ABOVE PHOTO: Jacob Blake’s father, Jacob Blake Sr. talks to a crowd at a rally Saturday, Aug. 29, 2020, in Kenosha, Wis. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
By Jennifer Peltz and Russell Contreras
KENOSHA, Wis. — A Black man, accosted by police on a domestic dispute call, is left with bullet wounds in his back that will likely keep him from ever walking again. A white 17-year-old, rifle in hand, strolls past authorities untouched amid cries that he just gunned down three people protesting the Black man’s shooting. Two moments of bloodshed, two days and 2 miles apart in Kenosha, Wisconsin. And in those two moments, this mid-sized Midwestern city seemed a stark microcosm of a nation wracked by discord over racial inequity, policing and the meaning of public safety.
The chain of events that began Aug. 23 with Jacob Blake’s shooting has become a disputed X-ray of a divided society — a black-and-white picture where some see racial injustice that proves the urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement, while others see rioting that spurred a teenager to try to defend a community against chaos.
But to many in Kenosha — who took stock of a convulsive week ahead of President Donald Trump’s planned visit Tuesday — it’s not as simple as that.
As people here navigate barricaded streets, boarded-up windows and their own place along some of the deepest fault lines cleaving the U.S., there are many more than two perspectives on what happened, what it means and the way forward.
“I WANTED HIM TO SEE THIS PLACE”
Charles Stevenson pulled up to a quiet, green block 150 miles from his Green Bay home. There was something he wanted to show his 9-year-old son.
“See that apartment over there? No. 4? That’s where I grew up,” Stevenson said. He turned around, putting a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “And this is where they shot him.”
Both looked at the ground and fell silent.
“I wanted him to see this place to understand the problems we face in this world,” Stevenson said later.
It was the spot where Blake, 29, was shot in the back and paralyzed by Officer Rusten Sheskey, who grabbed Blake’s shirt as he leaned into an SUV. Inside were Blake’s children, ages 8, 5 and 3.
Taking on a coach’s tone, Stevenson, 47, who works in construction, told his son: This is what they do to us. This is what can happen. You have to be prepared, like I’ve been telling you.
Around the corner, Tireece Anderson said the shooting hadn’t surprised him. Police don’t get along with Black residents like him, said Anderson, a 32-year-old warehouse worker who’s had his own encounters with the criminal justice system and with police he says wrongly targeted and were unduly harsh with him.
At the same time, he said, Black residents need safety and police as much as anyone else — especially after the shooting and the unrest and violence that followed, as rumors ricocheted around town that people were heading to Kenosha to cause more mayhem.
“We don’t know what to believe,” said Anderson’s girlfriend, Rose Cavin, 30, who is white.
“Or who to trust,” Anderson added.
“HE JUST SHOT THEM!”
A couple of miles from the place where Blake was shot, gunfire erupted again two nights later. This time, according to police, the shots came from the rifle of Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old from a nearby Illinois town.
Buildings had been torched and businesses vandalized in Kenosha as protests flared the previous night. A former member of a police cadet program, Rittenhouse told the conservative news outlet the Daily Caller that he was there to guard a business and to help if people got hurt, bringing a first-aid kit along with his rifle.
He would end up killing two people, Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber, and wounding a third, Gaige Grosskreutz, in a series of encounters that snowballed after Rosenbaum threw a plastic bag at Rittenhouse, according to a court complaint.
After the gunfire, with his AR-15-style rifle over his shoulder and his hands in the air, Rittenhouse walked toward police vehicles that kept going past him, even as a witness shouted, “He just shot them!” Police Chief Daniel Miskinis has explained the response as officers dealing with a chaotic scene.
Rittenhouse, a sometime lifeguard, later turned himself in, his lawyers said, and is now jailed on homicide charges. While prosecutors call his conduct criminal, his lawyers say he defended himself against a mob trying to disarm and hurt him. They and other supporters portray him as a hero who stood up to lawlessness.
“He is a brave, patriotic, compassionate, law-abiding American who loves his country and his community. He did nothing wrong,” said one of his lawyers, John Pierce.
