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By several counts, Milwaukee ranks as the worst city to live in for black Americans.
Milwaukee is statistically the most racially segregated city in the nation. Minorities, including a 40 percent black population, are mostly concentrated in the city’s north side.
Milwaukee also has the highest incarceration rate for black men in the country, according to a 2013 study from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
These realities and more fueled the weekend of unrest in Milwaukee’s Sherman Park neighborhood following the fatal August 13 shooting of 23-year-old Sylville Smith by a police officer. Rioters set several businesses on fire, including a gas station outside the park.
Or, as Milwaukee resident Walter Bond told the NewsHour: The “community has been figuratively burning for a very long time … downtrodden by economic blight and sparse educational options.”
The NewsHour spoke with several black men in Milwaukee about their experiences living in the city.
Community activist Khalil Coleman. Photo by Joshua Barajas/PBS NewsHour
Khalil Coleman, 30, said what we saw in Milwaukee was an “American problem” and that the police brutality against blacks was not something that Milwaukee — or other cities that have recently seen racial unrest — created on its own.
“Look at Trayvon Martin. Before Trayvon Martin, what really sparked people was Troy Davis. When they executed Troy Davis. That’s really what woke people up,” he said.
“Everybody was like ‘I am Troy Davis.’ Then it became ‘I am Trayvon Martin.’ Then it became ‘I am Mike Brown.’ Then it became ‘I am… I am somebody!” he said.
SUPREME MOORE OMOKUNDE
Milwaukee County Supervisor Supreme Moore Omokunde. Photo by Kenya Downs/PBS NewsHour
Milwaukee County Supervisor Supreme Moore Omokunde said black men in the city experience trauma resulting from a lack of resources available to the community.
“[S]ome of the things that we’re supposed to be taking care of through our society, we don’t have those,” Moore said.
“[I]t is a struggle, but it’s a beautiful struggle because I’m very proud of my heritage, where I come from, being a black man, being from Milwaukee. Being kind of the underdog,” he said. “People saying you can’t do this or you can’t do that and then showing people that you can. Not just to show them, but to show yourself as well.”
Khalif Rainey, newly elected Alderman of Milwaukee’s Sherman Park neighborhood. Photo by Joshua Barajas/PBS NewsHour
“When you travel to other communities, you go to Chicago, you go to Washington D.C., you’re kind of shocked to see black people looking well-to-do,” said Khalif Rainey, Alderman of Milwaukee’s Sherman Park neighborhood. “We don’t really experience that [here.]”
“We don’t really see men in our community, black men walking around with suits on unless it’s Sunday. They’re not walking around with a briefcase and going closing business deals,” he said, referring to the problems that have disportionately affected black Milwaukeeans.
“We don’t have those examples here in our community,” he said.
Walter Bond of Teach for America Milwaukee. Photo by Joshua Barajas/PBS NewsHour
Bond, chief of staff at Teach for America Milwaukee, said being black in Milwaukee means “having to constantly face multiple intersecting systems that aren’t built to necessarily welcome you, that aren’t built to necessarily recognize your humanity on a daily basis.”
“So, it almost doesn’t matter that you followed the rules or internalized the playbook,” he said. “You are seen as belonging to a subclass here in our city.”
ANDRE LEE ELLIS
Community activist Andre Lee Ellis. Photo by Joshua Barajas/PBS NewsHour
“We have been pushed up against a wall so much and told, ‘You don’t have a voice, you don’t speak,'” community activist Andre Lee Ellis said.
“We’re going places thinking there’s some great white hope that’s going to rescue us, when young black boys now think that by the age of 25 they’re going to be in jail or dead,” he said.
State Representative David Bowen. Photo by Joshua Barajas/PBS NewsHour
“You are reminded of being oppressed everywhere you go,” State Representative David Bowen said.
“There’s no way of escaping it whether you are walking in your own neighborhood, and your heart still beats fast when police come closer to you,” he said.
“You’re downtown on a weekend and clearly there are different ways that they treat white patrons than black patrons at a restaurant or at a night lounge. It’s very clear that you’re reminded that you are black everywhere you go in the city,” he said.
READ MORE: Milwaukee’s problems span decades, but solutions divide generations
Joshua Barajas is a senior editor for the PBS NewsHour's Communities Initiative. He also the senior editor and manager of newsletters.
Kenya Downs is the digital reporter and producer for PBS NewsHour’s Race Matters and education verticals, creating multimedia content for online and television centered on issues of race and social justice, including exploring the intersection of identity and culture with education reform and policy. Kenya also contributes content related to the Caribbean region for NewsHour's international coverage. She’s previously worked with National Public Radio, Al-Jazeera Media Network and CBS News. Kenya is a graduate of both Howard University and American University and is based in Washington, D.C.
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