Sunday evening prayer gathering for Sylville<span style="color: Red;">*</span>Smith, who was fatally shot by a Milwaukee police officer after he refused to drop a gun, which was loaded with 23 rounds, according to police. Mark Hoffman
Residents and others who came to Milwaukee's Sherman Park neighborhood on Aug. 14, 2016, prayed for peace then got out trash bags to clean up the mess of rioting the night before.(Photo: Michael Sears, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
MILWAUKEE —<span style="color: Red;">*</span>They gathered, hour by hour, from the break of dawn through the humid afternoon and into the evening, to see the ashes of buildings that burned in a riot over the weekend and reflect on what it means to live in the city in 2016.
Traffic backed up for blocks as hundreds, perhaps thousands, of drivers rolled slowly past a burned-out BP gas station, auto parts retailer and beauty supply store.
Others came on bike or on foot. they stood in silence, or found friends, or struck up conversations — and in some cases, arguments — with complete strangers.
Scores of people — black, white, old, young — did more than look. They walked through the Sherman Park neighborhood carrying black plastic trash bags and picking up debris from the disturbance, along with general litter, unaware that more<span style="color: Red;">*</span>protests Sunday night and into early Monday would trash the area again.
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Among them: Lucy Farris, 61, who moved to Milwaukee from Arkansas more than 40 years ago.
“I’m here because I care,” she said Sunday. “Last night when I saw this going on — the fires and the destruction — it hurts. It hurts. And I just want to repair this as much as possible.”
Farris knows the pain Sylville Smith's family feels. His<span style="color: Red;">*</span>fatal shooting by police Saturday prompted the disturbance.
Twenty-one years ago, Farris lost her son, Clifton Wallace, when the driver of a stolen car leading police on a high-speed chase slammed into a bus shelter where he and other bystanders were waiting.
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“To see lives being lost so senselessly and so violently, it’s enough to kill me,” Farris said.
She draws strength from her faith and the fellowship at her church, Parklawn Assembly of God.
“Now I can pray for the police,” she said. “I don’t want to see them get hurt. I don’t want to see anybody get hurt. I don’t want to see anybody lose a child. … And so I want to make a difference.”
A divine opportunity
Bishop Walter Harvey of Parklawn led a prayer walk to connect with residents of the Sherman Park neighborhood. Members of Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wis., and Eastbrook Church in Milwaukee joined them in a massive prayer circle to plead for peace.
Derrick Stingley, who led the prayer circle, is uncle of Corey Stingley, a teenager who died when customers held him down at a convenience store where he was accused of shoplifting in 2012.
“When I saw this going on — the fires and the destruction — it hurts. It hurts. And I just want to repair this as much as possible.”
Lucy Farris, Milwaukee
“My fear is there will be more mayhem,” Stingley said. “I’ll be back tonight to pray.”
The church-goers were welcomed, but an undercurrent of tension infused the scene. Neighborhood residents, many of them young, some of them friends or family of Smith, were still smoldering and openly grieving.
“I get the anger, but they are not articulating it in the right way,” Stingley said.
Last year Harvey helped organize a partnership of city and suburban Christian churches to address violence and poverty confronting the poor and minorities in Milwaukee. About 2 in 5 of Milwaukee's 600,000 residents are black, and almost a third of the city's residents are below the poverty line, compared with 14% statewide, Census figures show.
The partnership led to joint prayer services and regular cleanup efforts in neighborhoods near this past weekend's violence.
Now he worries hearts will harden among those who live outside the city.
“We have to be wall busters and bridge builders,” he said.
'Such a rage'
Like many others contemplating what happened, Yvette McFarland said one of the main solutions starts at home.
“Parents need to parent their kids,” she said. “Parents need to teach biblical morals and values.”
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She raised two children in the area in the 1990s before moving to Wauwatosa, Wis., about 6 miles west of the city.
“I’m just sad to see how our black community is in such a rage,” she said.
