Listening session on race and equity in Tosa is mass catharsis for residents

Hundreds came out to speak at the event, most felt something is awry in the suburb

Protesters gather for the listening session at Hart Park. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Protesters gather for the listening session at Hart Park. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

Over four hours of catharsis followed the 6:30 p.m. kick-off of a public listening session on race and equity issues in Wauwatosa (Tosa), held on July 21. Hundreds of residents from Tosa, Milwaukee County and even from other areas of the state flowed into the football stadiums at Hart Park, chosen for the session to allow space for social distancing. One by one, they lined up to the microphone to air grievances, or waited for their chance to speak over Zoom.

One of the first people to speak was Tracy Cole, the mother of 17-year-old Alvin Cole, shot by Tosa officer Joseph Mensah in February. “This department is corrupt,” she said to a table of city officials including alders, members of the ad hoc commission on inclusion and equity and Mayor Dennis McBride. “If you want your community to get back in order, you need to give us what we need. All you need to do is sacrifice that sheep and that’s Joseph Mensah.”

Protesters have been pounding the streets in Wauwatosa for over a month. In recent weeks, marchers have also taken to non-violently shutting down specific businesses, chanting at city meetings and conducting other forms of non-violent disruption within the suburb. Khalil Coleman, a lead organizer within a faction of the Milwaukee movement, has said at a city meeting, “It’s no longer business as usual here in the city of Wauwatosa.”

Many of the speakers talked specifically about Officer Mensah, who’s been the subject of controversy in the city. Since being hired at Tosa PD in 2015, Mensah has been involved in three fatal shootings. In 2015, he was involved in the shooting of 28-year-old Antonio Gonzalez, who was killed at his home by Mensah when he refused to drop one of the swords he collected.

Less than a year later, Mensah shot 25-year-old Jay Anderson Jr., who was sleeping in his car when Mensah pulled up. Mensah claimed Anderson repeatedly reached for a gun, which was removed from the car by responding officers without first taking pictures for evidence. Finally, in February, Mensah shot Cole after a foot chase involving several officers.

“I’m really pleased that everybody came out,” Deja Vishny, one of the lawyers representing the Cole, Anderson and Gonzalez families, told Wisconsin Examiner “There were really a substantial number of Wauwatosa residents who are clearly not happy with having Joseph Mensah on the force, who made it very clear that they are concerned about the leadership in the community and the police chief. There were a lot of Black residents of Wauwatosa who personally addressed being stopped by the police and being racially profiled, and other African Americans residents who may live in other cities but work in this community, and have been pulled over a lot.”

Vishny presented statistics compiled by her by the team of lawyers. “In 2017,” she said, “71% of the people stopped for a traffic violation in the city of Wauwatosa were Black. This in a city that is over 86% White, where the Black population is estimated at no more than 8%. These are real numbers. We have the raw data, and anybody who wants it can contact us at Motley Legal.”

Many of the speakers, both people of color and white residents, spoke to having personally witnessed what they feel is racial profiling by police. An elderly woman with a shaky voice who spoke over Zoom, said she’d been a resident of Wauwatosa for 50 years, and had witnessed the same things. Others spoke to the lack of minority leadership among city officials, within the suburb’s schools and others equity issues. Wauwatosa recently hired its first Black high school principal, and Mayor McBride has said other efforts are being made to increase minority representation throughout city government.

Some white residents even apologized for having learned more about equity issues over the last few months than they had over their entire lives. Others went deeper into the suburb’s history, from the bigoted black-face Martin Luther King Day parties held by Tosa officers in the late 80’s, to the housing covenants barring Black home ownership in decades past, to modern examples of racial tension which continue to haunt Wauwatosa.

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Many minority residents who spoke admitted that they have never felt welcome in Tosa, neither by the police nor by other members of the community. The fact that the session was held in Hart Park, which became the epicenter of a teen-focused crackdown by Tosa PD from 2012-2014, added to the atmosphere.

