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No matter the verdict in Rittenhouse trial, Black residents of Kenosha say justice remains elusive

Nov. 15, 2021 Updated Mon., Nov. 15, 2021 at 10:17 p.m.

From left, Nick Dennis and Jeremy Walker, of the Kenosha Coalition Organizing Resolution, conduct a street survey on community concerns with Jamal Henderson and his mother, Charisse Henderson, this month.   (Youngrae Kim/Washington Post)
From left, Nick Dennis and Jeremy Walker, of the Kenosha Coalition Organizing Resolution, conduct a street survey on community concerns with Jamal Henderson and his mother, Charisse Henderson, this month.  (Youngrae Kim/Washington Post)
By Griff Witte Washington Post

KENOSHA, Wis. — More than a year after his nephew was shot seven times by a police officer, paralyzing him from the waist down, Justin Blake takes to this city’s broad courthouse steps each morning and makes his case for justice.

He wants Kyle Rittenhouse, the teen on trial here for murder after he brought an AR-15 to Kenosha amid the unrest that followed Blake’s shooting, held to account. He wants the families of the three men Rittenhouse shot, two fatally, to know that their pain matters.

But the thing he most wants will not come to be: There will be no trial for the police officer who shot Jacob Blake.

“They took something from a young man that we can never replace. And he hasn’t had his day in court,” said Justin Blake, who is Black, tears welling in his eyes as an icy wind rose off the nearby lakefront. “I’m mad as hell.”

So are many among Kenosha’s Black community, even though few have joined Justin Blake’s often lonely vigil. Their absence from the courthouse steps, community leaders say, should not be confused with satisfaction with how things have gone in the city. They’ve just tried to channel their discontent in other ways.

The shooting of Blake, a now-30-year-old Black man, set off mass protests for racial justice here in August 2020 and added to an already febrile moment in cities nationwide following the murder of George Floyd. It also led to looting, burning and upheaval that culminated in the Rittenhouse shootings.

Yet as a verdict nears in Rittenhouse’s trial, there is widespread frustration that the original source of that strife remains unaddressed. Attempts in the city to confront systemic racism and police brutality have, residents say, proved underwhelming.

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Meanwhile, the trial that has brought the national spotlight back to Kenosha is that of a White man who shot three other White men, even as the officer who shot Blake, Rusten Sheskey, has been cleared of charges and resumed serving on the force.

“It’s evidence of an unjust, unfair system,” said Alvin Owens, a Black community leader and business owner. “This is something Black America sees all the time, but White Kenosha, White Wisconsin and White America don’t get it. They don’t know what Black America experiences.”

For a brief while in the summer of 2020, as Americans of all races took to the streets to proclaim that Black lives matter, Owens thought that was poised to change in Kenosha, a city of 100,000 that was once an industrial powerhouse but is now home to many commuters to both Milwaukee and Chicago.

He helped to organize protests, and saw among his White neighbors a new willingness to consider that racism had shaped Kenosha, a highly segregated city where just under 12 percent of the population is Black.

“But that awareness came and left,” he said. “It was a squandered opportunity.”

Owens runs a barbershop and community hub that sits within easy walking distance of the courthouse. But he said he had no plans to demonstrate during the Rittenhouse trial, which he said was only tangentially related to the city’s struggles. Rittenhouse, after all, is not from Kenosha. Nor are two out of the three people whom the teen shot.

“He can be found guilty, and I’ll still feel the same way,” Owens said. “We need a new vision in Kenosha. I love our city, but it can be very Black versus White, haves versus have-nots.”

The disparities are evident in the way two neighborhoods scarred by last year’s riots have recovered in the year since. In the city’s downtown, upscale restaurants and coffee shops hum with customers as a vintage trolley clickety-clacks its way to Lake Michigan, where sailboats bob in pale blue waters. Boarded up windows still pockmark the area, but they are relatively few.

In Uptown, the commercial heart of the city’s African American community, the picture is very different. An entire row of stores sits empty, the buildings partially collapsed, their exteriors singed by flame. Trash tumbles down an eerily desolate 22nd Avenue.

While the city has announced plans for an ambitious redevelopment, there’s no tangible evidence that it’s underway, and many are skeptical about it. The area sits adjacent to the site of an enormous auto manufacturing facility that closed decades ago; the land where it stood remains vacant.

“Our community still feels like a war zone,” said the Rev. Jonathan Barker, pastor of Uptown’s Grace Lutheran Church. “We feel it every day.”

Barker, who is White and leads a racially diverse congregation, said the city had begun a conversation last year about the issues raised by Blake’s shooting and the ensuing demonstrations: racial inequities, excessive use of force by the police, inadequate resources for those living in poverty.

