When Sharina Smith arrived back home in Sherman Park, Milwaukee, on Wednesday after a decade living out of state, some things had changed irreversibly. Her 23-year-old cousin, Sylville Smith, was dead. Killed by a city police officer last Saturday after he ran from a traffic stop and allegedly pointed a gun. The gas station close to the family’s daily vigils was now a pile of rubble and ash, burned in the riots that followed Smith’s death.
But of the many things in the neighbourhood that had remained constant, Smith spoke about one in particular: the crippling poverty.
“It hasn’t gotten any better. It hasn’t changed. People are outraged because of it. They get no attention, no help,” Smith, 32, said. “That’s why people were out on the those streets. My cousin’s death was one more thing.”
In this overwhelmingly African American neighbourhood, in one of America’s most racially segregated cities, more than 43% of residents live in poverty. The schools here are worse off. The employment prospects more bleak. Public transport is lacking. Rent is going up. This summer tensions between local young people and police simmered following a spate of minor clashes inside the 20-acre park, which sits in the centre of the neighbourhood. Smith’s death proved to be the event that tipped some people over the edge.
“It used to be different,” said state assemblyman David Bowen, a 29-year-old African American who has lived in the neighbourhood his entire life. He strolled along the neatly kept grass and pointed to the prime housing stock, built during the industrial boom years of the 1920s, which faces inwards towards the park. Once owner occupied, these units are now mostly rented and many are in a state of disrepair.
“Decades ago it was the norm to make enough that you weren’t thinking about whether to buy your food or pay your rent.”
Like many major cities in the US, including Detroit, Pittsburgh and Buffalo, Milwaukee saw an ascendancy through a manufacturing boom in the mid-20th century, followed by a sharp slump accompanied by urban decay. In the wake of globalization, domestic competition and industrial automation, these cities have experienced high crime rates, high unemployment and increased drug addiction.
The Sherman Park neighbourhood was once celebrated as a standout success within Milwaukee during the 1970s for its racial integration and multicultural community-building.
African Americans who had moved into the area among tens of thousands driven to Milwaukee to escape the south’s racist violence mixed among the existing Irish-Catholic, German-Lutheran and Jewish communities. Problems persisted; life was by no means perfect. But things felt better than in other neighbourhoods nearby.
Sherman Park’s school district stood alone within the city by opposing racial segregation and busing while Milwaukee fought to preserve it in the face of a federal court order in 1976, according to Paul Geenen, a former long-time resident and local historian. Mixed-race soccer teams and block parties were effective threads tying the community together. But now the public schools in Milwaukee are almost as segregated as they were five decades ago.
“We were respectable. It was mixed, white and black, we all got along together. I had black and white classmates at school,” said 61-year-old Geoffrey Pugh, an African American who was born in the neighbourhood and spent decades here before moving away in the 1980s only to return four years ago. “We’ve got a lost generation now. Babies raising babies.”
Two key developments in more recent decades radically altered the neighbourhood’s course, according to Geenen.
One was the sharp decline in local manufacturing industries that had provided steady employment for a racially diverse blue-collar population, including for many black men. Between 1979 and 1984 Milwaukee lost 50,000 jobs – more than it did during the Great Depression.
Most prominent was Allis-Chalmers, a heavy machinery manufacturer with roots in Milwaukee reaching back into the mid-19th century. The firm employed 20,000 people at its peak but collapsed in the mid-1980s amid rapidly rising international competition and corporate missteps.
“In the 1970s, if you were African American, the realtors might not have been friendly, but you could afford a home in Sherman Park and you could raise a family,” said Geenen. “That isn’t true today: those jobs are just gone.”
Pugh, now retired, worked for decades at a General Motors factory two miles from the neighbourhood before it too closed down.
The other change was a rise in violent crime and drug use – also seen in several other US cities into the 1980s – and an accompanying influx of guns, as white families abandoned the neighbourhood. “Previously kids would fight, we had bikes stolen, people had baseball bats,” said Geenen. “But nobody got shot.”
The day before Smith’s death last Saturday, five gun related homicides occurred across the city within a nine hour period. Wisconsin now incarcerates African American men of working age at the highest rate in America – one in eight has spent time in prison. In 2010 researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee found that two-thirds of incarcerated black Milwaukee county residents came from just six zip codes, two of which were in Sherman Park.