Meanwhile, Huber’s girlfriend helped plan the 26-year-old’s funeral and ran over what-ifs in her mind. He had shepherded her into an alley, she said, before running after Rittenhouse when Rosenbaum was shot.
“He knew the potential consequences of his actions, and he was prepared to die so that other people wouldn’t,” said the woman, Hannah Gittings. “That’s a hero.”
“THIS IS DIFFERENT”
Set along Lake Michigan between Chicago and Milwaukee, Kenosha is to some extent a demographic slice of the U.S.
Its 100,000 residents are 80% white, 12% Black, and 18% Hispanic (an ethnicity that can include any race) — somewhat but not overwhelmingly whiter than the country as a whole, census figures show. The median household income of about $54,000 is about 10% below the national median. Trump won Kenosha County over Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016 by about 250 votes.
A former auto-manufacturing hub, the city has grown in recent decades, with an Amazon distribution center and the planned Foxconn electronics factory nearby providing new opportunities. Condos and museums have been built on one lakefront site that had been devoted to manufacturing.
But residents are still quick to say Kenosha has a small-town feel, and many have been stunned to see their heartland city stricken by a level of conflict they had been watching from afar this summer, in cities from Minneapolis to New York to Portland, Oregon.
“I’ve been the mayor for a long, long time. But this isn’t what I’m used to,” said John Antaramian, a Democrat who returned to office in 2016 after serving from 1992 to 2008. “This is different.”
“THERE’S TWO JUSTICE SYSTEMS”
“There’s two justice systems. There’s one for that white boy … and then there is a justice system for mine,” Blake’s father, Jacob Blake Sr., told a diverse crowd of about 1,000 people at a rally last Saturday.
“Racism is the system,” he added to reporters later.
Blake’s family and police representatives dispute much of what happened. State investigators say it began with a call from a woman who said her boyfriend wasn’t supposed to be there. A police union said Blake fought with officers, refused to drop a knife and didn’t respond when they stun-gunned him twice. His family’s lawyer, Ben Crump, said Blake was just trying to break up an argument, didn’t provoke police and wasn’t seen with a knife. State investigators have said only that officers saw a knife on the car floor.
Blake’s family has called for attempted homicide charges against Sheskey and the firings of two other officers involved in the encounter.
Lying in his Milwaukee hospital bed this week, Blake clutched his father’s hand and asked, “Why did they shoot me seven times?” the elder Blake told the rally.
“I said, ‘Baby, they weren’t supposed to shoot you at all.’”
“THE POLICE ARE THE GOOD PEOPLE”
The morning after the rally for Blake, a far smaller group gathered in the same plaza to send a different message: “Back the Blue.”
To these demonstrators, most of them white, what had happened in their city was a travesty of destruction and criminality that was able to unfold under the cover of protest.
“The police are the good people. They should be left to do their jobs,” Amy Busick said.
She and her partner, Dustin Bose, live close to the center of the protests and the fires earlier in the week. The two said they had spent nights on their porch with their guns loaded, feeling they needed to protect their home and family, including a 5-year-old child and a disabled 19-year-old.
They don’t fault Rittenhouse; he was defending himself, they say: “I think the kid’s a patriot,” said Bose, 40, who works in a metal fabrication shop. The white couple expressed some misgivings about the shooting of Blake, particularly seven times, but they also noted that police said he was resisting them. Bose has been in trouble with the law himself, but he says the consequences were “my doing.”
The two don’t see Blake’s shooting as a function of race.
“I know racism exists,” said Bose, whose stepfather is Black. “I support what people are trying to be out here protesting, but at the same time, I also support law and order.”
“People need to understand it’s not Black against white,” added Busick, 41, a restaurant server. “It’s good against evil. Period.”
“THE AMERICAN PROBLEM”
After George Floyd’s May 25 death at the hands of Minneapolis police ignited protests around the country, Isaac Wallner urged his hometown Kenosha police to start conversations with Black residents to avoid possible unrest later.
“But they didn’t,” said Wallner, a Black truck driver, an activist and an aspiring police officer himself.
“I want to tell the officers, ‘My goal is to be one of you … well, not you, but a better you,’” says Wallner, 30.
