This story was published in collaboration with the Chicago Reader.
KENOSHA, WI — When the sun rose on Kenosha Wednesday, Aug. 26, former Marine Tim Thompkins said his hometown felt like a battlefield. Smoke lingered in the air from buildings and cars set ablaze the night before. Empty tear gas canisters and pepper bullets littered the streets. Homes were boarded up, and businesses ravaged.
Tuesday, Aug. 25, marked the third night in a row in which protestors filled the streets demanding justice for Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black Kenosha resident who was shot in the back seven times by police. The city, county, and state sent police in SWAT gear and armored trucks to subdue the protests—and Kyle Rittenhouse, a white 17-year-old from Illinois who filled his social media accounts with “Blue Lives Matter” posts, allegedly shot and killed two protestors before walking past police and leaving the crime scene.
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But for Thompkins and other Black residents, the unrest in their city speaks to an entrenched history of systemic racism in Wisconsin, where, according to one study, Black people are incarcerated at a rate 10 times higher than whites.
“The police come into our neighborhoods, don’t know who we are, and act like an occupying force,” Thompkins says. “We are not the enemy. But they treat us like one.”
An Injustice Watch analysis of public spending data for Wisconsin’s 10 most populous cities found that the three cities with the highest percentage of Black residents—Milwaukee, Kenosha, and Racine—allocated larger shares of their 2020 general budgets to policing. Most of the funds are spent on salaries, benefits, and overtime pay for the officers. The police departments in our analysis are also a lot whiter than the cities they serve.
“There are those I’m sure who will argue that the fact that we have more money in our police budget contributes to the level of safety here in Kenosha, but safety for whom?” asks Adelene Greene, head of the Kenosha Coalition for Dismantling Racism, a community group that has worked for decades to identify and address racial inequities in the city. “It’s very noticeable how communities of color are overpoliced in Kenosha . . . I know there’s racial profiling. I have a husband and son who are Black, and they’ve both been stopped by the police under questionable circumstances.”
Her question about the role police play and whether they work as hard to keep Black communities as safe as other communities is one Thompkins has wrestled with for decades.
“Growing up in Kenosha was like growing up in a war zone,” Thompkins says.
His parents moved to Kenosha in 1952 from Arkansas. They raised their eight sons in the Columbus Park neighborhood a mile outside downtown—but it didn’t take long for them to realize they weren’t welcome as one of the only Black families in the area. White mobs would pick fights with the Thompkins boys. After coming home battered and bruised, police would sometimes meet them there, but not to help.
“It wouldn’t be one or two cops, either,” Thompkins says. “They’d surround the whole house to ensure that we knew our place.”
Thompkins went on to join the Marines, leave Kenosha, and come back in 1999. He is now retired, living with his wife and their two daughters in the Columbus Park family home. Through it all, he says he’s been stopped by the police more than 100 times.
A closer look at police spending
Three in five Black people who live in Wisconsin live in Milwaukee, the state’s largest city, which is about 40% Black. Milwaukee set aside $297 million for its police department in 2020, nearly half of its operating budget.
Milwaukee police brass have justified such spending levels by pointing to the city’s violent crime rate, which is almost five times higher than the state average.
But that argument doesn’t carry much weight when applied to Kenosha, which earmarked 35% of its general budget for police in 2020, the third most out of the 10 cities analyzed, even though it had the sixth-highest crime rate, according to the latest FBI crime statistics.
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However, comparing spending between communities can be tricky given differences in how they fund officer pensions and health benefits, and variances in how cities and counties share public safety dispatch centers, according to research by the Wisconsin Policy Forum, a group that’s studied police spending in the state.
The group noted in a June report that “Wisconsin’s municipal governments appear to devote a higher proportion of their budgets to police than the national average,” with the caveat that “this is balanced by Wisconsin’s lower proportional spending at the county and state levels.”
Still, the report emphasized that Wisconsin cities are due for a more in-depth look at police spending.
“Many of the state’s municipalities may have little choice but to consider cuts or freezes to police spending as their financial challenges intensify from the COVID-19 pandemic,” the report reads.
A separate report from December also found that spending increases for police over the last decade haven’t translated into more cops on the street and that most of the money has paid for increases in overtime pay and benefits for officers.
For example, in Racine, the largest increase in this year’s general budget was attributed to $700,000 in contract increases for police officers and firefighters, both of which were spared from Wisconsin’s successful crusade to eliminate every other public sector union.
Police funding in Kenosha has hovered around $30 million a year since 2009, adjusted for inflation. Three years ago, the city agreed that it should fund police body-worn cameras to improve police accountability, but city leaders and police “have balked at the price tag, raised policy concerns and put off implementation” of the cameras until 2022, according to the Associated Press.
Since the Kenosha police officers who shot Jacob Blake were not equipped with those cameras, it’s unclear whether the public will ever get to see a video of the shooting from any other perspective than from a cell phone across the street.
Blake’s family and attorney say he survived the shooting but is paralyzed from the waist down. The Kenosha Police Department did not respond to emailed questions for this story.
A lack of diversity
According to the latest census estimates, fewer than 7% of Wisconsin residents are Black, the lowest percentage among the eight states that border the Great Lakes. Kenosha, which sits directly across the state border with Illinois and is the northernmost edge of the Chicago metropolitan area, is about 12% Black, up from about 6% in 1990. But despite more Black people than most Wisconsin cities, Kenosha isn’t exactly the most diverse city in the Midwest.
