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Kenosha activists say their police department has a lot to answer for but little to say

Police reform work in Kenosha may not have gained national attention before last week, but residents say they've been pressing for changes for years.
Image: Protests Continue After Kenosha, WI Police Shooting Of Jacob Blake
Police officers stand guard inside a fenced area that surrounds several government buildings in Kenosha, Wis., on Thursday.Brandon Bell / Getty Images

KENOSHA, Wis. — Only a few hours had passed since an officer pumped at least seven bullets into Jacob Blake’s back before a group of at least 2,000 people gathered in this city.

Some were angry. Some were in tears. Some seemed weary but also afraid. Early in the week, others, it seemed, came to destroy or to confuse participants and onlookers alike.

Over the days that followed, protesters, however, also showed up to organize. One group carried placards calling for the formation of a Labor Party while handing out copies of The Militant, a socialist newspaper. Others used competing portable PA systems to broadcast their thoughts on what ails Kenosha: abortion, lack of faith, failure to face and root out systemic racism, a lack of compassion, anything less than maximum voter turnout.

Many of them were addressing the crowd, but some may have been directing their words to the people inside Kenosha's nearby justice complex — the Kenosha County Courthouse, the sheriff's department, the jail and police headquarters. By midweek, all four buildings had been encircled by 8-to-10-foot, interlocking steel gates patrolled by the National Guard.

This is the current state of Kenosha's government, buttressed by steel and troops. This is Kenosha, a city of about 100,000 people on the banks of Lake Michigan, symbol and symptom of the American heartland.

"No doubt, there is a lot going on out here," Jesse Franklin, a Kenosha resident in his 30s, said Friday while standing in Civic Center Park. He is one of the core organizers of the newly formed BLAK, or Black Lives Activists of Kenosha.

"But what does it say that 2,000 people could come together that quickly and remain committed after not one but two of us were shot and killed?" he asked, referring to the two men who were fatally shot during a confrontation between protesters and counterprotesters last week. "What does it tell you about policing in this city? It tells you that people know that far too many officers operate more like a cartel than someone sworn to serve and protect the community and everyone in the community they patrol. What happened to Jacob Blake was that, in its extreme form."

One week after a Kenosha police officer shot Blake, 29, potentially leaving him paralyzed for the rest of his life, the city's police department has remained largely uncommunicative, failing to publicly answer central questions about events in this city and what, if anything, will happen next. The department also has not disclosed information about the demographic makeup of Kenosha's police or information about the proportion of officers who live in the city.

State and local law enforcement agencies have not answered a range of questions about the case, including whether Blake had a knife and fought with officers before he was shot, as the Kenosha police union has claimed; how the Wisconsin Department of Justice came to report that there was a knife in Blake's car; and the contents of the 911 calls from the incident. The police department has asked for patience, citing case law and an investigation led by the Wisconsin attorney general's office, a requirement under state law.

But the absence of clarity in Kenosha does not end there.

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Blake was shackled to his hospital bed after the shooting because of an earlier sexual assault charge, Police Chief Daniel Miskinis said at a news conference Friday. Miskinis said the sheriff's department shackled Blake, in keeping with its policy for injured people in law enforcement custody.

Later, the Kenosha County Sheriff's Department said an outside agency guarding Blake in the hospital directed its staff members to shackle him before his attorneys took legal steps to have the restraints removed.

Blake's attorneys have said he is not guilty of the charges and is a beloved member of his family, a loving father, whom local law enforcement is trying to "dirty up" to limit public concern.

The state Justice Department has shared the names of the officers present at Blake's shooting: Rusten Sheskey, Vincent Arenas and Brittany Meronek. Sheskey, who shot Blake, was suspended for one day in 2017 for a driving-related infraction — the only known disciplinary incident in his record made public thus far. All three officers have been put on administrative leave. Repeated attempts to reach Sheskey for comment have been unsuccessful.

And Miskinis said that when police officers drove by Kyle Rittenhouse, the Illinois teenager who is accused of killing the two protesters last week, they made no effort to arrest or question him because they did not know at the time that he may have committed any crimes or that he was too young to legally carry a firearm.

Bystanders and protesters who were yelling at police that Rittenhouse had just shot someone most likely were not audible in the chaos, he said. And, he said, the protesters would not have been killed if they had not been outside after curfew, a comment that, he later said, was not intended to blame protesters for their own deaths.

Finally, while the National Guard does not provide the number of troops deployed in a crisis, the commander of the Wisconsin National Guard, Maj. Gen. Paul Knapp, estimated Friday that more than 1,000 were working in the city. Nonetheless, as Mayor John Antaramian said Monday, protests in the city have, since the middle to latter part of last week, been devoid of violence and property damage.

What Kenosha police have said: As of Sunday afternoon, 175 people had been arrested on a range of unlawful protest, curfew violation and criminal counts in the last week. Fifty-eight percent of those arrested listed addresses outside Kenosha.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump plans to visit Kenosha on Tuesday, he said, to express support for law enforcement and owners of damaged businesses. Trump also said Monday that he had spoken with the Blake family's pastor. Blake's father told CNN that they do not have a family pastor.

Trump's calculus likely includes his narrow 2016 victory in Wisconsin and indications of shrinking support for Black Lives Matter protesters in the state, according to an early August Marquette University Law School poll. But what the president may not have factored into his political equation is that Kenosha is a city with a population that, in some ways, mirrors America. The city is 67 percent white, making it a little whiter than the nation, but nearly 12 percent Black and almost 18 percent Latino. And at every protest, every gathering, in favor of police accountability in Kenosha this week, crowds were racially and ethnically mixed.

