Amid anger and destruction, Kenoshans seek reconciliation

Why We Wrote This

The world’s picture of Kenosha, Wisconsin, is of the city set ablaze by riots after the police shooting of Jacob Blake. Today, its streets show the nuance of America’s racial narrative and the humanity that is never extinguished.

Ann Hermes/Staff
A sign is placed among the wreckage of a destroyed building on Aug. 30, 2020, in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The community was devastated by rioting and looting in the wake of the police shooting of Jacob Blake on Aug. 23. But many residents are making a concerted effort to come together and rebuild.

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What will Kenosha be remembered for? Jacob Blake’s shooting by police and the violence that ensued have thrust this Wisconsin city into the national spotlight, with politicians using it to advance narratives about the need for racial justice and law and order.

Residents present a more nuanced view, describing – often through tears – a city striving to express unity in the wake of devastation. Some characterize this pivotal moment as a wake-up call for those who have failed to see or address persistent racial discrimination, and an opportunity for healing. While a broad cross section of residents see their city as a microcosm of the tumult across America, many are hopeful that Kenosha will be remembered not for violence but as a model of resilience and reconciliation.

“I was raised up around oppression,” says Andre Ross, leaning against the hood of his white Pontiac, drinking McDonald’s coffee in front of what used to be Uptown Restaurant, where he met friends every Saturday morning for breakfast before it was burned last week. “But I go to church. You can’t deal with violence with violence. That’s what you call a war. Ain’t nobody going to win.”

Andre Ross is leaning against the hood of his white Pontiac, drinking McDonald’s coffee in front of what used to be Uptown Restaurant. He’s staring at the boarded up and burned out strip of businesses along 22nd  Avenue, which served mainly Black patrons.

“I used to get my phone there. ... And then those tacos over there I used to get,” he says, gesturing up and down the now-quiet street. “And that lady over there at the end, she used to sell mattresses and sometimes people would be short with the money, and she’d just let them have it.”

Mr. Ross lives a couple of miles away by the police station, where all the new fencing around a National Guard outpost – visible from his backyard – makes him feel as if he’s living in Afghanistan. Some 1,000 troops have been sent in over the past week to curtail the violence that ensued after a police officer shot Jacob Blake in the back on Aug. 23.

“I had to come down here and eat my breakfast and see it all,” he says. “I see this happen on TV in different cities. But my little city of 100,000 people?”

“I understand that Black Lives Matter, I understand all of that. But what I don’t understand is this,” says Mr. Ross, looking at the charred hulks of brick, twisted rods, and melted glass left in the wake of the violence. “If you don’t know a way to be heard, you need to find a way. Because this is not the way.” 

Mr. Blake’s shooting, the three nights of burning and looting that followed, and a white teenager’s fatal shooting of two aggressive protesters have thrust this Midwestern city into the national spotlight. President Donald Trump surveyed the damage and met with law enforcement officials on a visit today, during which supporters and protesters engaged in shouting matches along the presidential motorcade’s route. As pundits and officials across the political spectrum turn Kenosha into a rallying cry for racial justice or law and order – or both – residents offer a more nuanced view.

Many tearfully describe a city striving to come together in the wake of devastation. Some characterize this moment as a wake-up call for those who have failed to see or address persistent racial discrimination – and as an opportunity for healing. While a broad cross section of residents see their city as a microcosm of the current tumult across America, many are hopeful that Kenosha will ultimately be remembered not for the violence that occurred here but as a model of resilience and reconciliation.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Jacklyn Vazquez (l.) and Elisa Rocha work on a mural in Kenosha's Uptown neighborhood on Aug.30, 2020. “We will get through this and we will come out stronger,” says Ms. Rocha.

“I would really like the country to know us for this tightknit community you see,” says Elisa Rocha, finishing up a mural across the street from the burned remains of the Danish Brotherhood hall, where her extended family used to gather for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and quinceañeras. Along the blocked-off street, the air is thick with barbecue smoke as volunteers flip hamburgers and pass out corn on the cob, while others collect cash donations in makeshift boxes.

“We will get through this and we will come out stronger,” says Ms. Rocha. “They’ve destroyed the buildings and the homes, but they’re not going to destroy the spirit that this city has.”

A legacy of racial divisions 

An older white couple eating hot dogs piled high with condiments watch as others wait in line for food and some dance to the music coming over the loudspeakers. They say they want to think of their city as coming together. But they point out that the crowd here is made up of mostly white Kenosha residents, while around the corner at the Family Dollar there’s a similar gathering that’s all Black families.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Volunteers hand out donated supplies to the community outside the Family Dollar on Aug. 30, 2020 in Kenosha.

“So have we really come together?” asks the wife, Holly, who declined to give her last name.

Even as a small army of residents paint colorful messages of unity, love, and healing on the plywood that covers shop fronts across the city, others express discouragement about the racial divisions that persist here – a legacy of Wisconsin’s history.

Although the state never legalized slavery and was an important stop on the Underground Railroad for slaves seeking freedom in Canada, Wisconsin chose to omit Black suffrage in its 1848 state constitution. A century later, the state’s Black population increased almost 600% from 1940 to 1960 due to a surge in industrial employment, including in Kenosha, where Chrysler and American Motors were a big draw. But Milwaukee – less than an hour’s drive to the north – remained one of the most segregated cities in the country.

A recent Brookings report found that those disparities have persisted: In 2019, Milwaukee was rated the most racially segregated metro area in the United States. While some neighborhoods in Kenosha are integrated, segregation still persists in areas where mortgage lenders used redlining to restrict where Black homebuyers could live, says Lawrence Kirby, pastor of Acts Church.

“Our city is still incredibly divided in a lot of ways,” says Pastor Kirby, likening residents to relatives that only get together for funerals. “In the protests and outrage, you see people come together, but we’ve got to get to the point where we’re doing life together in a regular way more and more.”

A few blocks away from the Danish Brotherhood ruins, Ionia Ireland and her 10-year-old daughter Aya are standing on upside-down buckets, painting the plywood on the boarded-up business below their apartment. Ms. Ireland, a retired Marine, expresses grim bemusement that her Uptown neighborhood lately has seen a steady stream of white people driving by, holding cellphones out the window as they film the destruction.

“There’s a lot of people who are coming here and spray-painting a couple of things, passing out a couple of chips, taking a few pictures to be on Facebook and Instagram like they’re this hero – and then they leave,” she says. “I’m not saying all are like that, some of them genuinely do care.”

“I think it’s safer from where we used to live in Milwaukee,” her daughter Aya adds. “But my candy shop almost burned down!” Her mom notes that Uptown was already on the verge of being a food desert, and ticks off the last few places they had left to shop for food, all of which have been destroyed. Aya chimes in: “And Family Dollar! Just went poof!”

Ann Hermes/Staff
Ionia Ireland paints a mural on the boarded-up business below her apartment on Aug. 30, 2020, in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Ms. Ireland's home is in one of the neighborhoods most affected by the destruction that followed the police shooting of Jacob Blake on Aug. 23.

In Family Dollar’s parking lot, dozens of people are rifling through donated T-shirts, diapers, canned goods, and bottled water. Milwaukee-based rapper WebsterX, who co-organized the relief effort, expresses frustration that outlets like Fox News focused on the fires but aren’t here to report on the recovery.

“What I want people to pay attention to in Kenosha is the positivity that’s also happening,” he says, with music reverberating in the background. But he also says that there has been “racist stuff happening here for forever, and in these communities and cities it’s just extremely unbalanced – economically, socially.”

“I want people to come to Kenosha and understand why Kenosha,” he says. “People are in unrest, they are angry, because Black people are being killed and it’s as simple as that.”

Piecing together what happened 

Kenosha police officers have come under fire after a video went viral showing Officer Rusten Sheskey shooting Jacob Blake seven times in the back as he tried to enter an SUV where his three sons were sitting in the backseat. According to a statement from the Kenosha Professional Police Association, officers were responding to a complaint that Mr. Blake, who had an open warrant for felony sexual assault (third degree), was attempting to steal the caller’s keys and car. The caller referred to Mr. Blake as her boyfriend, and his attorney said the pending charges for sexual assault and domestic abuse involved the same address where his client was shot, according to the local CBS affiliate.

