National Guard on standby in Milwaukee following riots in Sherman Park

Louis Weisberg, Staff writer

The National Guard  has been put on standby to assist the Milwaukee Police Department — if needed — after protests last night turned violent in the city’s Sherman Park neighborhood, said Mayor Tom Barrett during a news conference this afternoon.

Barrett said Gov. Scott Walker decided to call for federal assistance after consulting with him by telephone; but the decision on whether to deploy the National Guard would be made by MPD Chief Edward Flynn, who is monitoring the situation.

Barrett said he’d never seen anything in Milwaukee like the melee that broke out yesterday near North 35th Street and West Burleigh, where several businesses — including a BMO Harris Bank branch, a beauty supply company and O’Reilly Auto Parts stores — were set on fire.

“Last night was unlike anything I have ever seen in my adult life in this city. I hope I never see it again,” said the mayor, who was visibly shaken.

The riotous situation was sparked by the fatal police shooting of a man yesterday. He was running from police after his car was stopped due to what MPD called “suspicious” behavior.

As many as 800 protesters clashed with police officers for several hours last night before police were able to bring the situation under control. Four officers were injured during the standoff with the crowd, and some media outlets reported that shots were fired by protesters at the police. Barrett and other officials said the riot was fueled by calls for action on social media.

Milwaukee has avoided eruptions of violence following police shootings of unarmed black men in the city and elsewhere over the past two years. City officials expressed disappointment about yesterday’s tragic events.

According to some officials, recent years have seen progress in the predominantly black Sherman Park area. Several dozen volunteers associated with the Coalition for Justice assisted the city this morning with cleaning up the rubble left from last night’s riots, according to The Associated Press

At this afternoon’s news conference, Flynn identified the man killed as 23-year-old Sylville K. Smith, who has a “lengthy arrest record,” according to police. Barrett said that a still image pulled from a video of the shooting recorded by body camera shows “without question” that Smith had a gun in his hand when he was shot. Barrett said the video is part of a vigorous state investigation of the shooting.

Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel promised today that the state’s Department of Justice would quickly to come to a conclusion about whether there’s any criminal culpability in Smith’s death. Unlike similar high-profile shootings, in this case both Smith and the officer who shot him are African American.

Police said the semi-automatic gun that Smith was carrying was stolen in Waukesha.

It remains unclear whether Smith was threatening police or just seeking to elude them at the time he was shot. Barrett said a thorough examination of the footage taken from the officer’s body camera is underway to assess exactly how the killing unfolded.

Both the victim and the officer who shot him are black.

U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore was among the leaders who’ve called for peace tonight on Milwaukee’s streets.

“As details continue to emerge about this shooting, I ask our community to remain calm and recommit to doing everything in our collective power to live up to our nation’s promise of ‘justice for all.’ Together, Milwaukee will weather this storm,” Moore said in a press statement.

“I share the frustration of my constituents who feel they live in a city where justice is only afforded to some and not all. I also share the frustration of our local police officers who are desperately trying to uphold public safety in what they perceive as a caustic climate. We must find a way to strike a balance where we can peacefully point out the racial inequities in our society while recognizing the valuable role police play in our community.

Moore and others called on leaders to address the social issues beneath incidents such as Saturday’s.

“We simply cannot close our eyes to the hostile environment cultivated by the flagrant racial inequality and segregation that has plagued Milwaukee for generations,” Moore said.

Many people — public officials, religious leaders and ordinary citizens — weighed in about yesterday’s shooting on social media.

Milwaukee Ald. Khalif Rainey posted a statement last night that was shared by many on Facebook today.

“The city has watched this particular neighborhood (Sherman Park), throughout the entire summer, be a powder keg. From incidents in the park, to shootings, this entire community has witnessed how Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has become the worst place to live for African Americans in the entire country. Now this is the warning cry,” Rainey wrote.

“Where do we go as a community from here? Do we continue with the inequity, the injustice, the unemployment, the under-education that creates these byproducts that we see this evening? Do we continue that?

“Something has to be done here in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to address these issues. The black people of Milwaukee are tired of living under oppression. This is their existence. This is their life, and the lives of their children.

What happened tonight was not right, I am not justifying that. But no one can deny the fact that there are racial problems here that have to be rectified.”