'This Weekend Wasn't an Isolated Event': Unpacking Milwaukee's Ongoing Tensions

Aug 15, 2016

After a fatal police shooting near Milwaukee's Sherman Park neighborhood on Saturday, the area erupted into protests and chaos. For two consecutive nights, demonstrators took to the streets. Businesses were burned, people were injured, and Milwaukee's weekend of unrest made national headlines.

READ: WUWM's Complete Coverage of Milwaukee's Unrest

Some decried violence and unrest, and urged community members to restore order. Others say the impetus for these demonstrations had been bubbling under the surface for a long time. Aisha Turner has been covering this story and other stories about the ongoing issue of gun violence in Milwaukee, for our Precious Lives series

"I think the big thing to note is that what happened this weekend wasn't an isolated event. Tensions have really been building, certainly over the last week since I've been in the park, but really all summer," she says. "There are long-standing tensions with the police in that area, and I think from the police's standpoint probably long-standing tension with the community as well." 

The BP station in Sherman Park that burned to the ground has been the site of some of this tension.

Credit Michelle Maternowski

Earlier in the summer, there was an altercation between kids and police officers that spilled over into the station. The kids were throwing rocks, and broke some of the station's windows. In July, demonstrators stood outside the station after an employee fired a gun to disperse a group of teens they claimed were being disorderly.

"The BP station... was really the location for a lot of these community tensions that were going on," Turner says.

"I think it's a really tense relationship that we are sort of seeing everywhere throughout the country, but it exploded essentially on Saturday night."

She notes that there have been groups organizing in Sherman Park this summer to keep kids out of trouble and give them something positive to do. 

Program The Parks, a group run by community organizer Vaun Mayes Bey and other volunteers, has been in the park since the beginning of June.

"They started going out because they saw posts on Facebook of police... kicking kids out of the park in a way that felt threatening," Turner explains. "So [Program The Parks] has been going out and throwing fish fries, organizing movie nights, organizing picnics as a way of giving kids something to do... and then also being there to be a watchful eye."

"There's this sense of 'if we can just take care of these kids [ourselves], then we don't need to get the police involved' because the police are seen as a threatening force there."

"And, really the impetuous behind [this program] is to keep the police out of their business. The perception from the community is that when things happen the police respond from almost a harassment standpoint, rather than trying to get involved and keep the peace," she says. "I think it's a really tense relationship." 

There are people in the community who feel like every time they  interact with law enforcement, Turner says, they feel criminalized and not understood.

Turner was at the protests over the weekend, and says there was a clear divide between the people who attended. "One of the striking things that I noticed... was that on the north side of Burleigh Street, was mostly black residents. And on the other side, closer to Sherman Park, was mostly white people." 

"Now that things have erupted, people are interested... And I think there's a real sense of frustration that when people are struggling, when people don't have jobs, when they're not getting adequate education - there's a sense of feeling disconnected."

Speaking with community members, Turner found that residents were frustrated by these outside observers. "Now that things have unfolded in the way they have in this really dramatic way, that's when people are taking interest. And I think there's a real sense of frustration that when people are struggling, when people don't have jobs, when they're not getting adequate education - there's a sense of feeling disconnected."

Turner says, "Now that things have erupted, people are interested. And, you see that frustration even with black politicians and black church leaders that try to come into the community and bring people together. There's this sense that 'maybe this involves you, but it should have involved you a lot sooner than it has.'"

There's also frustration with how the story has been portrayed in the media and its focus on the violence. "There hasn't really been talk about the very real, and from my perspective very valid, anger that people feel," she says. "Things are being phases as if there's riots, and I think there has been a lot of pushback from community members who are saying 'No, this is an uprising. We couldn't get your attention before and so now we have.'"

"I think the onus is really now on the people that are now listening and paying attention to figure out how to move forward in a way that is effective, and not just bringing in more policing," Turner adds.

For more on this topic, watch Aisha Turner's interview on The Rachel Maddow Show: