Kate O’Neil reflects on the US empire’s latest eruption of racism and violence
Despite the unprecedented gains of the Black Lives Matter movement this year, the shooting of another unarmed Black man in Kenosha, Wisconsin this Sunday shows the battle against police violence in the United States is far from over.
In a 20-second viral internet video, every bit as clear-cut and disturbing as George Floyd’s murder in April, Americans could see 26 year-old Jacob Blake pursued from behind by white police officers while he was getting into his car and shot seven times in the back at point-blank range. Three of Jacob’s young children were sitting right in the back seat.
The Kenosha Police Department has made very few statements about why the police were pursuing Jacob, other than that they were responding to a call about a ‘domestic dispute.’ Witnesses say Jacob had been happily enjoying a barbecue with family shortly before and had intervened to try to break up a fight between two women. The officers involved have not been named publicly and no disciplinary actions have been taken, apart from placing them on ‘administrative leave’ from the police force. The Wisconsin Department of Justice is conducting an independent investigation of the shooting, but it is unclear when it will conclude.
The blatant use of excessive force and disregard for human life on display for all to see in the video has reignited the Black Lives Matter uprising in Kenosha and beyond. Ongoing protests and riots in Kenosha’s town centre have taken place over the past three days, with dozens of vehicles, shops and public buildings burned and vandalised and hundreds marching daily at the local courthouse and police headquarters. Confrontational protests have spread to the state capital in Madison and other cities across the country, from Chicago to New York to Atlanta.
To control the unrest, Kenosha authorities have enforced an 8pm curfew since Sunday, but many protesters have defied them, facing down police pepper spray, teargas and rubber bullets, and some throwing bricks, rocks, fireworks and water bottles at the line of riot gear. On Monday police were reinforced with over 100 National Guardsmen at the behest of Democratic governor Tony Evers, but tensions have continued to escalate. Last night, three people were shot—one fatally-- near a petrol station, and a group of unidentified armed men are being investigated. Protesters are vowing to continue daily marches until the officers involved are arrested and charged.
Jacob’s older sister Letetra Widman summed up the feeling of frustration and determination felt by many in the community.
I’m not sad, I’m not sorry, I’m angry and I’m tired. I have not cried one time, I stopped crying years ago. I’m numb – we have been watching police kill Black people for years. I don’t want your pity, I want change.
Unlike George Floyd, Jacob has miraculously survived the attack with severe injuries, but his case fits the same pattern. Not only did both instances involve violence by police against an unarmed Black man on camera, both took place in the Upper Midwest, a region thought of more for its fresh lakes, progressive values and friendly naïveté than brute racial oppression.
In fact, according to a recent statement by Blake’s uncle, Jacob moved to Kenosha from Chicago a few years ago because he saw it as ‘a safer location’, where he could find work and ‘build a better life.’ Sadly, his shooting, like Floyd’s murder, reveals a different picture of the region.
Blacks make up a relatively small portion of the population of Wisconsin (six per cent) but as of the last census in 2010, Wisconsin had the nation’s highest rate of Black incarceration, nearly twice the national average. And in the urban counties where most Blacks live, including Kenosha and the largest city Milwaukee, trigger-happy policing is not unknown. In Kenosha, a town of only 100,000, police have fatally shot at least five people since 2003.
Of course, the problems for Black communities go well beyond police abuse. Since the time of the Great Migration during the first world war, Blacks have moved for work to Upper Midwestern cities like Milwaukee and Kenosha, once powerhouses of large-scale manufacturing and trade union strongholds. But since the onset of deregulation and outsourcing beginning in the 1970s, far fewer jobs for decent pay have been on offer, leaving many Black and white families behind to struggle in hallowed out city centres with no hope for the future. As one local activist pointed out at a rally yesterday.
There’s no resources in this community. Food desert. Not even a grocery store in this community. If these people don’t have a car, they don’t get to eat fresh vegetables.
I know Kenosha well. It is the town where both of my parents were born and where many members of my extended family live today. It used to be a prosperous motor town, run first by Nash Motors, where my great-grandparents from Poland worked in the early twentieth century, then from 1954 by the American Motors Corporation, which employed much of the community in which my mother grew up.
I remember the bitterness and despair that my family felt when Chrysler bought up AMC and closed the plant in 1988, the boarded up shops and liquor stores that came to dominate the area where my grandparents lived, the conversations between relatives about how to keep their small businesses afloat in the city centre despite the odds. In recent years talk has often turned to annoyance at the low pay and poor conditions prevalent at the current largest employer, Amazon.
One of the businesses that went up in flames on Monday night was a small camera shop that was owned by my mum’s cousin and had been in the family for generations. Another family business, a men’s clothing store started by my late uncle, has now had to be boarded up, and my aunt and cousin who now run it are praying for no damage. These things are heart-breaking to see and certainly could be exploited by politicians to sow divisions between protesters and other members of the public along racial lines.
But for the moment it seems that while the broader public condemns property destruction, so too are they outraged by the scene they viewed in the video of the shooting. One motorcycle shop owner told a local newspaper on Monday, even while boarding up his shop to prevent protesters from smashing his windows, that the protesters are not to blame.
The cops are causing all this. They’re out there murdering people. I don’t think there’s no answer to this; how do you change people like this?
This wider sympathy with the victims of police brutality is a testament to the continued strength of the BLM movement today.
How state and national politicians respond to this new upsurge of protest will have implications for the presidential elections in November, as Wisconsin is a hotly contested swing state. Trump has already managed to prove both how out of sync he is with public sentiment and how impotent he is in the face of unrest. In a tweet roundly ridiculed in the press yesterday, he called on the Wisconsin governor to call in the National Guard well after the governor had already done so, declaring "It is ready, willing, and more than able. End problem FAST!’
Lead campaigners for Trump in Wisconsin have at least had the savvy to condemn the shooting, but the solution they propose involves maintaining the status quo in policing. At a Trump campaign event this week, former Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch declared
I think that one of the things we need to ensure is that when we talk about situations like what we're seeing in Kenosha right now, is that we have more accountability and transparency… and that only comes from defending the police, and not defunding the police.
The Democrats’ response seems much more in line with the moderate position of the BLM era. Immediately following the shooting, Joe Biden issued a carefully crafted statement in which he expressed sympathy for Jacob Blake, called for the dismantlement of ‘systemic racism’ and declared that the officers involved ‘must be held accountable.’ Governor Evers, similarly, made an explicit appeal to solidarity with the BLM movement and has also called on the Republican-controlled state legislature to adopt a legislative package to reform police training, reporting and procedures.
But an overly moderate approach could alienate their more progressive base. BLM activists will already find fault with Biden, who penned the devastating 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill, and Evers’ legislative package, which falls short of defunding the police. And any wrong moves in response to the uprising in Kenosha could deepen distrust. The Department of Justice overseeing the investigation into Jacob Blake’s shooting is headed by a Democratic, governor-appointed attorney general, and it is the Democratic governor himself who has called in the National Guard. If detainment and prosecution of the guilty officers is too slow or the charges too light, or if the crackdown on protesters by the police and National Guard intensify, their words of support this week will begin to ring hollow.
Protesters must take advantage of this spotlight in an election year and stay in the streets until justice for Jacob is served.
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