After racial unrest, Kenosha treads a hard road forward

Richard Mertens
Tavern on Sixth, which recently opened in Kenosha's downtown. The owner, Kyle Kavalauskas, is setting out tables on a recent Saturday for the 11 a.m. opening. It's one of several new businesses that have opened in the downtown, where many businesses were damaged in unrest after the shooting of Jacob Blake.

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Ruth Serrato remembers the night her shop burned. Protests over the police shooting of a Black resident, Jacob Blake, on Aug. 23 had given way to confrontation and violence in Kenosha, Wisconsin. When rioters attacked the little business district where Ms. Serrato’s father had opened an ice cream shop, she watched from home through security cameras as the smoke and flames destroyed it.

“I only cried,” says Ms. Serrato. “I couldn’t believe it.”

Why We Wrote This

In one Wisconsin city, residents are taking on a bigger challenge than repairing damaged buildings: confronting the legacy of distrust and racial inequality that many say was behind last year’s unrest there.

Today the shop – called El Buen Gusto, or The Good Taste – has reopened in a new location, thanks to help from community organizations. 

The unrest revealed for many in Kenosha the need to address long-standing concerns about racism and inequality – seen perhaps most visibly in policing and justice. By one recent report, Black men in Kenosha and surrounding counties were 50% more likely than white men to go to prison for similar crimes. 

Some activists question whether much is changing. But others see signs of hope. “That’s the optimistic part of this,” says Adelene Greene, a founding member of the Kenosha Coalition for Dismantling Racism. “The younger generation gets this more than the older generation. I was amazed at the number of white people who stood side by side with protesters.”

Ruth Serrato remembers the night her shop burned. Protests over the police shooting of a Black resident, Jacob Blake, on Aug. 23 had given way to confrontation and violence. Police used tear gas and rubber bullets against protesters, and rioters attacked the little business district where Ms. Serrato’s father, an immigrant from Mexico, had opened an ice cream shop 16 years before. She watched from home through security cameras as the smoke and flames destroyed it.

“I only cried,” says Ms. Serrato. “I couldn’t believe it.”

Today the shop – called El Buen Gusto, or The Good Taste – is back, and Ms. Serrato is smiling again. With help from community organizations and a GoFundMe page, the shop has reopened in a little shopping mall a few blocks from the old location. New equipment shipped from Mexico is again producing ice cream, fruit smoothies, and what one reviewer called “the best tacos in Kenosha.” When the doors opened in February, Ms. Serrato says, “it felt that my dad’s dream was going again.”

Why We Wrote This

In one Wisconsin city, residents are taking on a bigger challenge than repairing damaged buildings: confronting the legacy of distrust and racial inequality that many say was behind last year’s unrest there.

The reopening of El Buen Gusto and other businesses marks a step forward for a city that last summer was in shock. Protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis had come to Kenosha, as in many cities across the country. But the shooting of Mr. Blake brought home the issues of inequality and policing as never before. 

And yet as the plywood comes down and new glass goes up, residents are facing a much bigger challenge than repairing damaged buildings: how to mend their fractured community and confront the legacy of distrust and racial inequality that many say was behind last year’s unrest. 

“I think what happened is that people came to a rude awakening here about the racism that exists in this community,” says Tanya McLean, executive director of Leaders of Kenosha, a group devoted to racial justice. “We became pretty comfortable and complacent in our community, thinking that nothing like that would ever happen here, nothing like what happened to Jacob Blake could happen here. When it happened, all of a sudden the underpinnings of racism came out in the open.”

Richard Mertens
Ruth Serrato in her ice cream shop, El Buen Gusto, which relocated and reopened in February. The original shop in Uptown was destroyed, along with all its equipment, during the unrest last August.

It’s not just activists who think this way. “It did open up more eyes,” says Lou Molitor, president of the Kenosha Chamber of Commerce, of last August’s unrest. “We still have problems. But more people are working on solving our problems.”

A newly engaged community

Indeed, the events of last year have inspired both an upsurge of activism and a burst of civic introspection in Kenosha, with new organizations and new initiatives aimed at addressing systemic racial and ethnic inequality. Protests and rallies have ebbed, but in ways large and small many residents are trying to reach out to each other, take stock of the city’s shortcomings, and turn the energy and passions of last year’s protests into change.