‘We’re just trying to grieve’
On the vacant plot of land next to the park, members of the Smith family were selling snacks to raise funds for legal and funeral costs. The park itself was encircled in plastic red mesh fencing and has been closed from 6pm every evening, drawing the ire of many local residents. The order was made by the controversial Milwaukee County sheriff David Clarke, a close ally of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. Clarke, who is black, recently described the Black Lives Matter movement as a national security threat on the same level as terrorist organisations, including Isis.
As dusk fell on Wednesday, the Democratic Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett arrived in a large SUV and attempted to offer members of the Smith family condolences. Only one agreed to shake the mayor’s hand and Barrett left within minutes of arriving.
The circumstances surrounding Sylville Smith’s death remain unclear. Police maintain that the 23-year-old, who had an extensive criminal record, pointed a semi-automatic handgun at a black officer before he was shot dead. But family members say he was not armed at the time he was killed and that the officer, who has been named in unconfirmed reports, had known Smith since high school. They allege the pair may have previously been involved in a romantic dispute. Body camera footage of the incident has not been released.
At least one man in America seemed certain he knew already what had occurred. Donald Trump visited Milwaukee on Tuesday and told Fox News: “The gun was pointed at his (a police officer’s) head, supposedly ready to be fired. Who can have a problem with that? That’s what the narrative is.
“Maybe it’s not true. If it is true, people shouldn’t be rioting.”
At a rally on Tuesday evening, 20 miles from Milwaukee in the white majority town of West Bend, Trump sought to capitalise on the unrest in a direct plea to black voters.
“The main victims of these riots are law-abiding African American citizens living in these neighbourhoods,” Trump said, vowing to restore law and order to poor communities by increasing police presence.
Sharina Smith was appalled.
“I don’t want everyone to keep throwing Sylville’s name into all these different acts of violence and things that’s going on. We are just trying to grieve.”
Bowen, the state representative, couldn’t help but see the irony:
“The same individuals that champion the policies of cutting and cutting and cutting resources to these communities come back and say, ‘now that you are in turmoil, and you’re oppressed, we want to fix this problem. People can see through the hypocrisy.
“If you don’t hold law enforcement agencies accountable to treat communities with respect and dignity, essentially what you’re saying is that you should be allowed to be mistreated and we will continue to criminalise your community.”
Matthew Desmond, a Harvard sociologist and author of Evicted, an acclaimed study of poverty and the housing crisis in Milwaukee, said other recent fatal police shootings of African Americans in the city, such as Dontre Hamilton, an unarmed mentally ill man who was killed in 2014, have added to tensions.
“These events are really critical and embed themselves in the collective memory of the people of northern Milwaukee,” he said.
Hamilton’s mother, Maria, has spent the past days counselling the Smith family: “It kills me over and over again, each time another one of these shootings happen,” she said.
At the same time, Desmond specifically points to a chronic underfunding of federal housing assistance programs that has made it harder for people to escape the poverty they fall into. A majority of poor families who rent are spending half of their income or more on housing costs, he said, while one in four are spending 70%.
According to Desmond, the resulting waves of eviction in the city and turnover of residents have eaten away at communities and left chaos where there may once have been cohesion.
“We know that when neighbours work together they can really make a difference,” he said. “But we’ve allowed a situation where neighbours will remain strangers because there’s so much instability. It has serious consequences.”
An informal community alliance had been patrolling Sherman Park since mid-June, after local youths reported that police officers had been moving them out of the park, and making occasional arrests without cause. The disturbances gradually got worse and led to clashes with riot police in July and vandalism of local businesses. Last month a store attendant at the gas station that was targeted over the weekend riots fired shots at a group of youths he claimed had been harassing him.
The founder of these informal patrols, 29-year-old Vauhn Mayes, argued that the juveniles involved simply had nowhere else to go in the evenings. The initiative, funded entirely by community donations, started evening cookouts and activity groups. Mayes said that for many of the youths who attended, it was their only chance to eat a proper meal.
“We’re waking up to a problem that has been simmering for a long time,” said Desmond. “And it is now boiling over.”