John Larry, a resident and protester who was appointed to a recently formed ad hoc committee to address systemic racism in the city, was happy about the session. “I definitely has been a long-time coming,” Larry told Wisconsin Examiner. “And I hope that this is just the scratch of the surface in dealing with race issues in the city of Wauwatosa.”

Not everyone shared the sentiment. Although few in number, some residents spoke in support of the police, or pushed back against the notion that Wauwatosa is a place with racial problems. One described Black Lives Matter as a “Marxist” organization. Others implored the protesters to not forget the “good cops” who do not commit misconduct or brutalize people. A few used the fact that Mensah is Black to discount the notion of racial issues within WPD. Others accused Common Council members of turning on a minority officer and giving in to mob rule after they called for Mensah’s employment at WPD to end. Their representation among the total number of those who spoke, however, seemed sparse. Most of those who took these positions spoke over Zoom, with only a few braving an in-person statement.

The minutes of a February 2015 Wauwatosa Police and Fire Commission (PFC) meeting document references to a meeting Chief Barry Weber had with citizens at a speaking engagement. The event was at Bethel Church, for a dialogue called “Save Our Sons.”

“The subject was interactions with police officers,” the minutes state. “It is felt that many inner-city minorities are stopped for no reason and they want to know what to do when this happens. He recommended that even if they were stopped for no reason, listen to what the officer is saying and cooperate. The issue can be worked out at a later date, but the important thing is to cooperate so as to not make the situation worse.” It makes no mention of Weber bringing these concerns from the community to his officers.

State representatives and Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) also called in over Zoom to address the listening session. Taylor noted that she has attempted to work with past Wauwatosa mayors to tackle race and equity issues in Wauwatosa, from complaints made by minority residents to education issues. She described, however, a uniform lack of interest from those past officials, and offered herself to newly elected Mayor McBride as a resource going forward. Rep. Lakeshia Myers (D-Milwaukee) also called in to confront the issue.

Rep Lakeshia Myers (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Rep Lakeshia Myers (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

Myers noted that whether it was accepting its first Black resident or its first Black students, Wauwatosa has been forced to change in the past. “And guess what?” said  Myers, “Wauwatosa survived.” She declared, “it is our duty as elected officials to act … We cannot shirk responsibility, or hide behind empty rhetoric. This is at the local level, the county level and also at the state level. Change is on the horizon in Wauwatosa, just like it’s on the horizon across this country. It’s time for us all to do the work, or move out of the way.”

Myers also called out Chief Weber who, she noted, is also a non-voting member of the Equity and Inclusion Commission. Stating that Weber’s attendance to the commission he sits on has been just 60% of the time. Myers said, “That speaks volumes when it comes to issues of equity and inclusion in the city of Wauwatosa.”

Vishny also criticized the Weber’s reluctance to equip his force with body cameras. Currently, the city is working on fast-tracking a body camera program for all Tosa officers. The issue of body cameras, however, has been debated within the city for at last half a decade. One of the main arguments against implementing the program in the past has been budget concerns.

The lawyer also decried early statements by Weber, in which Cole was described as firing a gun at officers. Vishny and her colleague, Kimberly Motley, have asserted that emerging evidence shows that Cole’s gun discharged when he dropped it as told to by officers. The round grazed the 17-year-old’s arm, which was the shot Weber said was  directed at police, thus compelling Mensah to fire.

“I think it’s really important that people know that,” said Vishny, “because this narrative that Alvin Cole was shooting at a police officer is not accurate.” Vishny also said that Motley Legal is in the process of conducting investigations into the WPD’s most recent arrests. “We are working with a lot of sources,” she said. “We’re getting information from a lot of different people.”

More listening sessions are likely to come. After more than four hours, during which protesters lambasted the Common Council and the few pro-police speakers, McBride told Wisconsin Examiner that he felt that the night, which allowed residents to speak their minds and express their sense of urgency on a matter that has consumed the community, was a mission accomplished.