Elizabeth Webb is one of them. She lives in a wood frame house in Uptown, not far from where El Buen Gusto burned. Since that night she’s taken part in protests and rallies, but she’s also thrown herself into a range of other activities, organizing toy and coat drives, handing out masks at rallies, and founding an organization called My Sister’s House that helps families in need. She and another activist started Kenosha Talks – a program of online conversations about topics on people’s minds, including last year’s unrest and the relationship between business owners and residents. Recently she has been helping other activists organize neighborhood cleanups.

“I’m just a mother, just a working mom,” says Ms. Webb. “I struggle just like other people here, go through the things that other people go through. When I started speaking out and reaching out to other people, I found that people were listening. They wanted to hear. They wanted to know what they could do to help.”

Kenosha is one of many small industrial cities strung like Christmas tree lights around the Great Lakes and struggling to reinvent themselves as big manufacturing disappears. At the same time, they are becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, creating still new challenges. A third of Kenosha’s residents are nonwhite, most of them Black or Hispanic. 

For many of these residents, last summer’s events have forced a reckoning that was long overdue. They say the angry reaction to the shooting of Mr. Blake – he was shot seven times in the back, leaving him partially paralyzed – sprang in part from long-standing grievances among Black residents. Those include a history of mistreatment by the Kenosha police as well as poor educational outcomes for children, a lack of economic opportunity, a shortage of affordable housing and mental health services, and a lack of diversity in city government.

An independent investigation into the Blake shooting concluded that the officer who shot Mr. Blake in the back was justified by the danger he posed to the public and to a child in particular. Mr. Blake was seeking to flee police and had a knife.

Many residents were outraged not just by the shooting but by the apparent welcome the police gave to armed right-wing militiamen who arrived in the city afterward. One of them, Kyle Rittenhouse, faces murder charges in the shooting deaths of two protesters. More recently, a court-sponsored study released in February found that Black men in Kenosha and surrounding counties are 50% more likely than white men to go to prison for similar crimes.

Richard Mertens
Elizabeth Webb and her daughter Makayla Daniels, two activists in Uptown, the area hardest hit by rioting last year. Ms. Daniels took part in protests for many days after the shooting of Jacob Blake on Aug. 23, 2020. Ms. Webb is involved in several community organizations, including Kenosha Talks, an effort to promote community conversations in the city.

Can talk lead to action?

So far, as the city struggles to regroup, some activists complain that too much of the response has been mere discussion. 

“Some of them have gotten discouraged and disgruntled with the progress,” says Adelene Greene, a founding member of the Kenosha Coalition for Dismantling Racism. “‘When are we going to stop talking? When are we going to see action?’”

But community leaders argue that conversation is laying the groundwork for change: listening, sharing experiences, changing minds. “We have to lead with our ears,” insists the Rev. Roy Peeples, the pastor of an Uptown church who was part of a series of public meetings after the unrest last fall. 

Another local pastor, the Rev. Lawrence Kirby, has been visiting local churches to speak to congregations and church staffs about the Black experience, including the history of slavery, race, and caste. He says last year’s unrest has “forced a lot of people to have conversations that were not happening.”

Steps of change

Meanwhile, local judges have participated in training on racial bias. Mr. Molitor says many businesses are considering how to increase the diversity of their workforces. At the University of Wisconsin–Parkside campus in Kenosha, historian Edward Schmitt taught a course this spring on the history of Black people in the city, a subject he says he initially knew little about and that he hopes to share with the wider community.

“It’s an article of faith I have as an historian,” he says. “If we all have an understanding of everyone’s history, where they come from, their experience and common humanity, you have a better conversation. That’s really my hope.” 

Will all this translate into political and institutional change? 

Ms. Greene says she’s been trying to encourage people to get more involved in the political process. “There’s been more of a presence at public meetings,” she says. “That’s a plus.” 