But Barker, whose church was visited by presidential candidate Joe Biden in the aftermath of the Blake shooting, said there has been insufficient follow-through - and little impetus for leaders to act as the political winds have shifted away from racial justice and toward an emphasis on cracking down on crime.

“White Kenosha is pretending like nothing ever happened, and life is back to normal,” he said.

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Michael Bell Sr., whose son was shot to death by police in front of Bell’s wife and daughter in 2004, agreed. He has waged a 17-year campaign to convince prosecutors to reopen the investigation into his son’s death, but said most White citizens of Kenosha are unwilling to acknowledge the problems with law enforcement in their city.

“I call them ignorant White professionals. I was one of them,” said Bell, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel. “When my son was killed, my daughter and Michael’s mother told me the story and for 90 days I refused to believe them. Until I saw the evidence myself.”

Michael Bell Jr., who was White, was shot in the head by an officer following a struggle in Bell’s driveway. The officer said Bell took his gun, but investigators hired by his father have found inconsistencies in the official account and the family has strongly disputed it.

Kenosha County District Attorney Michael D. Graveley said in an interview that he did not believe that Kenosha police had a systemic problem with either excessive force or racial discrimination. He also defended his decisions not to reopen the Bell case - in which officers were cleared of wrongdoing following an internal investigation - and not to charge Sheskey.

The officer who fired seven bullets into Blake’s body - most of them into his back - could have successfully claimed self-defense in a trial because Blake had a knife at the time of the shooting, Graveley has said.

“I approach each case as a specific set of facts, and any prosecutor who brought a broad political perspective to their cases would not be doing their job,” he said.

Graveley said his decision in the Blake case, announced in January, was reinforced by a determination last month from the Justice Department that it would not bring federal civil rights charges against Sheskey.

That finding felt like a betrayal to Justin Blake, who said President Biden had promised the family that he would prioritize racial justice in law enforcement, including by pressing for legislation named in honor of Floyd that passed the House but died in the Senate.

“Biden told my brother to hold his feet to the fire. We’re going to do that,” he said. “There’s what he said he was going to do. And there’s what he’s done.”

Blake said his nephew continues to recover in Chicago, undergoing physical therapy several times a week and setting himself an ambitious goal.

“He said he’s going to walk by next summer,” said Justin Blake as he wielded the red, black and green flag of the African diaspora that he carries with him to the courthouse each day. “It’s like he’s training for something.”

Kenosha, too, is still working on its recovery, and community leaders say that even amid their frustration, they have seen some bright spots.

One, they say, is that police now wear body cameras - something they weren’t doing during the Blake shooting. Interim police chief Eric Larsen, meanwhile, has prioritized getting his officers to do a better job of engaging with residents.

“Trust fell off last year. We’re trying to build it back,” Larsen said in an interview. “I don’t think you can have too much community engagement.”

This summer, Larsen attended block parties thrown across the city in high-poverty, high-crime areas by the Kenosha Coalition Organizing Resolution (KCOR). The volunteer-led group has begun deploying teams of “violence interrupters” across Kenosha to resolve conflicts and head off trouble before police officers need to get involved.

“When the community comes out,” said organization president Nick Dennis, “crime starts to come down.”

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Dennis was walking the streets one recent morning with a team of fellow KCOR volunteers. Many have spent time in jail and are now looking for a way to help others avoid the traps they fell into, including through mediation or mentorship.

“We’re not perfect,” said Dennis, 38. “But if you haven’t been in the struggle, you can’t relate to it.”

On the cold and sunny morning they walked the city, Dennis and his fellow volunteers mostly listened: They heard residents tell them about problems finding affordable housing, about struggling to avoid failing out of school, about being forced to sleep on the streets as winter draws near.

In each case, they took notes, offered advice on finding resources and vowed to get answers.

“I appreciate y’all,” they heard more than once.

Elizabeth Webb has also found ways to contribute to her city. The 43-year-old, who had been a cook, became active in the protest movement after George Floyd’s murder, but was disenchanted by the chaos that engulfed her city after Blake’s shooting - a problem she blames on outsiders.

“Kyle Rittenhouse was one of those people who came into our city and violated us. He wasn’t part of Kenosha. He was part of the problem. Just like the antifa that came and burned down our buildings,” she said as she surveyed the lingering wreckage in her Uptown neighborhood.

She has since shifted her focus from protests to action. She organizes street cleanups and food drives, coat giveaways and community dialogue. She was disappointed that officials didn’t do more to change the city after Blake was shot. But she’s not letting that get in her way.

“We’ve got to get out there,” she said, “and help ourselves.”

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