Wisconsin State Senator Lena Taylor helps light candles Aug. 14, 2016, with family members and relatives of 23-year-old Sylville Smith after a Milwaukee Police officer shot him the day before.<span style="color: Red;">*</span>(Photo: Rick Wood, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
Nearby, a pastor debated a longtime resident about the actions of those responsible for torching four buildings.
“Everyone wants to be politically correct instead of spiritually right,”<span style="color: Red;">*</span>said the Rev. Jeffery Hawkins of the Church of Living God and West Side Missionary Baptist Church. “You’re upset because police are killing black men, … and you’re saying ‘Aw, the white man is keeping me down.’ But if you don’t change your way of thinking, you’re dooming yourself. ... You’ve got too much hate. You have to overcome hate with love.”
Hawkins is a postal carrier, and the gas station that burned was the last stop on his route for 10 years. He is<span style="color: Red;">*</span>African-American and<span style="color: Red;">*</span>said his children are in college.
One of the reasons blacks in Milwaukee might not have opportunities is because they haven’t learned to read, he said.
“My wife and I sit down and read with (our kids). We have to teach them," Hawkins said.
The longtime resident, Tyrone Joiner, responded: “So you’re saying it’s my own fault? You don’t feel the pain and hurt because it ain’t your children. …
"God called you to win souls, not to point fingers and judge," he said. "We are always going to be that little cockroach. Violence is not the answer, but when will the issues be addressed?”
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Racial tension in 1967, mostly over fair housing, made Milwaukee one of scores of cities across the USA where riots erupted. Around midnight July 30<span style="color: Red;">*</span>— 49 years ago<span style="color: Red;">*</span>—<span style="color: Red;">*</span>a fight escalated after police responded and people started throwing rocks at their cars. By the time peace was restored about a week later,<span style="color: Red;">*</span>four had died, 100 were hurt and 1,740 were arrested.
Joiner, 51, said he had gotten into trouble when he was younger, reformed himself, and had a decent-paying construction job for a long time in the 1990s. He quit when his supervisor — “Mikey Man, a little white dude” — refused to stop calling him the N-word and referred to him and his brother as Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum.
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He said he tries to steer clear of police.
“I don’t trust them," he said. "I tell my kids to come inside if I see police in the neighborhood. I’m afraid they are going to kill one of them.”
As for the black pastors in the community trying to get him to change his thinking: “Money grubbers,” he called them.
He wasn’t the only one to say that Sunday.
Quiton Fletcher, a 38-year-old who moved to the area from Chicago about 11 years ago, said many of the pastors talk a good game but don’t spend time on the streets.
After joining hands and praying for peace, residents of Milwaukee's Sherman Park neighborhood took plastic bags and clean up gear to pick up debris from the area where a BP gas station was burned Aug. 13, 2016.<span style="color: Red;">*</span>(Photo: Michael Sears, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
“They’re deal brokers,” Fletcher said. “They come in and tell us to calm down. They’re too scared to talk to these young boys.”
Fletcher said people are afraid of black youth because of how they dress and what they look like. The kids are emboldened by that fear and because their own parents are too afraid to discipline them.
Fletcher and another man he met at the scene — Shawnn Tatum, a 39-year-old who grew up in the Sherman Park neighborhood<span style="color: Red;">*</span>— talked about how their mothers, grandmothers and the whole community kept them under control when they were younger.
“My grandmother would have whipped my butt,” Fletcher said, if he had gotten into any kind of trouble.
Tatum said he played basketball every day at Sherman Park when he was a kid. The lack of community centers and disappearance of basketball hoops and programs in the parks leaves kids with too much time and too little supervision.
Ceasar Stinson, a 44-year old who grew up in the Sherman Park area, jumped in the conversation. He said the violence and reaction to the killing — regardless of the circumstances surrounding the shooting — are symptoms of deeper issues and historical white supremacy.
