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“This is the Madness They Spark”: Uprising in Milwaukee After Police Kill 23-Year-Old Black Man

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Protests are continuing in Milwaukee two days after police shot dead a 23-year-old African-American man named Sylville Smith. On Sunday, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker activated the National Guard after local residents set fire to police cars and several local businesses, including a gas station, on Saturday night. Seventeen people were arrested. Four police officers were reportedly injured. Milwaukee police say Smith was shot while trying to flee from an officer who had stopped his car. Police Chief Edward Flynn said he had viewed video from the officer’s body camera, and it showed Smith had turned toward him with a gun in his hand after the traffic stop. Many local residents said the tension between their community and the police has been rising for years. Milwaukee is considered to be one of the most segregated cities in the country. We speak with Muhibb Dyer, community activist, poet and co-founder of the organization Flood the Hood with Dreams.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Protests are continuing in Milwaukee, two days after police shot dead a 23-year-old African-American man named Sylville Smith. On Sunday, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker activated the National Guard, after local residents set fire to police cars and several local businesses, including a gas station, Saturday night. Seventeen people were arrested, four police officers reportedly injured. Last night, two police were reportedly injured, and one person was hospitalized after being shot by an unknown assailant. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett spoke out on Sunday.

MAYOR TOM BARRETT: Last night was unlike anything I have seen in my adult life in this city. I hope I never see it again. For every member of this police department, it was unlike anything that they had seen in their career. For every member of the fire department, it was unlike anything they had seen in their entire career.

AMY GOODMAN: The Milwaukee Police Department is defending its use of force in the case of Sylville Smith. Police say he was shot while trying to flee from an officer who had stopped his car. Police Chief Edward Flynn said he had viewed video from the officer’s body camera, that hasn’t been released. It showed Smith had turned toward him with a gun in his hand after the traffic stop, he said. Many local residents said the tension between their community and the police has been rising for years. Milwaukee is considered to be one of the most segregated cities in the country. On Saturday, a man identifying himself as the brother of Sylville Smith spoke to the local Milwaukee station CBS 58.

SEDAN SMITH: Right now, you got a city riot going on, because, once again, the police has failed to protect us like they said they was going to do. They failed to be here for the people like they say they—like they’re sworn in to do. You know? And us as a community, we’re not going to protect ourselves, but if we don’t have anyone to protect us, then this is what you get. You know, you get riots. You got people out here going crazy. We’re losing loved ones every day to the people that’s sworn in to protect us. It’s other stuff that’s going on out here, and you wonder why. It’s ISIS in America.

EVAN KRUEGEL: Sedan, certainly, people upset here tonight, but we’ve got, you know, innocent business owners who are now going up in flames. What’s it going to take for you guys to be OK tonight and to stop this chaos?

SEDAN SMITH: It ain’t me. It’s not me. I’m going to let you all know that now. It’s not us guys, neither. And I’m glad that y’all said that. It’s not us. It’s the police. This is the madness that they spark up. This is what they encourage. This is what they provoke. This is what you get. Either you take us from—a loved one from someone. This is what you get. You get a lot of people that’s hurt, and they can’t vent the right way. They can’t no longer depend on the police to be here to protect us like they say they’re going to do. So this is what you get. And, no, it’s not going to end today. I can’t tell you it’s going to end tomorrow. I don’t know when it’s going to end. But it’s for y’all to start. We’re not the ones that’s killing us. Y’all killing us. We can’t make a change if you all don’t change.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Sedan Smith, speaking to CBS 58. Smith said he’s the brother of Sylville Smith, the 23-year-old man killed by Milwaukee police on Saturday.

For more, we go to Milwaukee, where we’re joined by Muhibb Dyer. He’s a community activist, a poet, co-founder of the organization Flood the Hood with Dreams.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Muhibb. Can you talk us through the weekend, what happened Saturday night, and about the community response?

MUHIBB DYER: How are you doing, Ms. Goodman? And it’s a pleasure to be on Democracy Now! today.

Well, I mean, as you can see, you know, on a surface level—and I had the opportunity to be out there last night—you see what appears to be complete chaos. Gas stations are being burned. You see individuals riding around, hanging out of cars. In some cases, gunshots everywhere. You see the police, in some cases, taking very provocative stances, provoking certain incidents amongst peaceful demonstrators at times. And then, on the other hand, you see anger, just the anger and the frustration of a community that has suffered atrocities and oppression on behalf of what they deem to be the police oppressive system, that has never seemingly been held accountable for taking the life, like the young man said, of their loved ones. So, when you put that all together, it becomes a powder keg. And it’s the explosion, metaphorically, that you get that’s going on in Milwaukee today.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about what you understand took place on Saturday night with the police killing of Sylville Smith.

