2016 Rewind: Riots explode in Sherman Park

Louis Weisberg, Staff writer

In 2015, police shootings of unarmed black men prompted fiery clashes and riots in several cities. But, despite similar high-profile killings in Wisconsin, the state managed to avoid the kind of violent riots that erupted elsewhere.

That changed in 2016. In mid-August, about 800 protesters clashed with police in Milwaukee’s Sherman Park neighborhood over the shooting of 23-year-old Sylville K. Smith following a traffic stop. Both Smith and the officer who killed him were young African-Americans.

At least four officers were injured and several businesses near North 35th Street and West Burleigh were torched.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who visited the Sherman Park area in an effort to calm tensions, said the scene “was unlike anything I have ever seen in my adult life in this city. I hope I never see it again.”

Peace did not return to the area for several days.

Smith was carrying a gun at the time of the shooting, and Officer Dominique Heaggan-Brown was not charged with his killing, but he was arrested two months later and charged with rape. The male victim claimed that the officer, while he was off-duty, assaulted him after the two men watched coverage of the riots on television together at a bar.

Another twist in the story was that Smith and Heaggan-Brown knew each other from high school.

The riot drew an initial wave of attention to the problems of poverty, violence and homelessness in the area. It also resulted in the discovery that Gov. Scott Walker’s Wisconsin Economic Development Agency had lied about creating 483 jobs in the neighborhood. An investigation by Citizen Action of Wisconsin revealed that the companies named do not actually exist there.

More Rewind of 2016 stories:

2016 Rewind: Divisive Milwaukee politics

2016 Rewind: Another deadly year for Milwaukee

2016 Rewind: U.S. court overturns Wisconsin legislative maps

2016 Rewind: Another challenging environmental year for Wisconsin

2016 Rewind: Another year, another WEDC scandal

2016 Rewind: The stand at Standing Rock

2016 Rewind: More black lives lost

2016 Rewind: Tragedy at Pulse, but love overcomes hate

2016 Rewind: North Carolina’s ‘bathroom bill’

2016 Rewind: Record number of insured Americans under Obamacare

2016 Rewind: Dreams deferred, deportations threatened

2016 Rewind: High court win for abortion rights in high stakes year