Late on Tuesday night, two people were killed and another injured after shots were fired at a gas station near 63rd St. and Sheridan Rd., according to a Kenosha police report. The spot had become a tense gathering spot for protesters and a group of armed men who told The New York Times they were protecting the property.
— Kenosha Police Dept. (@KenoshaPolice) August 26, 2020
Kenosha police said in addition to the two fatalities, a third person was transported to the hospital with “non life threatening injuries.”
Eruptions of civil unrest and clashes with riot-clad, militarized law enforcement have left the city of Kenosha scarred. Marchers have gathered over the last several days to protest the shooting of 29-year-old Jacob Blake by Kenosha officers on Sunday, Aug. 23. Blake was shot several times getting into his vehicle, with his children reportedly watching from inside the car.
The exact circumstances of the Blake shooting are also currently under investigation by the Wisconsin Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI). Blake survived, although he sits in a local hospital paralyzed by his injuries, according to his father. Meanwhile, the streets of Kenosha have been flooded by the bodies and voices of hundreds of people. From longtime Kenosha residents to seasoned activists from Milwaukee to people who’ve traveled from out of state.
“I’ve been here since I was about five,” 26-year-old Stephanie Hunt told Wisconsin Examiner. “Since I was little I’ve seen them [Kenosha law enforcement] screwing up left and right, you know? There have been times in my life where they have been helpful, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t racism and improper training.” Other residents who either participated in the march, or watched as the crowd passed their homes, shared similar sentiments.
“I think it’s wonderful,” said 49-year-old Lisa Cole, as she watched the march go past, speaking of this current era of protest. “It’s so overdue for a change. I think police officers need a lot more schooling, and a lot more training.”
Both Hunt and Cole were shocked and disturbed by the video of Blake’s shooting, which went viral shortly after hitting the web Monday. “We can’t stand for this,” said Hunt. “It’s been like, half good [and] half bad. And now it’s tilting towards what the rest of the world is going through. They [Kenosha police] screwed up real bad this time.” After seeing the video Cole said, “it was wrong,” she told Wisconsin Examiner. “They could’ve done other things. I think it was handled wrongly. I know it’s easy to say if we’re not in their shoes, on both sides. But I think things could’ve been handled differently for sure.”
Even after the burning and rioting on August 23, neither of them had changed their view of the Black Lives Matter movement. “Destruction does not fix destruction,” said Cole. “In any way, never has, never will. And I think that I can’t even fathom the pain, the anger, the experiences that so many have had. I can’t fathom that. But at the same time it just doesn’t fix anything. It makes it worse, and it makes everybody look bad. So that could’ve been handled differently too.”
Hunt also felt that the phenomenon of rioting and destruction is more complex than it appears. “It was terrifying and I understand that people are angry. Completely understand that. I don’t agree with busting up small businesses and other things like that but I do definitely agree with the movement. But it was terrifying to watch, I was just praying for everybody’s safety. I hope that the city and the world learns that this is not going to be tolerated and voices are going to be heard. Now.”
Civil unrest on a Sunday night
The same day Blake was shot, activists were already discussing what next steps should be taken. Omar Flores, 26 years old and an organizer with the Milwaukee Alliance Against Racial and Political Oppression (MAARPO), noted that getting any protest off the ground is difficult. Our Wisconsin Revolution, a social justice group, took the lead in organizing the first marches.
“I would say these past few days, in terms of trying to organize, has been pretty chaotic,” said Flores. “Anybody that seems to try to put their hands on things, and try to put things in a sort of direction just seems to kind of peel off into its own thing. So, it’s been an impossibility trying to provide any kind of leadership or direction.”
Part of the issue is a lack of pre-existing grassroots organizations in the Kenosha area. Another, however, is what Flores describes as a “power vacuum” which is created by sudden uprisings. “There’s sort of this power vacuum and a lot of people that have been sitting on their hands are kind of jumping into action. And, at that point, it’s just kind of like the people with the most experience, or the most name recognition, or just by pure luck and opportunity end up just taking things from there on out.”
Flores, who grew up in the Kenosha area before moving to Milwaukee, recalled attempting to set up a network of activists for over three years without success. And although some more experienced protest and activist groups have brought brief organization to Kenosha’s marches, the demonstrations have proved too large and unpredictable.
He watched as the situation devolved through the day, and into the late nighttime hours on August 23. “People seemed to be very engaged with the police and there was a lot of back and fourth between KPD [Kenosha Police Department] and the protesters,” said Flores. “Eventually there were police cars being smashed up, tires slashed. Some kind of, like, fireball that had exploded in the middle of the crowd. It got to a point where people were basically driving the police out. They had totally fallen back. People were literally chasing the police down like 10 blocks.”
