Kenosha community members reflect on 2020 unrest

Questions, trauma and vision linger two years after the Blake police shooting and the uprising that followed

By: - August 29, 2022 6:45 am
Kenosha County courthouse. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Kenosha County courthouse. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Two years after the unrest that followed the shooting of Jacob Blake, a sense of mournful angst loomed thick in the Kenosha’s Civic Park Wednesday evening as a modest gathering of community members assembled to unpack those few chaotic nights. The evening was one of reflection, but also refusal to allow Kenosha’s uprising to be exploited and forgotten.

Other than those who had gathered for the event, Civic Park was empty of people. Organized by Black Leaders Organizing Communities (BLOC), For Our Future Wisconsin, and Leaders of Kenosha (LOK), the event revisited the unrest on the ground where  it occurred, on a night when Civic Park was filled with crowds of protesters confronted by National Guard soldiers, riot police, and the federal agencies assisting them.

Kyle Johnson of BLOC (left) and Kyle Flood of For our Future Wisconsin (middle) stand with other community members in Civic Park, two years after the Kenosha uprising. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Kyle Johnson of BLOC (left) and Kyle Flood of For Our Future Wisconsin (center) stand with other community members in Civic Park, two years after the Kenosha uprising. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

A cacophony of screaming and the explosions of firework mortars blanketed the park that August night. Protesters were met with air-burst flash bangs, rubber bullets or pepper balls every time the police riot line was approached. Sound cannons and police sirens drowned out other noise. An acrid paint-like odor from the gas filled the air, followed by the sounds of gagging, coughing and crying. People called for medics or tried with varying success to move others to safety. The regular, yet unpredictable ricochet of rubber bullets left some afraid to move — yet, staying in one place also seemed unwise. Fires burned around and the late evening hours offered no signs of de-escalation.

That was the day after Blake was shot, and the day before armed militia groups descended on Kenosha. But while these evenings caught international attention, they were not the first days of protest.

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Kenosha’s protests began immediately after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 and persisted throughout that summer. The idea that they exploded suddenly is a misconception resented by many who gathered in the park Wednesday evening.

Kenosha County Supervisor John Franco, one of the evening’s speakers, alluded to Republican campaign messaging that “Gov. Tony Evers let Kenosha burn” and poked holes in that narrative. The claim is “a politically motivated talking point exploiting what happened in the summer of 2020 in order to undermine the campaign of Gov. Evers,” Franco said.

At a National Guard public briefing to the county board on Sept. 8, 2020, the guard’s adjutant general outlined the Kenosha mobilization. “The governor does not unilaterally call out the National Guard unless local law enforcement requests it,” Franco stressed. That request, sent shortly after 3 a.m. on Aug. 24, was granted by the governor’s office within minutes. From there, National Guard members needed to be mobilized from around the state and travel to Kenosha.

Investigations by the Wisconsin Examiner also found that local authorities told federal U.S. Marshals that the protests “had not reached the point of needing law enforcement response outside of local Kenosha County law enforcement agencies and surrounding counties.” The U.S. Marshal communication confirmed that “in the early morning hours of Aug. 24, the protests devolved into a riot situation and the Kenosha Police Department requested our assistance.”

Evers also requested the assistance of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and there was a National Guard “quick strike force that arrived within 12 hours,” explained Franco. With only one National Guard battalion, about 500 soldiers, trained as military police for riot control missions, more troops couldn’t be requested, he said. Those facts haven’t prevented the Republican candidate for governor, Tim Michels, and other GOP figures from blaming Evers.

Kenosha County Supervisor John Franco. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Kenosha County Supervisor John Franco. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Other speakers Wednesday evening included Rep. David Bowen (D-Milwaukee), who witnessed many of the events in Kenosha, as well as Jacob Blake Sr., along with  members of BLOC, LOK, and For Our Future.

Hannah Gittings, whose partner, Anthony Huber, was killed by then-17-year old Kyle Rittenhouse, was also in attendance Wednesday evening. Huber was filmed hitting Rittenhouse with a skateboard shortly after the teen shot and killed Joseph Rosenbaum.

The apparently easy-going closeness law enforcement personnel had with the armed militias  haunts residents. Police communications show that the police saw the militias, rallied by former Kenosha alder Kevin Matthewson on the “Kenosha Guard” Facebook page, as friendly. Local authorities also were aware of reports of militia slashing the car tires of protesters half an hour before the Rittenhouse shooting. Rittenhouse was filmed in a group that was offered water and thanks by police in an armored vehicle.

Hannah Gittings, partner of Anthony Huber. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Hannah Gittings, partner of Anthony Huber. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Like many attached to the events of Aug. 25, 2020, Gittings has faced harassment and death threats by supporters of Rittenhouse. Gittings recalled how police pushed protesters down the street that night, and feels it’s no coincidence that, “they pushed us right into the arms of the militia.” Many others who were in the crowd that night also have said they felt police herded protesters toward the militia.