MUHIBB DYER: What I understand now, I mean, is various vantage points, of course, various stories. But what I—the police are saying, what you reported, is that a young man was stopped in a routine traffic stop, I suppose, and he fled an officer. And what—he fled from an officer. And what happened was, at some point, he turned his pistol towards the officer, and the officers say that they justifiably shot him, whereas the reports that’s coming out of the community is that it’s the exact opposite. Some are saying the young man was unarmed and he had no gun on him at all. Some are saying that the young man had a gun, and he was hopping over a fence, and as he hopped over a fence, the gun fell, and he picked up the gun to throw it over the fence, and the officers shot him in the back. So, to put it in a nutshell, we don’t know. We’re going to have to wait for the videotape to be released. So everything now is speculation, and it’s the police’s word against the community’s word.

AMY GOODMAN: Why haven’t the police released the video cam of the officer and the officers who were involved in this killing?

MUHIBB DYER: I don’t know, ma’am. They say it’s—this is their procedure, that it takes time for them to be able to sort through things while they’re doing their own investigation. The reality of the situation that we see in Milwaukee and all over the United States of America is that the community is very frustrated and very upset in terms of what’s going on, because you always have situations where African-American males are being killed, and then you have the police department taking their time releasing their facts. And whether you catch something on videotape—and I guess this is the sentiment of the community—whether it’s on videotape or whether it’s eyewitnesses, we never get our day in court. We never get our day in court. Police officers are never held accountable for the murders of African-American males. It’s always justifiable homicide.

They release these reports talking about the character of an individual, which really, I think, creates the condition for public opinion to say, “OK, yes, he deserved it. You know, he had a lengthy police record—he deserved it. He was a thug, he was a criminal—he deserved it.” So, I think they build public opinion to such an extent where homicide—like I said before, the homicide of police officers on African-American males always seems to be justified. And they never really talk about what happened in that actual event. They don’t separate the actual event from the person’s character, I guess.

AMY GOODMAN: Milwaukee has been described as the most segregated city in America. You grew up there, Muhibb. Can you talk about your city?

MUHIBB DYER: Yes, I—yes, I can. I was born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And, you know, we lead the nation in many of, what they say, the most critical statistics in this country. You know, we have the fourth highest rate of poverty amongst all cities in America, one statistical poll said. We also are said to have the second highest segregation rate in this country. We have one of the highest incarceration rates amongst African Americans in this country. The school dropout rate is off the charts. So with all of this going on, and the factories have closed, and the economic plight of the city has gone down, growing up in Milwaukee always felt like this was a place of extreme despair. Some good people, very talented individuals, who are striving to make a difference, but that’s juxtaposed with the reality that accomplishment or prosperity or the sense of upward mobility amongst the people is—it’s a very difficult place.

And what’s going on, I think, being played out in the streets today, is that you have these young people who feel the hopelessness and who feel the despair, and they want something different. But like the great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, the violence is the language of the unheard. How is violence the language of the unheard? he said. He said that America is not listening to the yearnings of freedom and justice, the desire of freedom and justice. And what is America not paying attention to? Dr. Martin Luther King said that white people, for the most part, are so preoccupied with tranquility and status quo, that they are missing the point that freedom and justice and equality are not being met out. And this is Milwaukee.

AMY GOODMAN: Milwaukee’s Police Department has a long history of distrust by the black community. Tensions flared in 1991 as Milwaukee police were accused of turning a blind eye as serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer targeted primarily African-American, Latino and Asian boys. He was ultimately convicted of 15 murders in Wisconsin, his story chronicled in the documentary The Jeffrey Dahmer Files. This is Dahmer’s former neighbor, Pamela Bass, talking about the outcry.

PAMELA BASS: My sister called my mother. She said, “Look at TV, Ma. Isn’t this Pamela’s building in Milwaukee?”

REPORTER: Public outcry followed, accusing police of racism and insensitivity to gays.

PAMELA BASS: And she saw all the swarm of people around me, so she knew that she couldn’t—I can’t get to her. And I remember I finally got through to her on the phone. She told me, “Don’t watch TV, Pamela. Don’t read none of this.”

POLICE CHIEF PHILIP ARREOLA: As chief, both I and the entire department must accept responsibility for the inept police response of May 27th.

PAMELA BASS: It was—it was just—I don’t know. I don’t even know what to say about this thing. The city of Milwaukee, to me, just lost. They care nothing about the black community as a whole. They weren’t showing it back then.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Pamela Bass, the neighbor of Jeffrey Dahmer, speaking in the documentary The Jeffrey Dahmer Files. Muhibb Dyer, how does what happened with Jeffrey Dahmer affect the way people see what happens in Milwaukee? And then, of course, in 1981, there was Ernest Lacy, who was put in a police car, taken by police; they were just cruising downtown, the police, and he ends up dead in the back of the police car.

