Kenosha Protests, Violence Expose Racial Disparities Among The Worst In The Country
The old metal gumball machine is still there - standing in a corner near the door. It's scorched and some of its plastic is melted but it's still standing there. But very little else inside what was The Good Taste Ice Cream Shoppe in Kenosha is recognizable as the blackened remains of the roof, walls, tables, chairs, and other fixtures are scattered about in heaps of charred wood and twisted and scorched metal.
It's one of several shops on this busy commercial strip on 22nd Avenue in Kenosha's mostly Black Uptown neighborhood that were burned to the ground or severely damaged during a few nights of rioting last week in Kenosha.
The fires also destroyed second floor apartments above some of these shops; dozens of residents lost nearly everything and are now homeless.
As residents of this city of 100,000 along the shores of Lake Michigan between Chicago and Milwaukee clean up the damage, they lament the violence and destruction that left this and other swaths of their city damaged or destroyed. But many said they understand the anger and frustration that led to it.
The shooting of Jacob Blake on Sunday, Aug. 23, set off a series of protests that gave way to violence for three straight nights. Downtown Kenosha, storefronts and vehicles were damaged. A used car dealership, a furniture store and the state parole office were burned to the ground. But the destruction was much greater in Kenosha's Uptown area.
Walking down 22nd Ave. with his young son, Kenneth Smith, 42, takes in the damage in disbelief.
"It's sad, it's really sad. There's no other word for it but just sad, man," Smith said. "To look at it like this and to see it how it was just a week ago, it's sad."
Smith ticked off the businesses he'd once patronized that are now damaged or destroyed: The Mexican ice cream shop called The Good Taste. A men's clothing store called Trends. Uptown Pantry, the convenience store.
"I think people were just looking for a little justice, you know?" Smith said, referencing the police shooting of Jacob Blake on August 23. But says he doesn't believe anyone local would have torched those shops, "because why would they? You know, you got a lot of people in this area that eat in the Uptown area. I don't see 'em burning down a place that they spend money at on a regular basis."
"This is one of the ways that – unfortunately – people know how to take out their anger, because peaceful protests since the '60s have not evidently been too effective," says Eric Vines, 58, who was walking down the block surveying the damage with his brother, both of whom were born and raised in Kenosha. "I'm not saying this is the proper way to do it, but it's gotten a lot of attention."
Since the fires, a stream of volunteers, many of them white, have come to Uptown to help clean the area and install plywood. On this day, the volunteers were painting the plywood, mostly with generic inoffensive messages like "Peace and Love" and "Kenosha Strong." Some include Bible verses and messages of faith.
Asked whether he thought the volunteers came to 22nd Avenue often before all this, Vines, who is Black, laughed.
"Obviously and evidently, we can look around and see that, no. The [answer] is no," he says. "But it's just unity, that's what it is. It's people having empathy and love for each other. That's what this is. And I appreciate that."
"I don't even know how long it will take all this to come back, or if it will. I hope it does," Vines says.
Keye Voigt, a public insurance adjuster, was working inside a salon on 22nd Avenue. He said he's working for multiple businesses in Kenosha, many of whom he guessed may not reopen.
"Covid crushed them. Kenosha's having its own issues, obviously. With the current state of affairs, a lot of these businesses aren't going to make it," he said.
One of Voigt's clients had been offered just $5000 by the insurance company, he said. Another's claim had been denied entirely because the insurance company said the fires fell under a policy exemption for acts of terrorism. The city of Kenosha has not yet released an estimate of the total damage, but Voigt guessed it would be in the tens of millions of dollars.
"This is the last thing people need right now, is their building being burned down, their business being destroyed. So I hope it ends," says Voigt.
The recovery could be especially difficult because Black Kenoshans are already at significant economic disadvantage compared to their white neighbors.
Southeast Wisconsin is by some measures the most racially segregated region of the country, and the economic conditions for Black residents in this region rank among the worst in the country in a number of metrics.
A study published in July by Marc Levine, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, laid out a sobering list of statistics about the status of Black residents in the region in 2020.
