Sherman Park shows strength, resolve despite often-hopeless circumstances

Evan Goyke, who lives in Sherman Park and represents the area in the Assembly, says the neighborhood’s real character was missing in the media frenzy over the recent riots there following an officer-involved shooting.

“Sherman Park is an incredibly strong, diverse neighborhood,” Goyke says. “It’s not an epicenter of crime in Wisconsin.”

During his campaigns, Goyke has walked the neighborhood door to door and found it to be “a wonderful place.” On any given day, he says, the local Boys and Girls Club and the park are bustling with healthy youth and family activities.

Despite overwhelming challenges, the people of Sherman Park have maintained a strong sense of community. Following the Aug. 13 riots, local faith communities organized cleanup efforts that drew hundreds of volunteers, including Goyke and his wife, to sweep and pick up debris left over from the fires and vandalism.

Mayor Tom Barrett and Police Chief Edward Flynn credited church groups and “many others” for staging peaceful demonstrations, prayers and vigils the next morning.

Those people set a tone, they said, that eased unrest on the second night after the shooting.

“There is a story that needs to be told about how the community responded and how everyday people went through their doorsteps to go be a part of prayer and a part of healing,” Goyke says. “It was really powerful to be there. That gives me hope and faith.”

Flynn blamed outside agitators, particularly the Chicago chapter of the Revolutionary Communist Party, for upending what had begun as a peaceful protest the afternoon after the shooting death of 23-year-old Sylville K. Smith during a brief armed standoff with a police officer. Smith’s family members say the victim and the officer, both African-Americans, knew each other from high school.

Nearly 40 percent of Milwaukee’s 600,000 residents are black, and they are heavily concentrated in North Side neighborhoods like Sherman Park, where manufacturing jobs that paid middle-class, union wages once proliferated. But those jobs and the ripple effect that they had on the local economy — the mom–and-pop retailers who thrived by providing goods and services to the working community — are gone now.

Indeed, African-American neighborhoods in Milwaukee have endured decades of unconscionable neglect from state and local leaders. The result: struggling and closed schools, underfunded infrastructure and a failure to address the chronic lack of jobs, transportation, affordable housing and health care.

The attitude of the state’s Republican leadership has been offensive. They write off inner-city areas as Democratic strongholds not politically worth their attention. Then they exploit the problems that arise from poverty to divide the electorate. In effect, those leaders fail to ameliorate the hopelessness that fuels violence in such neighborhoods, only to hold up the black people who live there as bogeymen who will overrun white suburbia unless Republicans remain in charge. We saw precisely that sort of rhetoric in both of Scott Walker’s campaigns against Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.

Donald Trump is only the latest Republican to use that dog whistle. In a rally on Aug. 16 in West Bend — the black population of which is 1.2 percent — Trump told his almost all-white audience about Milwaukee’s “so many problems, so many problems.” Message received, apparently: As reported by the Journal Sentinel, “People up here don’t really care about what’s going on in Milwaukee,” said Jared Gagnon-Palick of West Bend. “I grew up in Milwaukee, and I moved here to get away from all the crime with three little kids.”

In addition to scorn, indifference and outright fear, black inner-city neighborhoods throughout America have suffered decades of unrelenting harassment and assault from the law enforcement officers hired to protect them. It wasn’t until the advent of smartphones with video cameras that white America got a real picture of the indignities our African-American compatriots have endured.

Police target people of color with traffic stops and aggressive arrests, often for infractions that most whites could talk their way out of. Just ask your black friends about the reality of “DWB” — driving while black.

To add insult to injury, the court system’s modus operandi seems to be: the darker the complexion, the harsher the punishment.

Officials have only made the situation worse by foreclosing on homeowners who are behind in their property taxes, leaving swaths of vacant houses boarded up. Those foreclosures come on top of the homes lost in the area in the foreclosure crisis of the Great Recession.

The stately houses and trim lawns that once made Sherman Park a desirable place to live are only remembered now by older Milwaukeeans. More violence will deter others from investing in and participating in the community.

Milwaukee was beset by protests and calls for police reform after an officer shot and killed Dontre Hamilton, a mentally ill black man, in 2014. We were surprised that the powder keg didn’t ignite then in Milwaukee, as it did in so many other U.S. cities. How much worse might it be here the next time?

The recent outpouring of anguish and rage must serve as a wake-up call telling our leaders that inequality and injustice are not only morally wrong but also dangerous and destructive. Milwaukee’s future is not secure until the scourge of racism and economic hopelessness loosens its grip.

We hope that our state’s GOP leadership and Milwaukee’s elected officials and top businesspeople saw the flames of despair rising from Sherman Park on Aug. 13 and act decisively. Disentangling the many overlapping problems we face will not be easy. It will require multidimensional strategies, fierce commitment and creative thinking. We all will have a role to play.

And it will take time, which is something we can no longer afford to waste.