More and more the crowds swelled in size, with attempts by law enforcement to contain their advance proving ineffective. Fire works went off and people screamed anger and frustration at the police. Officers pushed the crowd back where they could, launched tear gas, but the situation kept deteriorating. “Before we knew it we got out into the street that’s right next to the PD and right next to the court house, and we saw the dump trucks that were being used to block off the streets were being set on fire.”
Flores recalled people dispersed at around 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning. “I’m trying to remember what else happened that night, it just all happened so fast,” Flores told Wisconsin Examiner. He rejects opinions among some locals that the presence of Milwaukee protesters made the situation worse. “The People’s Revolution had come down with like, 10 or 12 fire extinguishers. And they were taking out the fires on the dump trucks,” said Flores.
“It’s just so much going on at once, at every moment something new was happening. I’ve never felt anything like that in my life. I was there at the 2016 Milwaukee uprising and I mean, what happened in Kenosha was much more chaotic in my eyes.”
Protests, clashes and burning on Monday
As part of a march hosted by Our Wisconsin Revolution, hundreds of people gathered at 900 57th Street, a small park where the prior night’s demonstrations occurred in the shadow of Kenosha’s City Hall. A small group of riot police stood around the steps of the Municipal Building, watching as the protest group allowed speakers to dialogue with the crowd.
Every street entrance around the park had been blocked off by concrete barricades or city dump trucks. Several of the trucks had been set ablaze and sat as charred, soot-covered metal husks in the street. Kenosha County Sheriffs had used a similar strategy to block off the highway exits leading up to the area’s enforced 8 p.m. curfew. Drivers who wanted to enter the city from the highway were forced to head toward the Illinois border and take side roads home.
Businesses along the marchers’ path had been boarded up. Some of the plywood boards had Black Lives Matter signs. Numerous residents came out to show support for the march as it made its way into neighborhood streets.
Brendan Holt, a Milwaukee organizer with Our Wisconsin Revolution, said it was important to take a stand in Kenosha after the shooting. Holt helped organize the march with Kenosha-based activists. “What do you think justifies the killing of an unarmed man?” Holt asked. “You’re there and you can’t subdue and unarmed man?”
Milwaukee County Supervisor Ryan Clancy, who had just finished serving as a legal observer at the march, was more concerned about the actions of law enforcement than locals. “I think it took the City of Milwaukee and the Milwaukee County Sheriff a while to come to the realization that if they don’t show up in force, that there was no problem for the vast majority of protests. I hope Kenosha has learned from that, and that they let this protest continue unabated. Everything I’ve seen tonight suggests it will be peaceful if that happens.”
A local resident attempted to drive through the crowd but stopped. The car eventually backed up and returned the way it came. Protesters from the People’s Revolution faction in Milwaukee arrived. For the rest of the march, the People’s Revolution incorporated its own protest formula, and brought a greater sense of order to the demonstration. When marchers returned to the park, however, law enforcement were waiting for them.
Next came hours of clashes, as more police arrived in armored vehicles and on foot. They held a line outside City Hall, and eventually shot tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters whenever they got too close. Some in the crowd threw glass and plastic bottles at the officers and launched fireworks at the police, while others formed shield walls with umbrellas.
Medics were on the scene, tending to people who had been tear-gassed or sustained shots from rubber bullets. Several armed militia members stood by as well, calmly advising that they were there in case the police fired real bullets. The men, who wouldn’t identify themselves, wore tactical gear and claimed prior military experience. They said they were prepared to shoot back at police who fired on citizens.
But on Wednesday morning, after the shooting of several protesters, Kenosha police said they were looking for a man with a long gun. Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth told The New York Times police are investigating a confrontation between protestors and a group of armed men who said they were on the scene to help protect property.
“I’ve had people saying, ‘Why don’t you deputize citizens?'” Beth told the Times. “This is why you don’t deputize citizens with guns to protect Kenosha.”
In other areas, buildings were set ablaze.
“My mom was fighting the same fight in 1968,” 27-year-old Joseph Emerson told Wisconsin Examiner, “and we’re still fighting the same fight in 2020.” Emerson proudly stated, “I believe in anarchy. I believe that people will take care of the people, and the people know what’s right.” Emerson’s message for people outside Kenosha and Wisconsin was: The police are “a threat to the people. We the people need to stick together. Because if we don’t stick together they will defeat us.”
On Monday, the Wisconsin National Guard arrived in Kenosha to help quell the unrest. But protests continued on Tuesday night and turned lethal.
Editor’s note: this piece was updated on Wednesday morning to reflect the news of the shootings Tuesday night in Kenosha.