Perhaps the most ambitious undertaking in Kenosha emerged from last September’s community meetings. They led to a citywide task force involving city officials, civic leaders, and activists to examine inequalities and propose reforms across a broad range of city services and institutions. Called Kenosha Commit to Action Roadmap, it’s starting with the police department – its policies and procedures, training and recruiting, and relations with the community.

“There are more people that want to make this work than not,” says Mr. Peeples, a co-chairman of the group.

Activists say they are determined that it produce results. And yet the obstacles to reform are formidable. The Black community in Kenosha is small – only about 11% of a population of 100,000. And the city and surrounding area are sharply divided. Much of Kenosha County is deeply conservative; the county went heavily for Donald Trump in the last election. And some activists worry that the fight has gone out of people. 

 “We are not doing a half of what we could be doing,” says Makayla Daniels, Ms. Webb’s daughter, who took part in protests after the Blake shooting. “I feel they’re not taking this seriously enough, a lot of our elders.”

On the surface, it may seem that little has changed. The police chief at the time (he has since retired) made no apology for his department’s actions, such as for what seemed to many a heavy-handed reaction to the protests – and the welcome that officers seemed to give to militia members.

Still, activists and community leaders are confident they enjoy support well beyond the Black community. “There are many white allies, and young white allies,” says Ms. Greene. “That’s the optimistic part of this. The younger generation gets this more than the older generation. I was amazed at the number of white people who stood side by side with protesters.” 

Rebuilding – the right way?

The rebuilding is still unfinished. A local business group estimated total damages at $50 million, with 100 businesses damaged or destroyed. Most have been repaired and reopened, but some have not; others, like El Buen Gusto, have relocated. The costs of rebuilding have been borne mainly by private insurance, but businesses have also benefited from state grants and loans, tax abatements, and grants from community organizations. A downtown business group gave out more than $360,000.

Meanwhile, the city is already looking well beyond the repair of last year’s damage. It is pushing ahead with two big redevelopment plans that had already been in the works, a $400 million project to convert eight downtown blocks into new city offices, luxury apartments, and a performing arts center; and a $1 billion “Innovation Neighborhood” that, as envisioned, will offer opportunities for education, job training, and entrepreneurial businesses on 107 empty acres that once held a Chrysler engine plant. 

Kenosha’s mayor, John Antaramian, says these projects “will bring a sense of revitalization to parts of our city that have suffered.” And yet last year’s events have put them in a new light for many people. Kenosha County Supervisor Jerry Gulley says that “recovering and rebuilding ... cannot be done on a foundation that does not include equality and inclusion.” 

Richard Mertens
Krista Maurer at her shop, Bellissima’s Boutique, on Sixth Avenue in Kenosha’s downtown. Ms. Maurer, who is a community activist as well as a business owner, says, “We’ve come together as a community to reopen and move forward,” but she adds, “There’s still healing to be done within our Black and brown populations. Everyone has a responsibility to do that.”

“We’ve come together as a community to reopen and move forward,” says Krista Maurer, who opened her shop, Bellissima’s Boutique, in October, one of several new businesses that have relocated to the downtown. “But there’s still healing to be done within our Black and brown populations. Everyone has a responsibility to do that. It’s a long time coming.”

Recently, a group of activists gathered on a sunny cool Saturday morning at an auto repair shop for their first neighborhood cleanup. They were starting in Uptown, the center of last year’s unrest. 

“The job is to build community,” says Brandon Morris, a local basketball coach and one of the organizers. “It’s not the big things. It’s the small things. What’s something simple I can do that will have a positive impact in my neighborhood?”

Volunteers arrived singly and in groups, grabbed coffee and doughnuts, then set off down the street trailing black plastic garbage bags. On 22nd Street, two volunteers picked up litter outside a Family Dollar Store a few doors down from the boarded-up building where El Buen Gusto burned.

“It was scary to see it happen in our town, kind of shocking,” says one of them, a man who gives his name as Zach. His companion, Lynne Sparks, plucks a discarded cup from the gutter. “I do think it’s brought us together as a community,” she says.

At El Buen Gusta, Ms. Serrato says she’s angry that her shop was destroyed. “But I think the people are angry, too,” she says. She’s sympathetic to the calls for change. 

“We want justice,” Ms. Serrato says. “We want the same rights for everyone.”

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