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.
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