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One Year After Blake Shooting, Family Grieves & Some Damaged Kenosha Businesses Still In Limbo

Families of police shooting victims and their supporters
Chuck Quirmbach
/
WUWM
Jacob Blake's family, and the families of other police shooting victims, pose for a photo Saturday on the steps of the Kenosha County Courthouse. They're joined by some supporters.

One year ago this week, a 29-year-old Black man in Kenosha, Jacob Blake, Jr., was paralyzed after being shot in the back multiple times by a white police officer, Rusten Sheskey. The patrolman was responding to a call about a domestic incident.

In the several nights of protests that followed, two people died and dozens of Kenosha businesses were burned. Later that week, then-President Donald Trump and his Democratic campaign rival Joe Biden visited the city of 100,000 people.

These days, the Blake family is still hoping for a federal investigation, while some business owners are still waiting to get their livelihood back.

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Chuck Quirmbach
/
WUWM
Jacob Blake's father, Jacob Blake, Sr., speaks at the weekend rally as his brother, Justin Blake, looks on.

The pain of having a son paralyzed from the waist down is evident in the voice of Blake's father, Jacob Blake, Sr. He spoke at a weekend rally in Kenosha, marking the one-year anniversary of the shooting.

"My son's ability to walk was taken from me. To enjoy my son frolicking, playing around. We enjoy the same thing that our white, Caucasian counterparts enjoy —watching our children play and grow," Blake told the crowd of about 100.

It also still troubles the family that Kenosha prosecutors declined to issue charges against officer Sheskey. The district attorney said he couldn’t disprove Sheskey's contention that he acted in self-defense because Sheskey feared Blake would stab him.

The officer is back on active duty with the Kenosha Police Department at a desk job.

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Chuck Quirmbach
/
WUWM
After Saturday's rally, the Blake family and supporters marched about eight blocks through downtown Kenosha. One of the signs carried called for Kenosha police officer Rusten Sheskey to be fired.

Blake's family has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Sheskey. But Jacob Blake, Sr. also wants a federal justice department probe of the police department and district attorney's office, saying it would help many victims of police shootings.

"You understand? We're not out here just for one family. We're out here for the whole collective of families that have suffered," Blake told WUWM.

The Kenosha police chief from last year has retired. The new interim Chief Eric Larsen said he's been meeting often with a local community group and bringing other changes to the department. He declined an interview with WUWM, but recently told WTMJ that the future looks good.

"You're not always going to be able to get along with everyone. But, we're going to put our best foot forward and we're going to try," Larsen said.

Larsen said he plans to make use of trained volunteers to try to interrupt or head off violence in the city. And later this year, he said street officers will start using body cameras.

For reaction to Larsen, WUWM dropped by an outdoor concert near Kenosha City Hall last week. A classic rock group performed to a predominantly white audience of a couple hundred people.

Sitting at one table, Joyce Erickson said she agrees with Larsen that Kenosha is on the right track.

"I was born and reared here, and I have friends of all races, and, we pretty much all agree on the same way —that we're moving forward," Erickson said.

But outside her home just west of downtown, Tanya McLean, who heads the group Black Leaders of Kenosha, said she's not sure if the interim police chief's openness will last.

"You know, it's a trust thing. He's a new police chief and we just need to see how this is going to go. We're in the beginning stages of that, which is unfortunate because it's been a year," McLean said.

McLean is also leery of some promised economic improvements for Kenosha. She noted that double-digit unemployment remains a problem in Black neighborhoods.

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Chuck Quirmbach
/
WUWM
Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian speaking at a September 2020 press conference.

A spokesperson for Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian said the mayor was unavailable last week. In a statement, Antaramian said the city is investing in its people, infrastructure and business development to create "a thriving Kenosha for all."

But in Kenosha's blue-collar Uptown neighborhood, which saw extensive fire damage last August, the rebuild seems slow.

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Chuck Quirmbach
/
WUWM
The former Uptown Restaurant on 22nd Avenue in Kenosha. It was gutted by fire one year ago.

Outside the boarded-up grocery he used to run in a strip mall on 22nd Avenue, Abel Alejo said he's waiting for the building to be torn down and replaced. In the meantime, Alejo said he's relying on financial help from his adult children.

"And when you find yourself without a job, without a business, it's kind of very, very difficult because now I have to ask for help and that's something I'm not used to," he said.

But Alejo wondered what rent will be in a new building and whether he'll be able to make a profit.

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Chuck Quirmbach
/
WUWM
Abel Alejo stands outside his fire-damaged grocery store in Kenosha's Uptown neighborhood.

In the meantime, he does have a little work at a Mexican restaurant that used to be his strip mall neighbor.

It's the Uptown Restaurant, which has relocated about a mile to the southwest. Owner Yolanda Hernandez said she needed to get back to work and is pleased with the new location.

"We were looking to serve the community again and thank the community that has been supporting us. We will see about how long they will take on 22nd Avenue, to rebuild, but in the meantime, we are happy over here," Hernandez said.

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Chuck Quirmbach
/
WUWM
Yolanda Hernandez and Abel Alejo inside the newly-relocated Uptown Restaurant. Behind them are photos from the eatery's former location.

Hernandez said she did get a loan through part of an emergency package to help the damaged businesses. But she said she's already had to start paying back the money. And, she also had to take out personal loans.

Hernandez said she never thought her former location would be burned down. While others may be more pessimistic, Hernandez said she prefers to think Kenosha is coming back.

''We know we are united and we can make it. We can stand up again," she said.

In downtown Kenosha, it looks like the damage has been cleaned up. The Car Source lot along Sheridan Road has used vehicles again, instead of torched car frames. Other building owners have replaced broken windows. Still other buildings, though, are gone.

Ten blocks west on 60th Street, owners of a burned-out office furniture store viewed by Trump when he visited Kenosha, have posted a sign saying they've moved to Kenosha's far west side.

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Chuck Quirmbach
/
WUWM
The former site of the furniture store viewed by President Donald Trump following last year's protests.

But throughout the city, there's one other factor at play in the aftermath of the Jacob Blake shooting of a year ago — the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse. The white Illinois teenager is accused of killing two pro-Blake protestors and wounding a third. Rittenhouse contends he was not part of a militia, and was just in Kenosha to help protect a business. He's claiming self-defense.

The trial is scheduled to begin November 1, and is expected to again put the international spotlight on Kenosha.

Chuck Quirmbach joined WUWM in August 2018. He focuses his longform stories on health, innovation, science, technology, transportation, utilities and business.
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