Greene, who is Black, moved to Kenosha in 1990 from Hammond, Indiana, a city that also borders Chicago. “Hammond is very diverse, so it was culture shock when I came here,” she says. “I thought I had arrived in a place that had been lost in time.”
As white as the residents are in Kenosha, the nearly 200 police on the city’s payroll are even whiter. An Injustice Watch analysis of police staffing data collected by newspapers from across the Midwest found that white people are overrepresented on the police forces in Kenosha, Racine, and Milwaukee at a much higher rate than in the state’s seven other largest cities.
In Kenosha, 89% of police officers are white, compared to 67% of residents. Only 3% of Kenosha’s cops are Black, compared to about 12% of its residents.
“They’re hiring people who don’t understand the community here. Most of these cops aren’t from the inner city here in Kenosha,” says Edward Bates, 32, a lifelong Kenosha resident. “They get here and get frustrated with a community that has been rejected and faces poverty and is struggling and then just get frustrated and shoot one of ours.”
Thompkins worked as the affirmative action coordinator for Kenosha from 2009 to 2011, when he became the director of human resources in the neighboring city of Racine, a position he held until last year.
In both cities, his job was to raise the number of Black and Latino city workers to reflect the city’s population better. Thompkins said each city made progress during his tenures, but there was one department he couldn’t crack in either one: the police.
“I could never make a difference there,” he said. “They never listened.”
‘We won’t be able to be the same community’
Last week, Trurun Clary, 35, stood outside the Department of Corrections building, which was burned to the ground amid the unrest, with a slight smile on his face. He had spent three years of his life making routine trips to the office while on probation for a drug crime he was convicted of at 17. “They need to burn everything down until we get rid of these police because they have some racist motives,” he says. Clary grew up in Kenosha but says he tries to avoid downtown because of the police presence there.
Greene, of the Kenosha Coalition for Dismantling Racism, retired as the director of workforce development in Kenosha County in 2016. She wants to see the Kenosha police department dedicate more time and resources into building a better relationship with the city’s Black community.
“We need to build better relationships so that we don’t have the outcome that we had with Jacob Blake,” Greene says. “I believe that happened due to some perhaps unchecked biases that white [Kenosha] police officers may have.”
Greene says the coalition twice invited Kenosha Police Superintendent Daniel Miskinis to community forums last year to talk about racial disparities in interactions with the police.
Miskinis declined both times, she says.
It’s not all about police, though; the state’s criminal justice system is generally problematic in its treatment of Black residents compared to other U.S. states. Wisconsin incarcerates Black people at an unusually high rate—higher than any other state in the nation except for Oklahoma. It’s also one of only five states where the Black imprisonment rate is at least 10 times higher than it is for whites, according to a 2016 report by the Sentencing Project.
Those racial disparities were readily apparent decades ago to former state senator Monroe Swan, the first Black man to serve in the Wisconsin state senate. In the late 1970s, Swan said he feared that the state’s drive to build new prisons would create a “self-fulfilling prophecy” in which those prisons would disproportionately get filled with “the non-white Wisconsin community,” especially “the Milwaukee, Racine, and Kenosha Black communities,” according to an article published by The Capital Times on July 18, 1979.
Swan’s fears materialized: The prison population in Wisconsin went up by 464% between 1983 and 2018, according to a report by the Vera Institute of Justice. About 41% of people in Wisconsin’s prisons are Black, five times higher than the state’s Black share of the population.
Wisconsin places people on probation and under parole supervision more often and for longer periods of time than the national average. Wisconsin also locks people up for technical violations of release conditions like missing an appointment with their parole officer at higher rates than most other U.S. states. A January 2019 report published by the Justice Lab at Columbia University concluded that those trends are “contributing to a prison population that is highly racially disparate and growing.”
Racial disparities in the criminal justice system also affect the electoral power wielded by Wisconsin’s Black community.
Under Wisconsin law, people with felony convictions are barred from voting until they complete their sentences—including any period of court supervision ordered as a condition of their release on probation or parole. That population, which is disproportionately Black, numbered about 45,000 people in 2019, according to the latest annual report by Wisconsin’s Division of Community Corrections. People of color face other barriers to the ballot box in Wisconsin, including a strict voter ID law passed in 2011 and ongoing voter suppression efforts led by Republican lawmakers.
Disparities between Blacks and whites in Wisconsin are also reflected in access to education, employment, and housing. Those inequities formed the basis for a February report by job analysts at Zippia that rated Wisconsin as the most racially unequal state in the nation.
“There are so many statistics out there that show Wisconsin is one of the worst places to live, work, or go to school for Black people in this country,” Greene says.
But while police are only one cog in the inequitable system, they play a crucial role in helping drive mass incarceration and state violence. And as Thompkins says, “these protests aren’t just happening out of nowhere.”
“Let’s get to why we’re here: A police officer shot a Black man in the back seven times,” he says. “That’s been happening for 400 years.”
After joining marches and meetings on Thursday, Thompkins believes Kenosha has the chance to bridge its divides. But he’s unsure if all of his neighbors feel the same way.
“The community will be able to heal, but we won’t be able to be the same community,” he says. “We have a very divided community, and we live in a community where there is a lack of empathy and a lack of understanding of people of color, and that’s very clear now.”
Contributing reporting and additional research by Adeshina Emmanuel
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