"I feel like what has happened in Kenosha in this past week is the rending of the curtain," said Kara Baylor, campus pastor at Carthage College in Kenosha. "That is racism, the white supremacy of our culture and our nation has been revealed … and it's not like we didn't know. This isn't the first shooting of an unarmed Black man. It's been happening over and over and over again. … But we cannot unsee it anymore, because it's now not happening somewhere else. … It's right here."

When Baylor spoke in Civic Park, a green space across from the Kenosha County Courthouse, she offered up one of the only amplified speeches that, for a short time, seemed to hold the attention of most of the crowd. Since Blake’s shooting, Franklin and others have been gathering daily in the park to make plans and check on one another. When BLAK tried Friday to hold a vigil for the two protesters who were killed, it was drowned out, rendered impossible by the mechanically amplified voices of other people with other causes. As a woman stood nearby and burned sage, the discussion among BLAK's organizers turned to what those who took to the street after Blake's shooting want.

In recent days, they have seen the media's attention shift to the assortment of "peace"-, "love"-, Scripture- and folk song-inspired paintings coordinated by a Kenosha organization trying to render less terrifying the plywood that covers the windows and doors of many of Uptown Kenosha's businesses. (Most of the businesses were not damaged, but they pre-emptively erected protection. Some of the paintings also covered Black Lives Matter statements.) Then, there is the assortment of near pleas on the plywood at some businesses. Phrases like "Black Lives Do Matter" and "Kids Live Upstairs" are everywhere in the city.

To some, the painted admonitions that "love is the only answer" might register as condescending or trite. Black men remain about two times more likely than white men to be killed by police in the United States. But Porche Bennett, 31, one of the BLAK organizers, described the artwork as a way some people wanted to contribute and something with which she had no issue.

"What we want is a city that is calm, that is orderly and is safe, for everybody," Bennett said. "That includes police who understand and believe and behave like they are here to protect and serve all of us."

The following day, as Blake's father spoke in the same park to a crowd that had peacefully marched through the city to refocus public attention on his son, a salad plate-size drone hovered over his head. The sight of it prompted murmurs in the crowd about which government agency — local, state or federal — was likely to be watching and listening.

Organizers and activists at Saturday’s Justice for Jacob march, which also ended at Civic Park, expressed disgust with Trump’s public statements about Blake and Kenosha, and appreciation for NBA's work stoppage last week. But there was also a level of pragmatism and dismay with the function of celebrity and public attention in the park. Some expressed hope more of an effort will follow to connect with local activists who have long been engaged in social justice work.

"We do have demands," said Jason Lopez, another organizer with BLAK. "We welcome the help, but it would be ideal if folks would check with us so that we might operate and push for the same things, hard things, together."

On the list in Kenosha: Sheskey's arrest, trial and conviction, as well as charges and conviction for the other officers present because they failed to intervene. Many Black and Latino people are in prison for being present when others commit serious crimes, Lopez said. The same prosecution practices should apply to police officers who fail to intervene or try to stop wrongful uses of force, Lopez said.

Kenosha's social justice activists would also like to hear a clear and absolute rejection of any armed outside or volunteer patrols from local officials, along with the resignations of the city's police chief and the county sheriff. They want a statewide use-of-force standard and a national database of police misconduct so problem officers cannot simply move to jobs in new jurisdictions. There is also grave concern about the ease with which Rittenhouse slipped back across state lines and Friday's delay in returning him to Wisconsin for trial.

"This situation, it is not a good thing," said Veronica King, a retired juvenile court social worker and former president of the Kenosha NAACP. "The shooting was bad enough. We are still awaiting basic information on that and have even less, it seems, about the white young man who came to the city, it seems to intimidate lawful protesters, to intimidate minorities.

"I ask you, where else across the country, in all the places where there have been issues this summer, where have you seen law enforcement let a person walk down the street, gun strapped to their body, totally visible, and thanked him for being here?"

Rittenhouse’s experience with law enforcement in Kenosha stands in sharp contrast to the experiences of many young Black men, she said.

Since the 1990s, King said, Black men, especially when gathered publicly in groups of three or more, have been regularly stopped and frisked by police. Police have argued that the practices help reduce drug activity, prevent crime and facilitate arrests of those who are wanted.

King and the current president of the Kenosha NAACP branch, Anthony Davis, said that hours after the shooting, they went to the Kenosha Police Department in hope of obtaining preliminary information, which King thought might help to calm tensions.

Instead, the two were sent away and told that all commanders were at the scene of Blake's shooting. They could wait outside or come back in a few hours. The two decided to wait, giving them a front row seat for what happened next.

As some protesters began throwing bottles and other items at police headquarters, officers dressed in riot gear emerged from the building and created a protective ring. As far as she could see, none fanned out to the private businesses or churches or other nearby facilities, King said.

"This city, the private citizens of this city, were essentially left to their own devices," King said, adding that she has yet to meet with Kenosha police.

To Franklin, the way Kenosha policing functions has left him struggling with something else.

The night the two protesters were killed, Franklin saw Rittenhouse hop out of a truck flatbed with other armed white men. He had thought the group seemed somewhat out of place at a police accountability protest. But he had chided himself for reaching that conclusion. He struck up a brief conversation, listened as Rittenhouse said he was "there to help protesters" and decided to believe him. He even shook Rittenhouse's hand.

Now, Franklin said, he feels that decision was a mistake.