MUHIBB DYER: Well, you know, like I said, it just contributes to what we saw Saturday night and last night, Sunday night. You have a history of, like you said, Ernie Lacy, and you have Daniel Bell, all the way up to a couple years ago in Dontre Hamilton. You have all of these names of individuals who have been murdered by the police. And to my knowledge, they’ve never been convicted of or held accountable for their actions.

And a fallback argument all across America every time a police officer murders an African American is, “Well, you all kill each other every night. There is black-on-black crime every night.” Like that’s the scapegoat argument. But, ultimately, when black people kill black people, accountability happens: Black people go to jail. And, you know, the thing is, well, why are there not more rioting when violence happens in the African-American community? Because black people go to jail. Black people are held accountable. Black people are given sentences of homicide, where they have to be held accountable for the actions that they take. But when you have individuals, like the young man said, who are supposed to protect and serve, and they come in and they kill you, and there is never any convictions, then the sentiment is, is that we can’t get justice. We can’t get justice.

AMY GOODMAN: Muhibb, can you tell us what your T-shirt says?

MUHIBB DYER: My T-shirt says the “I Will Not Die Young Campaign.”

AMY GOODMAN: I—

MUHIBB DYER: And this is an organization—yes, ma’am?

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead.

MUHIBB DYER: The I Will Not Die Young Campaign.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to—for you to end, because I know you have to go teach, with your poem. You are not only a community activist, co-founder of the organization Flood the Hood with Dreams, but you are also a poet. Can you share a poem with us today?

MUHIBB DYER: Yes, ma’am. Yes, ma’am. And this, I hope, gives the listeners an understanding of the feeling of the despair of a young person that exists in Milwaukee.

I want you to see beyond the bottles being thrown.
I want you to see beyond the anger
and see a young man on his hands and knees
looking up to the heavens
not knowing if God exists
on a street called Burleigh in Milwaukee.

And he says, “It’s like I’m sitting in a jail cell,
Lord, listen to me.
It’s like I’m sitting in a jail cell,
God, listen to me.
It’s like I’m sitting in a jail cell,
Lord, with invisible bars
waiting on death row
counting down the days
because I know they’re coming.
You see, I know they’re coming.
Them police, them jealous dudes and chicks
they’re all coming.
And it wasn’t supposed to be like this.

“You see, Lord, they never told me you were in me.
They never told me you were always there.
So, in turn, I believed what I saw.
And what I saw was a daddy that was never around
and a mama that was always crying
because we were always broke
when there was money outside,
and rats and roaches and pissy mattresses
me and my brother slept on
when there was money outside,
and teachers that told me
I had to wait 12 years to get paid.
You see, my teachers told me
I had to wait 12 years to get paid
while all of them got paid off of me right now
whether I learned or not
when there was money outside.
And what else was I supposed to do?

“They never told me you were in me, God.
They never told me you were always there.
And how was I supposed to know
that being created in your image and your likeness
meant that if you made the Earth, Lord,
I can make my own business,
and if you made the sun,
I could make more than just babies
more than just babies
but buildings and networks
and that busting guns wasn’t the only way
to get access to your power, Lord,
and shaking these dudes down on the block
for this dope money was not the only way
to get access to your power, Lord?
How was I supposed to know?
And how was I supposed to know
that downing shots of Hennessy and smoking weed
wasn’t the only way to accept this and get to heaven,
that I could have gotten down on all fours and talked to you, Lord?

“They never told me you were in me.
They never told me you were always there.
And how was I supposed to know
that every time mama was like
’Stay in school, baby,
stay off those streets,’
that was you, Lord,
and every misdemeanor charge I ever beat,
that was you, Lord,
every felony charge I ever beat,
that was you, Lord,
and when those bullets missed me
when I was on the block doing wrong,
that was you, Lord,
and when my boy laid in that casket
cold and lifeless,
that that was like you was trying to tell me
he would be me if I didn’t change?

“And now I’ve fallen.
My time is up.
I know they’re coming.
And I don’t even know
if you listen to kids like us, Lord.
Do you even care about kids like us, Lord?
But I know now what I should have known then.
And it took me to fall to see the light.
You were always in me.
You were always there.
Forgive me, Lord,
for I knew not what I was doing to myself.
Please, send me somebody
a voice
maybe from across the nation
a sympathetic voice
that understands
that I need to be taught
something that I’ve never been taught before.
Please, send me someone
anybody in humanity
that can teach me to love me
teach me to love me
teach me to love me.”

Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Muhibb Dyer, I want to thank you for being with us, community activist, poet, co-founder of the organization Flood the Hood with Dreams, speaking to us from his hometown, that went up in flames this weekend after police killed an African-American man on Saturday night, speaking to us from Milwaukee, one of the most segregated cities in the country.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. There are remarkable firsts that have taken place in the last week, and we’re going to talk with two guests about them. Stay with us.

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