Struggling to hold back tears, Gittings recalled Huber’s kind and helpful nature. “Anthony loved this city,” she said. “He really loved this city.”

Lingering traumas, questions and motivation

The Wisconsin Examiner was invited to join a private community dialogue after the public Civic Park event. There, participants shared their sense that national and international media along with politicians have all exploited Kenosha’s trauma.

“I feel like the media was only here to get their good shots of the buildings burning and people protesting, and then they got out,” said Devynn Johnson, a volunteer at the Grace Welcome Center food pantry who  also helped organize  medic teams during the unrest. “Because they wanted to spin their image of Kenosha to make people think it was something else than it really was.”

Devynn Johnson (right) sits beside Kyle Flood. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Devynn Johnson (right) sits beside Kyle Flood. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

The nights of unrest in late August were sensationalized, said Kyle Johnson, a member of Kenosha BLOC. He contrasted the attention surrounding those events with what happened after the Blake shooting was ruled justified in January 2021 and after the acquittal of Rittenhouse in November 2021: “Nothing,” Johnson said.

“We had some healing, we had some great conversations,” he continued. “Not a building was burned, not a window was smashed. And, lo and behold, we didn’t see Fox News, we didn’t see CNN, we didn’t see MSNBC, with their cameras asking, ‘Hey how did you guys get this done? How did you make sure that what happened in August of 2020 didn’t happen during the trial?’”

For Kenosha residents, a broader historical context also got lost in the noise. Dayvin Hallmon, who served on Kenosha’s county board for 10 years, warned colleagues for years that ignoring problems with the police and the needs of minority communities would one day trigger unrest. Hallmon “knew that Kenosha was the perfect recipe for this to happen,” said Devynn Johnson. “And we all kind of felt like that, that Kenosha was being built up to this.”

An example of a challenge coin distributed within the Kenosha Police Department following the unrest in August, 2020. (Photo | Kenosha Police Department)
An example of a challenge coin distributed within the Kenosha Police Department following the unrest in August, 2020. (Photo | Kenosha Police Department)

Sensationalization and over-simplification of the narrative around Kenosha has clouded how people perceive the community. Kyle Johnson said he’s met numerous conservatives in the community who, contrary to popular assumption, don’t agree with the outcome of the Rittenhouse trial.

“For the most part, a lot of people are coming together to figure out how we can prevent the taco spot from burning down ever again, or the theater,” Kyle Johnson said, referring to buildings that had been torched in the unrest. “Those are the conversations we are having here.”

Many wonder who caused most of the destruction, noted Dionisse Molila, a Kenosha resident of 15 years who works at the Grace Welcome Center. Molila and others in the conversation said they didn’t recognize local residents among the people destroying property.

People who traveled from Washington, Oregon, and California were among those charged in the unrest. Three men charged with arson last year and subsequently convicted  traveled from Minnesota. Many of those arrested, however, were  people from the surrounding area. They included people ticketed for being out past curfew, as well as activists seemingly targeted for arrest.

Dionisse Molila (right) joins other community members in Kenosha for a discussion on the uprising two years before. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Dionisse Molila (right) joins other community members in Kenosha for a discussion on the uprising two years before. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Stranger things, often scarcely reported, occurred during and after the nights of unrest. Residents talked of seeing large pallets of bricks being mysteriously left around town. There were rumors of informants hiding among the protesters and livestreamers. Molila, Flood and others told of one man who seemed particularly “gung-ho” to organize people, recommending they mark their clothing with tape. Activists from other states later told them to not trust the man, and that he’d been linked to several arrests of protesters. Everyone in the room felt they were also placed under surveillance.

An example of a challenge coin distributed within the Kenosha Police Department following the unrest in August, 2020. (Photo | Kenosha Police Department)
An example of a challenge coin distributed within the Kenosha Police Department following the unrest in August, 2020. (Photo | Kenosha Police Department)

Tanya McLean, executive director of LOK, recalled her phone acting up — forced reboots, text messages that didn’t reach their destination, and echoes, static or clicking during calls. Kyle Johnson pointed at Flood — “I still can’t receive his texts,” he said. “It was just a really scary time,” said McLean.

Devynn Johnson and Flood also recalled a friend who was arrested for curfew being monitored by undercover police. “When she got back out of jail there was an unmarked squad just parked there,” said Flood. “And just stayed there. Also her door was unlocked. … She was very scared.” At night, Johnson and Flood heard footsteps in their apartment’s hallway, creeping around their door. “There were nights when we couldn’t sleep at our house and we stayed with friends because we were so scared, because our old house was easy to break into,” Johnson said. Many protesters in Milwaukee had similar experiences. “The unmarked [police cars] are more concerning,” said Flood. “It’s when we can’t tell who they are, it gets weird.”

Jacob Blake Sr., sitting in the group, said he had the same experiences of being monitored. Blake told Wisconsin Examiner that during the Trump administration, the FBI appeared to not take seriously the death threats he received. Yet, he remains suspicious of the FBI under President Joe Biden. Blake was also arrested this past July, during protests in Akron, Ohio following the killing of Jayland Walker. The 25-year-old was shot over 50 times as he fled officers. “I’ve been to the White House three times,” said Blake. “If you’re not changing laws, then you’re not changing the circumstances.”