“There’s a historical hatred and fear of African-American men,” he said. “Police have it. We have it. … We have a fear and hatred for one another.”
Good in the world
Nate Hamilton, whose brother<span style="color: Red;">*</span>Dontre Hamilton was the victim of a highly controversial police shooting in 2014, said as much as he condemns the violence, it may serve to highlight the despair many in the city face.
“This community has nothing. It’s a neglected community," he said. "To burn down something, to them, it meant, 'Do you hear us now?’ ”
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Dorothy Wells, who was working cleanup with Farris, said a way to heal not just what’s going on in the community, but “what is going on inside us” is essential.
“A lot of us are lost,” Wells said. “A lot of us have given up. A lot of us don’t believe, not only in self but in God.”
Lucy Farris of Parklawn Assembly of God church helped Aug. 14, 2016, with cleanup in Milwaukee's Sherman Park neighborhood after rioting overnight.<span style="color: Red;">*</span>(Photo: Rick Romell, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
Wells, who is African-American, said she hated what happened Saturday, and that everyone should be accountable for what they do.
“And when it comes to the police killing men, or a black human being, let’s start with not killing one another,” she said. “It starts at home. It starts at home. It starts at home. And we need to stop blaming and start looking at ourselves — what is it I can be doing.”
Not far from where she talked, Billy Ross Jr. pulled weeds from the cracks in the concrete outside his parents’ home.<span style="color: Red;">*</span>Saturday night, Ross got a call from his 70-year-old mother, Daisy, who was alone at home. Ross’ father is in the hospital.
“She was scared,” Ross, 49, said. “She was laying on the floor” after hearing gunshots.
Ross immediately drove over to take his mother to his house for the night. Then he was back the next day in the neighborhood where he was raised <span style="color: Red;">*</span>— his parents have owned the house since 1979 — sweeping and talking to friends.
Seeing the bank his parents use vandalized, along with other neighborhood businesses, was painful.
“For me, it was for no reason,” Ross said. “But when people are frustrated and they get pushed to a point where they’re boiling, you never know what’s going to happen.”
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Six businesses were burned Saturday night. Three were destroyed — a gas station, auto parts shop and liquor store<span style="color: Red;">*</span>—<span style="color: Red;">*</span>and three suffered heavy damage.
Ross’ father, who came to Milwaukee from Arkansas after finishing high school, worked at Briggs & Stratton Corp., the small-engine manufacturer, for more than 30 years. Ross’ mother worked at retailer J.C. Penney.
“For me, it was for no reason. But when people are frustrated and they get pushed to a point where they’re boiling, you never know what’s going to happen.”
Billy Ross Jr., Milwaukee
Both enjoyed the benefits of Milwaukee’s heyday as an industrial powerhouse. The city's population peaked in the 1960 census at more than 741,000 and has declined about 20% since then as the number of residents in the<span style="color: Red;">*</span>four-county metro area increased by 23% in the same period.
Ross said his parents would talk about how, in the 1960s in Milwaukee, you could “quit a job and find another job across the street.”
“And now if you lose a job, your unemployment will wear out before you find another job," he said. "And then the jobs you do find, it’s just not enough — $9 an hour, $8.50 an hour. You can’t feed kids and take care of a family and rent in the city of Milwaukee with that kind of job.”
Amid the economic and social woes besetting black Milwaukee, though, Ross also sees hope.
“The good thing is that to get up early in the morning, a Sunday morning, and watch so many people come out to help out, just to help out because it’s the right thing to do," he said. "It proves not just to this community, (but) to the city, to the world, that we have more good in this world than we have bad. We just tend to focus on the bad.”
Follow<span style="color: Red;">*</span>Rick Romell, Raquel Rutledge and Dave Umhoefer on Twitter:<span style="color: Red;">*</span>@RickRomell,<span style="color: Red;">*</span>@RaquelRutledge<span style="color: Red;">*</span>and<span style="color: Red;">*</span>@GovWatcher
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