Milwaukee is Burning

Aug 13, 2016

Aug 13, 2016

I grew up in Sherman Park. I spent the first 14 years of my life in that neighborhood. My parents moved their little family there before I was born. The early years there were pivotal to me.

I remember walking down to the local comic shop with my friend Eric. We would try to sneak peaks at the racier, adult comics with nudity in them. Inevitably we would be shooed out. I have good and bad memories of those days. Grade school was tough for me, and eventually the area got too dangerous for Eric and I to take walks anymore. Gang activity increased at an alarming rate.

Shortly before my fifteenth birthday, my mother was held up at gun point one night in our alley. That was the last straw for my parents, who promptly picked us up and moved to the East side. They could afford to do so.

After the violence which erupted in that neighborhood on the night of the 13th, you could be forgiven for thinking you know what my reaction would be today.

When I was a kid, I hated gang members. They were violent, macho bullies. My grade school had a few of them, and everyone knew who they were. You just avoided them. It was easy for me to do so—I was a white kid who could stay out of the whole thing if I chose to. So long as I kept my head down, I would have opportunities awarded to me by the virtue of my upbringing.

We moved, my parents enrolled me in a then-prestigious private high school and upon graduation I went to college from which I graduated summa cum laude. I have my parents and grandparents and society at large to thank for all of those opportunities.

My opinion of gang members has changed a lot since I was a kid, which might surprise some to hear. Growing up I was always told to question things, to think critically and to look to the root of problems—to always ask “Why?”

My mother, bless her heart, also told me to avoid engaging with the police. She taught her white, scrawny, nerdy son to be always mistrustful of authority, and never to give up too much information voluntarily. I don’t think she taught me that out of any dislike for police officers as people, but because she understood how the system really worked. The system inherently wants to find the shortest, easiest distance between two points. That distance can end up hurting people.

This takes me back to the evening of the 13th, when Sylville Smith fought for his life and lost it. Why did that young man have a gun? Why did he have a criminal history? Why did he do everything that he did and why did it lead to his death and the destruction that followed?

I don’t demonize criminals any more, because a criminal is an invention of our society. How do you make a criminal?

You feed one while another goes hungry.

You educate one while another goes untaught.

You help one while another goes unaided.

You give opportunities and representation and a voice to one, and in so doing take them all away from another.

So long as there is disparity, and the rule of law to protect it, you willfully create an entire population of “criminals.”

There is not a human being on this planet that will put up with that forever.

On the flip side, I don’t demonize police officers any more either. Ask why. Ask how you make a police officer. Look at what they’re being told.

They’re being trained to dehumanize an entire population of their fellow human beings.

They’re being taught that breaking the law is inherently bad, even while their superiors fight every day to twist the law in their own favor.

They’re being given complete control over the bodily rights of other people, and they are specifically rewarded for exercising that control.

They are not taught to look beyond the crime to the source of the problem. They are not taught to question authority. In fact, they are trained only to protect the solidarity of the system for which they fight, although in reality it no more protects them and their interests than it does that young black man they killed.

We are all in this together, and the very few in power do not want us to remember that.

Nothing divides us but the imagined divisions of our own creation. Except the majority of is didn’t create those divisions. They were created for us, too long ago for anyone to remember why or how.

Money is an invention. Class is an invention. Poverty is an invention. Law is an invention. Crime is an invention. Power is an invention. Freedom is an invention.

They’re all tools, used for a specific purpose, and we don’t get to wield them. None of us really do. The hand of the police officer that pulled the trigger that killed Sylville Smith was controlled by the inhuman rights afforded him by the rule of law.

A single, powerful man can order the sanctioned murder of thousands of people who live thousands of miles away, and will be applauded.

A single poor man can choose to use the tools at his disposal to improve his standing in life, and will be murdered or caged for it.

They are the same. They are born into this life with the same potential, the same value, the same birthright and natural heritage of all the Earth. Give one opportunities and he is president. Take opportunities away and the other is a criminal, and dead.

August 14, 2016

August 14, 2016

Milwaukee is burning right now. It may no longer be on fire, but it is burning. The kindling has been built up over generations. What will we do? Will we fan the flames with further hatred, anger and knee jerk reactions? Will we let them keep dividing us?

Will we work together to quench the fire finally?

I will tell you what I saw on my drive to work the following day. I drive right up Burleigh, right past the shell of that burnt gas station on my way to work. I saw hundreds and hundreds of people all gathered with trash bags, bottles of water and open hands, cleaning up. The sidewalks and parks were absolutely full. Everyone was working. Everyone was helping. Police watched on. The atmosphere was tense and solemn.

Cleaning Up

August 14, 2016

It was a balm on the burns, but not a cure for the root cause of the fire. Still, it gives me hope.

What do we do next?