People look on at the clash between police and protesters in Kenosha on August 24, 2020. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
People look on at the clash between police and protesters in Kenosha on August 24, 2020. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

For the Kenosha residents who had gathered this evening to return to those nights in 2020,  other questions continue to linger. They wonder which officer gave the order to push protesters down the street towards the armed groups. “I want to know why police were handing water bottles to militia, but telling protesters to go home,” said Devynn Johnson. Kyle Johnson wonders how much money was actually spent by law enforcement. “We have a lot of rhetoric about the investigations into the 2020 election, why are there not investigations into the local government’s response to this?” he  asked. “How much money could we have invested in our communities? Easily millions.”

Lurking in the background is a prospect of gentrification of areas affected by the unrest two years ago. Two months after the unrest, a $400 million downtown redevelopment project was announced. The project will include two 11-story towers, luxury apartments, condos, entertainment venues, a gallery for the museum and more. “They’re knocking down housing in Uptown,” said McLean, who also has been getting reports of residents being harassed and other signs of people being pushed out. It’s for that reason that McLean detests the slogan “Kenosha Strong,” which has been used since the unrest. For her, the stark disparity between the support received by the downtown area and that of the Uptown community, despite the close proximity of the two neighborhoods, is impossible to ignore.

Kenosha law enforcement form up with riot shields, long rifles, and armored vehicles. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Kenosha law enforcement form up with riot shields, long rifles, and armored vehicles during unrest in the city in August 2020 after the police shooting of Jacob Blake. (Isiah Holmes | Wisconsin Examiner)

Memories are haunting. During the unrest, Devynn Johnson was organizing medic teams when he tended to someone whose eye had been shot out by a rubber bullet. “I held their eye in my hand,” said Johnson, now crying. “I want to know why the police think it’s okay to use those weapons that do that to people. I held someone’s eye in my hand, and I want to know why they think it’s OK.”

Flood offered a final question, directed at the Kenosha history museum. “Why isn’t there a single effort going into preserving the history of what happened,” he asked. “Why are they trying to erase that this even happened?”

Moving forward

Through everything that’s happened, Kenosha’s activist community has continued to evolve. Before 2020, McLean and others told Wisconsin Examiner, the area didn’t have much of a grassroots network. Since then, groups have come into being, condensed and reformed. Flood, who’s been a local activist for a decade, said participation ebbs and flows.

Tanya McLean (left) sits beside Jacob Blake Sr. (middle)/ (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Tanya McLean (left) sits beside Jacob Blake Sr. (center) and Kyle Flood. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

“I think there appears to be less energy than there was in 2020 because there’s fewer people coming out and doing stuff,” said Flood. “I think that’s a big mix of trauma, and the energy’s not there because people are tired and people are exhausted.” While marches may attract slim numbers from time to time, more people appear to be speaking out at local government meetings, he said. “We’re starting to move into a new phase.”

Yet, the necessity of the work remains evident even two years later. “For LOK, that’s why voter registration is so important,” said Ness. “Because it’s happening. The people on the other side who hate us, who have demonized us, who would paint us as violent — they’re fired up and they’re using that tool.”

Erica Ness (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Erica Ness (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Michels and other Republican politicians visited Kenosha for the anniversary of the unrest, where Michels received the endorsement of Kenosha’s police union. On the anniversary of Blake’s shooting, he stood with a group of officers including Pablo Torres, who shot two people 10 days apart in 2015, one of them fatally.

Some in the community see the police union as politically powerful with sway over the city’s budget, and they are troubled. Still, grassroots organizations remain steadfast, and now prefer working in small collectives rather than massive groups, or exhausting resources with daily protests. To some, Kenosha has just been seen as a political tool, said Kyle Johnson. But to members of the community, the city is much more.

“The people that actually want to make progress are looking forward,” said Johnson. “We’re talking about what we can do to bring solutions, to make people’s lives better, to heal people, to reimagine how we approach community building.”

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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Holmes' video work dates back to his high school days at Wauwatosa East High, when he made a documentary about the local police department. Since then, his writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets. He was also featured in the 2018 documentary The Chase Key, and was the recipient of the Sierra Club Great Waters Group 2021 Environmental Hero of the Year award. The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council also awarded Holmes its 2021-2022 Media Openness Award for using the open records laws for investigative journalism. Holmes was also a finalist in the 2021 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards alongside the rest of the Wisconsin Examiner's staff. The Silver, or second place, award for Best Online Coverage of News was awarded to Holmes and his colleague Henry Redman for an investigative series into how police responded to the civil unrest and protests in Kenosha during 2020. Holmes was also awarded the Press Club's Silver (second-place) award for Public Service Journalism for articles focusing on police surveillance in Wisconsin.

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