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Reimagining Kenosha: how the city is moving forward after the Rittenhouse trial verdict

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Erica Ness
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Leaders of Kenosha
Center to right: Hannah Gittings, girlfriend of Anthony Huber next to Justin Blake uncle to Jacob Blake, Jr. speaking at the Leaders of Kenosha, Reimagine Kenosha event.

The Rittenhouse trial served as yet another example of the division in this country. It’s stirred intense feelings and reactions, especially among local activists and social justice organizers in Wisconsin who are fighting against racial and systemic inequity.

One of those organizations is Leaders of Kenosha. Their work is focused on bringing community members together to reimagine Kenosha and make it genuinely inclusive for everyone who lives there. Last week, after the verdict, the organization hosted an event filled with music and food - and offered a space for those who needed it, to heal.

Erica Ness is the director of community engagement for Leaders of Kenosha.

Ness shares that regardless of the verdict, she had little faith in the justice systems to begin with. Now that the Rittenhouse trial has concluded, Ness says she has her own concerns around what the acquittal of Rittenhouse means for Kenosha.

"We felt that it was very important that a precedent be set that you can't just carry an assault rifle into a community, and shoot and kill two protesters," Ness says. "Instead, it would appear that the precedent has been set that you can do that. So that's very frightening for us."

To Ness, the justice system isn't broken, it's working the way that it is intended to: keep white killers free, while innocent people of color are incarcerated or killed. Still, the verdict doesn't change the work that Leaders of Kenosha has done and continues to do, says Ness, if anything it makes them more cautious.

"We are just as dedicated as ever to our goal: to reimagine Kenosha, in which there is equitable access to opportunities," Ness says. "In which racism is no longer embedded in all of our systems, [a Kenosha] in which people aren't suffering from homelessness, poor housing, and lack of resources as they are now."

For Ness, moving forward means increasing civic engagement in Kenosha. Through the "Reimagine Kenosha" campaign, they are hoping to make it easier for people to know who their representatives are, get better access to education, and make sure Kenosha has a diverse pool of lawyers and judges.

"I can't watch a trial like this end this way. I can't watch my friends and colleagues and associates be threatened. I can't stop fighting," says Ness.

Omar Flores is the co-chair of the Milwaukee Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, which is collaborating with Leaders of Kenosha.

Flores says this verdict shows the urgency needed in changing state laws and forming a Civilian Police Accountability Council.

"CPAC stands for Civilian Police Accountability Council, and that would essentially be where elected citizens, that are not in any way related to the police, are elected to decide funding for the police," Flores says. "To decide on how many police there are, how they're policed, and who's policing them."

While organizing in Milwaukee, Flores says he saw first-hand a high interest in the verdict from the community. In addition, he says he found it was commonplace to have conversations around policing on the north side.

"You have 12-year-old Black children existing on the north side, just existing not doing anything wrong, and police are harassing them, five or six squads on. The double standard is so obvious, especially compared to area codes like the 53206 area code that's like the most incarcerated and so the people are really feeling this, whether they're from Kenosha or not," says Flores.

Both Ness and Flores say although the work is challenging, it's worth it in the end. Optimistically Ness says she can't help but believe Kenosha will make a change. Flores adds, the only way to change things is through direct action.

"The work is stressful, the work is difficult. And sure, there are some days where I really wish I just didn't take it up. But you know, I wouldn't have it any other way. Because otherwise, it's just going to keep happening. If you ever want to feel motivated to do this work, just know that it's not going to get done without you," says Flores.

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