Jacob Blake Was Shot in Kenosha, a City Adrift in a Moral Desert

Jacob Blake Was Shot in Kenosha, a City Adrift in a Moral Desert

Jacob Blake Was Shot in Kenosha, a City Adrift in a Moral Desert

The crisis of policing in one Wisconsin city illustrates a national calamity. Yet Republicans—both nationally and in Wisconsin’s capital—block even modest reform.


Kenosha, Wis.—Reverend Jesse Jackson came to Kenosha last week on a moral mission. He stood in the parking lot of Bert and Rudy’s Auto Service in the heart of this shaken Wisconsin city, near the locations where two nights earlier a 17-year-old white vigilante shot and killed two men who were protesting the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man who is now paralyzed from the waist down. Jackson’s anguish was evident. He decried “a system of racism in law enforcement” in Kenosha and nationwide.

The veteran civil rights leader spoke Thursday following the arrest of the gunman who was charged with multiple counts of homicide in the shooting of the protesters: Anthony Huber, 26, and Joseph Rosenbaum, 36. Huber and Rosenbaum were gunned down on the third night of demonstrations that had rocked Kenosha since the Sunday evening shooting of Blake, whose three young sons watched from the back seat of his vehicle.

Yet, Jackson noted, the police officer who “shot Jacob seven times in the back—seven times, seven times in the back” remains free. Jackson called for accountability for that officer and two others who were at the scene. “We must protest until the three of them have been indicted,” he said.

Jackson spoke, as well, of a crisis that extends far beyond Kenosha. “Today, there’s a moral desert, top-down. The acid rain is coming, top-down,” he said. “That kind of moral desert hurts all of America.”

Jackson was addressing President Trump, who referenced Kenosha on Thursday night in a “law-and-order” rant at the Republican National Convention in which the commander-in-chief declared, “In the strongest possible terms, the Republican Party condemns the rioting, looting, arson, and violence we have seen in Democrat-run cities like Kenosha.”

The president did not bother to mention Jacob Blake’s name last week. Yet this week, according to the White House, Trump will swoop into Kenosha. Trump is set to meet with local law enforcement officials and “survey damage from recent riots.”

Concerns that Trump’s visit will open wounds in the city and the state led Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers, a Democrat, to urge the president not to come to Kenosha. “Now is not the time for divisiveness,” wrote Evers, in a remarkable letter sent Sunday evening. “Now is not the time for elected officials to ignore armed militants and out-of-state instigators who want to contribute to our anguish.”

Trump’s trip to Kenosha is steeped in politics. Kenosha Country is a swing county in a swing state, as Trump and his campaign strategists well understand. “They’re coming to shoot the commercial,” says Representative Gwen Moore, a Democrat who represents Milwaukee and who was born in the neighboring city of Racine. Recalling the appeals to backlash votes by Republicans in the past, Moore portrayed Trump’s trip as “a page torn straight out of [Richard Nixon’s] playbook.”

Trump’s name is the most prominent one on a long list of powerful national and state Republicans who have prevented action to address police brutality and systemic racism in the three months since the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Even as millions of Americans have joined Black Lives Matter demonstrations in cities across the country—including Kenosha, where there was significant organizing and activism before the shooting of Jacob Blake—policing reforms remain stalled at the federal and state levels. That’s a source of profound frustration for activists who have protested and petitioned over the course of a long hot summer.

Now, after the shooting of another Black man, there is a demand for action. Thousands marched through the city Saturday, behind a banner that read: “Justice for Jacob Blake.” They were answering the call of Jacob Blake Sr. and the Blake family for a response that recognizes the need to address police violence and systemic racism. That message was framed earlier in the week by Letetra Widman, Jacob Blake’s sister:

So many people have reached out to me telling me they’re sorry this happened to my family. Well, don’t be sorry, ’cause this has been happening to my family for a long time—longer than I can account for. It happened to Emmett Till—Emmett Till is my family. Philando [Castile]. Mike Brown. Sandra [Bland]. This has been happening to my family, and I’ve shed tears for every single one of these people that it’s happened to. This is nothing new. I’m not sad. I’m not sorry. I’m angry, and I’m tired. I haven’t cried one time [since Jacob Blake’s shooting]. I stopped crying years ago. I am numb. I have been watching police murder people that look like me for years. I’m also a Black history minor. So not only have I been watching it in the 30 years that I’ve been on this planet, but I’ve been watching it for years before we were even alive. I’m not sad. I don’t want your pity. I want change.

