Milwaukee Feels Like a Police State


Police-SwatWhen I Was a Kid in Sherman Park, There Were Problems With Police. Now It Feels Like a Police State.

By Jarrett English

When I was a kid living in the Milwaukee neighborhood of Sherman Park in the early 90s, things were different.

The neighborhood was one of the most diverse places in the city. My brother and I played with the lawyer’s kids across the street, and we swung on the swing of the photographer next door while he cleaned his classic Excalibur. The East Indian kids living opposite us were some of my best friends growing up. Their dad was a bank examiner and their mother was my brother’s English teacher. We hung out with the Latino family two doors down after their daughter Elizabeth’s Quinceanera. There were a few police officers’ families per block in the old neighborhood and a few judges and an alderman too. Most of them were Black.

I have good memories of the people and that street. The community was diverse and connected. But you could see it coming.

Even when things seemed good, there were problems with the police. I distinctly remember my brother telling my mother and me about his friend who had gotten picked up and beaten by the cops. I asked him, “What did he do?” My brother simply said in his matter of fact way: “Nothing.” As a kid I wasn’t really aware of such things. Looking back, it’s all too clear.

Milwaukee has always been block to block, Grant and Sherman being relatively stable and the surrounding streets a little less so and so on. Now when I drive through the neighborhood, that stability is there on one street and completely gone on another. Many big, formerly beautiful homes sit empty and foreclosed; the businesses up and down the major streets sit even emptier. Most of those police officers, lawyers, and alderman don’t live in Sherman Park anymore, and the industrial largess that sustained so many in the city’s manufacturing heyday is long gone.

Sherman Park was the epitome of a stable, largely Black neighborhood. Now it has been turned into something resembling a police state. The neighborhood is divided between the 3rd and 7th Police Districts, which according to their own reports make the most stops and use the most force of any district in the city. As one local internal affairs officer told me over the phone a few years back when I complained about being profiled, “Wouldn’t you stop a Black guy standing at a bus stop at six in the morning?” I hung up in disgust.

The sight of families going on walks together in the summer has been replaced by multiple cop squads stopping grandmothers driving beat up minivans and teenagers getting their first cars torn apart and searched by police. The bowling alleys are gone. The Boys and Girls Club in Sherman Park now closes at 5pm — before most kids can get there. The ice cream trucks have been replaced by police in unmarked squad cars who the community calls “the jump out boys.” They rough up random kids, search them (often without permission), and jump back in and drive away as if nothing happened. I met a kid who gets stopped by the police multiple times every single week. He’s not an exception. Police harassment of young Black men in Milwaukee is the rule.

Sylville Smith’s shooting death by police in Sherman Park has revealed to the world a larger crisis that has been growing in Milwaukee for the past 20 years. An out-of-control train about to hit the end of the line.

For the people who live in Sherman Park, it was always there. They’re livid that there seems to be no police accountability when Black men are shot down in the street under suspicious circumstances. They’re right to be angry, and they’re right to focus on and demand immediate transparency as well as accountability after due process has been satisfied.

The specifics of Mr. Smith’s innocence or guilt aren’t the issue for this unfairly burdened community. They’ve been alienated and abused for years by the police who were supposed to be there to protect them. Mr. Smith’s shooting death shines a light on the broken trust between the police and the community, a trust that was broken by police over time with disregard, disrespect, and use of excessive force.

What’s happening in Milwaukee today is what happens when civil liberties are slowly choked to death in full view of state and local governments that have rejected transparency and public oversight. The only wonder is that it didn’t happen sooner. Now that it’s come to a head, we must demand the changes in policing that will rebuild some semblance of the public trust and protect the people of city.

The park I grew up having barbecues and playing baseball games in is at this very moment surrounded by barricades and armored vehicles. The children who live in Sherman Park today deserve a childhood free from police harassment and excessive force. When they become adults and elders they deserve the same freedom. To give them that, to give the whole community that, we need to demand an end to racially biased, unjust, and unaccountable policing in our city. We saw it coming. Once it came, it never left.

The motto of Milwaukee Police is “Be a force.” The question is, “For what?” Let’s put a stop to police harassment and brutality once and for all.

Jarrett English is a Youth Organizer for ACLU of Wisconsin


About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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14 thoughts on “Milwaukee Feels Like a Police State”

    1. David Greenwald

      I preferred the comment from Pytel:

      He cited Milwaukee as a good example of the problem. He reached a similar conclusion as the Vanguard here, “At the end of the day, the shooting probably was justified. We still have to wait for the final video, to some point… but, at least on initial accounts, there was a gun there.”

      Chief Pytel said, “The thing is, the community blew up anyway. That means they’ve had a heckuva lot of problems leading up to that.”

        1. Barack Palin

          Well we can agree that we both see this differently.  I have to give Chief Clarke the nod because that’s where he works so he has a much better finger on the situation.


          1. David Greenwald

            Or maybe he’s too close to the situation, it’s his skin on the line and therefore he lacks perspective.

        2. Barack Palin

          I think it’s more that Pytel just parrots the liberal views on this so you agree with him.  If we had a local incident would you take the Chief of Milwaukee’s view over our Davis chief’s views because maybe Pytel is too close to the situation?  I think not.

        3. Davis Progressive

          hey bp – have you ever met darren?  if not, then why presume?  also you say he wants to appease the liberals, but why would he do that when it risks angering the rank and file?

  1. South of Davis

    Jarrett wrote:

    > Sherman Park was the epitome of a stable, largely Black neighborhood.

    > Now it has been turned into something resembling a police state. 

    Black neighborhoods in decline get more press, but there are even more white neighborhoods in decline that are turning in to a “police state”.  Most people don’t support the “New Jack City” approach where we let black people on crack kill each other and white people on crystal meth kill each other so every neighborhoods with a lot of poor people on drugs will have a lot of cops.  Smart people that don’t want to get robbed, killed or hassled by the cops don’t live in these neighborhoods and do whatever they can to avoid getting even close to one of these neighborhoods…

    P.S. I know that there are a small number of sociopath cops out there who will strike out and hit someone for doing “Nothing” but over the last 50+ years more than 99% of the people who say the cops (or their teacher, or the principal) were hassling them for doing “Nothing” were actually doing “Something”…

  2. Tia Will

    Smart people that don’t want to get robbed, killed or hassled by the cops don’t live in these neighborhoods and do whatever they can to avoid getting even close to one of these neighborhoods…”

    Well that is kind of hard to do regardless of your IQ if you are a child and your parents live in such a neighborhood, or if you are part of an extended family with parents or others who are dependent upon you, or if you just plain don’t have enough money to move out to somewhere more desirable. It would seem to me that regardless of your IQ, or your ability to make such a move, everyone not actively engaged in a criminal activity deserves the protection of the police.

    1. South of Davis

      Tia wrote:

      > Well that is kind of hard to do regardless of your IQ if you

      > are a child and your parents live in such a neighborhood

      A high IQ poor child could surf the web (using a free Obamaphone) and find out that Section 8 vouchers let you rent anywhere and that there are also hundreds of apartments in the state that offer reduced rent for low income people in safe neighborhoods with good schools.

      After looking at demographic and crime data the high IQ child may decide to get his parents on the New Harmony wait list (unless they are worried about the “strangers” that will be in the area after the hotel down the street is built).

    2. quielo



      I believe IQ or affluence is irrelevant, it’s a pyschographic variable. Some people leave and some people stay and overtime you get a concentration of people who do not have the initiative to leave or leave, but do not reach escape velocity, and therefore end up back where they started. Baltimore is perhaps the most extreme example of this.

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