The police union statement asserts that the officers gave Mr. Blake, whom they say was carrying a knife, multiple opportunities to comply with verbal and physical cues – including a taser – before they fired their first shot. Another bystander video appears to show Mr. Blake scuffling on the ground with officers before any shots were fired. Dispatch audio reveals that less than three minutes elapsed from when the first officer arrived to when Mr. Blake was shot. Mr. Blake’s attorney said in a statement his client “did nothing to provoke police” and that “witnesses confirm that he was not in possession of a knife.”

Mr. Blake, whose family has said he is paralyzed from the waist down, was initially shackled to his hospital bed until his warrant was vacated several days later. The Wisconsin Department of Justice is investigating the shooting and is expected to present its findings in a month. Within hours of the shooting, protests began. A car dealership was torched that night, along with a state parole and corrections building, with widespread arson continuing on Monday and Tuesday nights. On Tuesday, Aug. 25, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse of Illinois fatally shot two protesters and injured a third, Gaige Paul Grosskreutz, who was holding a handgun.

One of the protesters who was killed, Joseph Rosenbaum, was a registered sex offender who had been sentenced by Arizona in 2002 for sexual conduct with a minor and had racked up a long list of violations during his imprisonment from 2003 to 2013, including assaulting staff. The other, Anthony Huber, had been in and out of Wisconsin prisons over the past four years, including for repeated domestic abuse and a 2012 felony charge of strangulation and suffocation, to which he pleaded guilty. Witnesses say Mr. Huber beat Mr. Rittenhouse with his skateboard prior to being shot, and at least one bystander said Mr. Rosenbaum tried to grab Mr. Rittenhouse’s gun before the teenager shot him.

Ann Hermes/Staff
A car dealership was burned during the unrest that followed the police shooting of Jacob Blake on Aug. 23, 2020, in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Critics fault police and National Guard troops for failing to arrest Mr. Rittenhouse, whom they passed with his hands raised after the shooting. The teenager, whose Facebook posts supported Blue Lives Matter and who said in a video early Tuesday night that he had come to protect businesses and help administer first aid to those who needed it, had been charged with speeding and driving without a valid license the previous week. He turned himself in the morning following the fatal shooting after spending the night at home. The State of Wisconsin has charged him with five felonies, including first-degree intentional homicide.

On Saturday, hundreds of protesters marched down a main boulevard to Civic Center Park, chanting “No justice, no peace,” and carrying signs that read “We bleed the same blood,” “Guns are for Cowards,” and “Jacob Blake is a Human.” Legal observers in fluorescent vests patrolled on bikes while National Guard troops watched from behind fences near the courthouse.

Veyah Witt, a young Black woman in the crowd who was born and raised in Kenosha, says she’s not surprised by the events of the past week.

“I won’t say I’m happy that this is happening. But I am happy that people here in this town are finally seeing the things that we always see,” says Ms. Witt, a first-year college student in Milwaukee. “Until now, it’s always just been pushed under the rug.”

Jacob Blake Sr. is among the speakers who took the stage as Ms. Witt and the rest of the crowd look on. “There is one justice system for the white boy who walked down the street shooting, and there is another one for mine,” says Mr. Blake. But he adds that destruction is not the appropriate response. “Good people of this city understand. If we tear it up, we have nothing.”

A barber’s nighttime vigil

Mike Johnson, a barber in the Uptown neighborhood that saw some of the greatest devastation, says that if he hadn’t been standing guard outside his business with friends and relatives during the nights of rioting, his place would have been burned down too.  

Ann Hermes/Staff
Mike Johnson cuts a client's hair at his barber shop on Aug. 30, 2020, in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Mr. Johnson stood guard outside his business with family and friends during nights of rioting, which he says prevented his shop from being burned.

“I said, ‘Back off, these are Black-owned businesses,’ and they took off,” he recounts, admitting that he and others flashed guns at the rioters. “But yeah, they definitely tried.”

He thinks the news media is creating an overly simplistic narrative to explain the events in Kenosha. “The media is pushing it into a Black and white thing, but it’s not. It’s a right and wrong thing.”