Much change is needed in Kenosha, a historic industrial city of 100,000 located south of Milwaukee. Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth, an elected Republican who two years ago claimed that “society has to come to a threshold where there’s some people that aren’t worth saving,” announced Friday that he had not watched the video of the Blake shooting. That statement led Representative Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat who was born and raised in Kenosha, to say, “He’s either lying or an incompetent law enforcement officer.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin has called on Beth to resign, explaining, “Sheriff David Beth’s deputies not only fraternized with white supremacist counter-protesters on Tuesday, but allowed the shooter to leave as people yelled that he was the shooter.” The group also wants the resignation of Kenosha Police Chief Daniel Miskinis, noting, “During the Kenosha Police Department’s first press conference in response to the Blake shooting and subsequent murders committed at protests, Police Chief Daniel Miskinis blamed the unidentified victims in Tuesday night’s shooting for their own deaths, saying the violence was the result of the ‘persons involved violating curfew.’”

“Their actions uphold and defend white supremacy, while demonizing people who were murdered for exercising their First Amendment rights and speaking out against police violence,” says Wisconsin ACLU Executive Director Chris Ott. If they don’t resign, argues Ott, Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian should demand that Kenosha’s Police and Fire Commission remove the chief and Wisconsin’s governor should remove the sheriff.

But it will take more than resignations and removals to repair law enforcement in Kenosha—and Wisconsin as a whole. While media scrutiny has focused on Kenosha in recent days, the crisis extends far beyond its city limits. “What happened in Kenosha is an example of our policing system continuing to go wrong,” argues Pocan.

Referencing Wisconsin’s “inequities in criminal justice and policing, in health care, or in economic well-being,” Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes, a Democrat from Milwaukee, says, “The social and economic consequences of these deep-seated inequities reach every community in our state and eliminating them will require action at every level of government.”

A major barrier to action in this politically divided state can be found in the farm country 25 miles west of Kenosha. That’s the home district of Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, a Republican with a Trump-like determination to exploit crises rather than address them.

In June, Evers proposed legislation to establish statewide use of force standards for all law enforcement agencies, making clear

that the primary duty of law enforcement is to preserve the life of all individuals; that deadly force is to be used only as the last resort; that officers should use skills and tactics that minimize the likelihood that force will become necessary; that, if officers must use physical force, it should be the least amount of force necessary to safely address the threat; and that law enforcement officers must take reasonable action to stop or prevent any unreasonable use of force by their colleagues.

Vos blocked legislative action.

This week, Evers asked that a special session of the legislature address reforms. Vos again objected.

Frustration with legislative inaction was a focus of a high-profile protest by Milwaukee Bucks team members who refused to play game five of their first-round NBA playoff series in Orlando. The basketball players declared that it “is imperative for the Wisconsin State Legislature to reconvene after months of inaction and take up meaningful measures to address issues of police accountability, brutality, and criminal justice reform.”

While the leader of the Republican-controlled state Senate suggested he will let months pass before acting, Vos proposed another task force to examine issues that have already been reviewed. Stalling tactics don’t sit well with Kenosha’s state representative Tod Ohnstad. “We need real change and now,” says the Democrat. “The special session legislation that has been proposed is an important first step that we should take immediately.”

Ohnstad wants “urgent action to address the very issues brought forward by the shooting of Jacob Blake.” Unfortunately, the moral desert that the Rev. Jackson describes extends from the White House to the speaker’s chair in the Wisconsin legislature.

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