine.“Gwen Moore simply occupies a seat. A very large seat. ... The woman is so fat and out of shape, she literally can’t get to the floor to vote anymore. ... It’s time to vote and here’s Gwen: ‘I’m out of breath! Blew-ee, blew-ee!’”
In an exaggerated Black patois, he continued: “What do you think the chances are she was sitting on the toilet? ... Maybe Gwen was sitting there on the crapper and this was one that was not working out too well for her or something. ‘Blew-ee!’ ‘Congresswoman, you’ve got to vote.’ ‘I am sittin’ on de toilet!’ ... Gwen Moore can’t waddle her way across the street.”
A few days later, Belling interviewed Governor Scott Walker about his repeal of collective bargaining for most public sector employees, but as the New Republic noted, his tone was decidedly more respectful, almost cloyingly deferential.
“Have you sat back and thought about what has been accomplished by yourself and the Republican legislature? Has it really sunk in that you’ve transformed a fiscally reckless state into perhaps the most fiscally sound state in the nation? Has it sunk in, I guess is what I’m saying, do you realize what’s been accomplished?”
With Black people and Latinos representing 56 percent of the city’s population—and largely absent outside the city limits—Milwaukee is, by most any measure, the nation's most racially segregated metropolitan area. In a PBS documentary from earlier this year entitled "Why is Milwaukee so bad for Black people," the African-American reporter and Milwaukee native Kenya Downs recounts an old racist joke asserting that the city’s 16th Street viaduct bridge is the longest structure in the world, because it links “Africa to Europe.”
That segregation is not banal, Boston University political scientist professor Katherine Levine Einstein told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel in 2014.
"Racial segregation really is driving political segregation," said Einstein, who is also a Milwaukee native.
For example, the Journal-Sentinel notes that Walker won 1 percent of the vote in 2012 in neighborhoods with the highest share of African-Americans while Obama won 99 percent in his re-election race five months later. In metro Milwaukee's whitest neighborhoods, the president won about a quarter of the vote and the governor won more than three-quarters. Obama won every ward in the metro area that was less than 70 percent white, every ward that was at least 30 percent Latino and every ward that was at least 15 percent Black. The average metro Milwaukee ward carried by his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, was 1 percent Black and 3 percent Hispanic.
That political segregation finds its voice in an almost perfect storm of racist policies.
Four out of five Black children in the city lives in poverty, and a 20-year effort to siphon off taxpayer money to finance private schools has created the country’s most extensive voucher program, starving public education of investment. A report from UCLA finds that K-12 schools in Wisconsin suspend Black high school students at a higher rate than anywhere else in the country and has the second-highest disparity in suspension rates between white and Black students. The state’s biggest city, Milwaukee suspends Black high school students at a rate nearly double the national average and is the biggest contributor to Wisconsin’s student achievement gap which is, in turn, the widest in the country.
And in her PBS report, Downs notes that while many states have sought alternatives to incarceration over the last 20 years, Wisconsin has actually invested more in public and private prisons over that span, nearly tripling the prison population, The state budget now allocates more funding for corrections than it does for higher education, and incarcerates, on a per capita basis, more Black men than anywhere else in the country. In Milwaukee County, Downs reports, that more than half of all Black men in their 30s and 40s have served time. In Milwaukee’s 53206 Zip Code alone, 62 percent of all men have spent time in an adult correctional facility by age 34.
Saturday’s violent clashes followed the city’s 11th fatal police shooting this year. Milwaukee police said an unidentified man was fleeing a traffic stop at about 3:30 p.m. when a police officer ordered the man to drop his gun, and shot the man in his chest and arm when he failed to comply. After an hours-long confrontation with officers, police reported at 10:15 p.m. that a gas station at N. Sherman Blvd. and W. Burleigh St. was set on fire. Police said firefighters could not for a time get close to the blaze because of gunshots. Later, fires were reported at a bank branch, a beauty supply company and an auto Parts store.
While pleading for calm Saturday, the Milwaukee alderman who represents the district where the fatal police shooting occurred, Khalif Rainey, acknowledged the toxic racial climate that confronts the city.
“This entire community has sat back and witnessed how Milwaukee, Wis., has become the worst place to live for African Americans in the entire country,” Rainey said. “Now this is a warning cry. Where do we go from here? Where do we go as a community from here? Do we continue with the inequities, the injustice, the unemployment, the under-education, that creates these byproducts that we see this evening? … 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."
“Now what has happened tonight may have not been right; I’m not justifying that. But no one can deny the fact that there’s problems, racial problems, here in Milwaukee, Wis., that have to be closely, not examined, but rectified.
Rectify this immediately. Because if you don’t, this vision of downtown, all of that, you’re one day away. You’re one day away.”