For example, he says he’s seen reports about armed white residents protecting their neighborhoods, “but Black people do that too! There’s nothing wrong with that. They gotta do what they gotta do. They’ve got kids.”

As Mr. Johnson works on a young man’s fade with gold clippers, “Big Mike,” as he’s known, describes his hopes that Uptown will come back better.

“Most people look at it and say, ‘Oh this is destruction, this is disaster,’ but we look at it like opportunity,” he says. “We need to get together as a community and start to rebuild.”

At one of the many spontaneous mural painting sites around the city this weekend, Brenda Sorenson puts the finishing touches on a Scandinavian-inspired floral design, with handprints for flowers. She and her friend Kimberly Loepp offered to paint the boarded-up storefront of Paul Rizzo’s Scandinavian Designs furniture store, which has been here since 1974. They hope such efforts will not only help business owners like Mr. Rizzo – whom they had never met until this weekend – feel supported, but also show America a different side of Kenosha than the nighttime images that are circulating on TV.

“I want them to see the community coming together,” says Ms. Sorenson. “Hopefully people who didn’t know each other before can get to know each other. Who knows, maybe that could bring down some barriers.”

“I wish every city could be like this”

Before Jacob Blake’s name echoed across America and Kenosha was set ablaze, Pastor Kirby of Acts Church and a couple of white church leaders had set a date to relaunch together as an intentionally multiethnic church, called One Voice. It happened to fall exactly one week after Mr. Blake’s shooting, when so many in the city were feeling weighed down by pain, anger, fear, and division.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Pastor Lawrence Kirby, center, leads a new multiethnic community of worshippers on Aug. 30, 2020 in Kenosha.

After their first service in a new building, Mr. Kirby, together with Matt Myers and David Johnson, describe this moment as an opportunity to help their city bridge those deeper divides.

“My worry is that we’re going to be so focused on rebuilding burnt buildings that we’re going to miss the divide that needs to be healed,” says Mr. Johnson, expressing appreciation for the murals around town but also emphasizing the need to make good on all those expressions of peace and love. 

John Lalgee of One Church Ministries, an umbrella organization that will include the new church, suggests a divine purpose at work amid seemingly dark times, including in the coming together of more than a dozen church leaders and about 500 participants at an outdoor prayer meeting last Thursday.

“We will not be famous in the years to come for a tragic incident,” the biracial leader told worshippers at one of his congregations, Living Light Christian Church in Kenosha, on Sunday morning. “We will be famous in the years to come for the outpouring of the spirit of God and the unique coming together of the people of God.”

Already, Kenosha residents’ efforts have attracted attention and praise from outsiders. Three protesters from Baltimore, who drove virtually nonstop to Kenosha, said it was extraordinary to them how quickly the city was coming together.

“It breaks my heart for my city, because we didn’t do that,” says Rachel Gorzo, referring to the aftermath of the 2015 death of Freddie Gray in police custody. “But I’m hoping other cities can learn from Kenosha.”

“I wish every city could be like this,” agrees her boyfriend, Darnell Williams, an African American documenting the mural painting and other scenes on his cellphone. 

“This positive energy – we want to bring it to Baltimore,” says Liri Fusha, their intrepid driver, who knows firsthand the impact of defunding the police and government, which she experienced in her native Albania. She hopes her adopted country won’t go down that route, but will take more seriously complaints of official corruption and misconduct.

“This country is the best country on Earth. I am so lucky to be in the U.S.,” says Ms. Fusha, who still bears the scars of being thrown down on shattered glass during the lawlessness that swept Albania in the 1990s. “But I’m hoping the U.S. is going to come together.”

Back in Uptown, leaning against his car with rap music blaring, Mr. Ross says empathy is key to addressing racial oppression in the city he loves.

“Martin Luther King marched so that I could be here talking to you right now in the street. And yeah, sure, we can drink from the same water fountain now, but there’s still this underlying stuff,” says Mr. Ross, who was born in jail to a father who had killed someone and a mother who was implicated in the crime, and who fell into bad ways himself until his own son’s death caused him to change course.

“I was raised up around oppression,” says Mr. Ross. “But I go to church. You can’t deal with violence with violence. That’s what you call a war. Ain’t nobody going to win.” 

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