That goal stands though Wallner says he’s had his own share of run-ins with officers and sometimes feels targeted because he’s Black.
But never, he says, has systemic racism felt so stark as during the recent protests.
At points, Kenosha County Sheriff’s deputies fired pepper balls at protesters — including Wallner as he provided medical aid to demonstrators, he said — and arrested some for breaking curfew. Yet authorities in an armored vehicle were recorded tossing bottled water to a group of armed civilians, Rittenhouse among them, and thanking them for being there.
“We appreciate you guys. We really do,” said an unidentified voice from the vehicle. Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth later said the remark “doesn’t mirror all of law enforcement’s perspective on what happened.”
Still, “if that doesn’t scream the American problem,” Wallner says, “I don’t know what does.”
“I CAN SEE WHY RACE IS BEING THROWN INTO THAT”
Looking out on Kenosha’s prized lakefront, James White and his girlfriend dissected the events that have shaken their hometown.
“You have a Black man who’s been shot, innocent. You have a white man that’s shooting people … and then walking past the police,” said White, 18. “I can see why race is being thrown into that.”
The soon-to-be college freshman, who is Black, sees his hometown as a friendly place where people forge connections with others. Still, he supports the protests.
But he’s galled by the fires and window-smashing that he — like many others here — sees as people from out of town “destroying our city”; police say 58% of the 175 people arrested from Aug. 24 through midday Sunday had out-of-town addresses.
One night White was at a friend’s house, listening to police scanner traffic about an approaching crowd, and they got worried enough to turn out the lights and sit in silence. Word had gone around that a crowd was out to attack white people’s homes in the friend’s racially mixed neighborhood, he says.
“They say, at least because (Blake) got shot by a white man, that white people are the problem,” says White, who doesn’t see absolutes. His girlfriend is white.
“I DON’T FEEL LIKE YOU HAVE TO TAKE AN EXTREME SIDE”
On a sticky afternoon, Lisa Pugh and two other moms she’d just met painted some of the many murals that have sprung up on plywood-girded shop windows around Kenosha.
“Love heals,” the women wrote, their children helping where they could reach. “Stay strong.” “Tolerance.”
To Pugh, it was a way to do something positive to respond to the city’s pain, to show the kids that people could come together. The violence, the vandalism, all of it, had brought her to tears the day before. She sees residents channeling anger into peaceful protests, “and they should be,” she said. But the destruction broke her heart.
She’s seen online commenters ask: How can you be upset about that? Doesn’t fighting for people’s lives matter more than things?
“I don’t feel like you have to take an extreme one side or the other,” said Pugh, 32, a white graphic designer. “You can be mad about people dying and about your community burning down.” For all the hopeful murals, more trenchant messages were written on Kenosha walls, too. Graffiti on a downtown school declared that police “helped the murderer escape” and asked: “How many more have to die?”
It was removed.
“WE NEED A UNITED FRONT, FOR A UNITED CAUSE”
It was a long week for John and Patricia Baldwin.
For days they stayed in their cellphone store nearly all night, John carrying his long gun, to guard the place as vandals hit neighboring shops. Finally, reassured by Wednesday’s announcement of an increased National Guard influx, the exhausted couple went home for a night. Sometime that night, the glass door was broken and some phones were taken. Tears welled in John’s eyes the next morning as he looked at the store he managed to buy 15 years ago, two years after a knock on the door of a soon-to-open cellphone shop turned into a job, promotions and an ownership opportunity for a man with no college education.
“What would make you think that tearing up my store is going to benefit the cause?” wondered John, who is Black. “We’re fighting for the same reasons, and we shouldn’t be the victim.”
Nevertheless, the Baldwins joined the peaceful protests this week, balancing their frustration against their own experiences of racial inequity. They sensed that the moment demanded taking it on.
“If we don’t try now, we’ll never know,” John said. “This nation feels so broken right now.”
It needs law and order, he says, but it also needs police officers who do the right thing and treat people fairly. It needs new laws to ensure they do.
And most of all, “we need change. We need a united front, for a united cause, for a united nation,” he said.
“One nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.”