MILWAUKEE — The scars of the violence that erupted in a Milwaukee neighborhood after a police officer killed a 23-year-old black man remain visible nearly a year later, reminders of how little things have changed.
A few blocks from where Sylville Smith was fatally shot Aug. 13, the gas station that protesters torched is still closed, surrounded by chain-link fence to protect the damaged gas pumps that are the only things left. The BMO Harris bank branch that went up in flames hasn’t reopened either, nor has the O’Reilly Auto Parts store that was also burned.
Jurors on Wednesday acquitted Dominique Heaggan-Brown — the latest recent case where a jury cleared a police officer in a black man’s death. But unlike those cases, the now-former officer charged in Smith’s death is also black and, like Smith, from the Sherman Park neighborhood where the shooting and rioting occurred.
While some residents reacted angrily to the verdict, others simply expressed resignation, both about the outcome and about feeling forgotten by government officials and the media.
“When a black person kill a black person out here, there ain’t no riots,” said Jeff Vaughn, 56, who owns Vaughn Sweet Shop, a corner store in Sherman Park. “But as soon as a police officer kills one of us, oh damn! It’s OK for us to kill each other, but as soon as the police kill someone, oh damn!”
The vast majority of black residents who make up 40 percent of Milwaukee’s 600,000 population are concentrated in north side neighborhoods — including Sherman Park — which are some of the poorest and most crime-ridden in the city.
Just over half of the city’s 131 homicides last year happened in two police districts with majority black neighborhoods, including District 7, which covers Sherman Park.
In parts of the neighborhood a quarter of residents live below the poverty level and that figure is as high as 47.5 percent in areas of the north side, according to 2015 census estimates.
It wasn’t always that way. The north side of Milwaukee was once home to a thriving black middle class in the 1970s when manufacturing was strong, with companies such as A.O. Smith Corporation, which made car frames, and Cutler-Hammer, which made electrical components.
But as those companies closed and other sectors of the economy suffered, unemployment soared and the neighborhood went into decline. The riots after Smith’s death were partly the result of long-simmering frustration and hopelessness over unemployment and economic disparities, community leaders have said.
“Those levels of frustration have been pent up and that was just the spark that ignited that event,” said Fred Royal, president of the Milwaukee NAACP.
Smith was killed after running from a traffic stop holding a gun. After a brief foot chase, Heaggan-Brown, 25, shot him in the arm as he appeared to be throwing away his gun and again in the chest after he fell. Prosecutors argued Smith was defenseless when Heaggan-Brown shot him the second time, but the former officer’s defense attorneys maintained he had to make a split-second decision when confronted by an armed man.
Some residents upset over the verdict have a different opinion on what happened to Smith than that of the jury, which included four black people.
“He killed that boy just for running from the police,” said Angela Daniels, who lives across the street from the site of the shooting.
Cecil Brewer, another Sherman Park resident, said Heaggan-Brown was justified in shooting Smith because he had a gun. But he also lamented that black people need to learn to interact differently with police.
“We have to train our children to talk to police differently than white people have to train their children about talking to police,” said Brewer, 68.
Brewer said he was concerned there would be a repeat of the riots last year, but hours after the acquittal a group of black community activists went to Sherman Park to express support for Smith’s family and to say that the chaos of last summer didn’t represent everyone. They also criticized the media, saying they only appear when bad things happen.
“We don’t want to just see you during periods like this,” said Jamaal Smith, 36. “We want to see you when great efforts are going on in this community.”
After last year’s riots, in which a police car and eight businesses were torched, Gov. Scott Walker’s administration devoted $4.5 million to bring a “mobile response” unit to Sherman Park and other neighborhoods to help job seekers find employment and access other services. Milwaukee officials also launched a plan to entice developers to renovate vacant, city-owned homes in Sherman Park by selling the properties to contractors a $1.
“The city must continue with the momentum that we created,” Alderman Khalif Rainey said in a statement Thursday. “We’ve lost, we’ve grieved and now we must rebuild. Rebuild hope, rebuild infrastructure, rebuild peace and bring healing and unity to our great city.”
But residents remain skeptical that the government-led initiatives are accomplishing anything.
“You ain’t going to find no job here in Milwaukee,” said Tony Owens, a 36-year-old man who was at Vaughn’s store on Thursday. Owens said he’s having trouble finding a job despite having a good work history and no criminal record. “It’s a shame. You’re going to have to resort to the streets to pay your bills.”
Vaughn was similarly unconvinced that the government programs are making a difference.
“These people out here are selling drugs,” he said. “You think there’s enough proof they’re doing any damn thing in the neighborhood?”