"On almost all of the indicators... from poverty to employment to general income trends, to income inequality, incarceration trends, school segregation levels — Black Milwaukee ranked either the worst or next to worst among the nation's fifty largest metropolitan areas," Levine says. "And in fact, on most indicators that I've looked at, the status of the Black community in Kenosha is actually slightly worse than Milwaukee."
The median Black household in the Milwaukee area earns just 44% of the median white household. Among the nation's largest metro areas, Milwaukee has the second-lowest Black home ownership rate. School segregation in the Milwaukee area, measured by how likely Black children are to attend a school where students are 90% non-white, is essentially unchanged since 1965. A white high school dropout has about the same likelihood of having a job as Black high school graduate.
Here in Kenosha, a third of Black residents live below the poverty line, while just 13% of white residents do. A Black worker in Kenosha earns about half that which a white worker earns.
It's not just that Black Kenoshans are worse off than their white neighbors; it's that they're worse off here than almost anywhere else in the country on almost every measure.
"In most communities, there isn't this uniformity of poor standing on all of these indicators," Levine says. "The startling thing is how almost uniformly on almost any indicator of consequence that one looks at, [southeast Wisconsin] ranks worst."
Another startling aspect of the study, Levine says, is how little the trends in Southeast Wisconsin have changed over the years. "In some communities (elsewhere around the country), there have been improvements on a number of indicators," he says. But not in Milwaukee and the cities of Racine and Kenosha.
Levine points to segregation levels as a key indicator, where even in notoriously segregated cities like Chicago and Boston there have been slight improvements. "Because segregation is the linchpin separating Black Americans in their neighborhoods from economic opportunities. Milwaukee has had only a tiny decline." says Levine. "And that does make us stand out."
"It's very divided and it always has been," says Tanya McLean, who was born and raised in Kenosha, and she says she found out just how much so when moving back here after college and serving in the military.
"Actually, I was trying to buy a house, and it was an issue," McLean said. "I was just like, 'oh, man.' I was disheartened, and that's when I realized that this town is completely divided."
"I mean, all of the poverty is in one spot. So what does that say?" McLean adds. "I mean, the jobs are lacking here. The opportunities are lacking. Something has to change here or this (unrest) is going to continue."
All of this plus a history of poor relations with Kenosha police have laid the groundwork for the current discontent, Black residents say.
"I do feel that we are marching backwards, people of color are getting pushed backwards, at a rapid rate," says Lorna Revere, a small business owner in Racine, the city next door to Kenosha.
"I have to admit that right now, my hope for change is only this big," Revere says, holding her finger and thumb barely a smidge apart. And the reason she says she has very little hope is "because of Trump being in office. I mean, he is inciting hate and people are drinking the kool-aid."
But Revere says local leaders deserve criticism for the wide racial inequities and racially biased policing, too. At a huge protest march and rally Saturday, she carried a sign calling for the resignations of Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth and the city's Police Chief Daniel Miskinis.
Beth has a history of racially charged comments. Two years ago, he called five people of color arrested for stealing goods from an area outlet mall "garbage people."
"We need to build warehouses to put these people into it and lock them away for the rest of their lives," Beth said at the time of the incident in 2018. "Let's stop them from truly, at least some of these males, from going out and getting 10 other women pregnant and having small children."
And both have been criticized by local residents for what they say are "tone deaf" responses to the police shooting of Jacob Blake and the subsequent shooting of three protesters, killing two them, by a 17-year old who was part of self styled local militia.
Cell phone video recorded before the shooting of the protesters show police officers thanking the white armed men patrolling the streets and giving them water, with one unidentified officer heard saying "We appreciate you guys, we really do."
"I feel he should step down," says Carey Norris, referring to Chief Miskinis. Norris is a local entertainer, entrepreneur and community leader who goes by the name DJ Mr. 262. "I feel (Sheriff) David Beth should step down."
Norris also says the mayor and some city aldermen should resign.
"Not saying they're not good people, but they're not in position to handle these types of things," Norris says.
In the city of Kenosha, Black residents make up just about 12% of the population, and Norris is one of several residents who told NPR that local politicians take the Black community for granted.
"It's easy for them. They don't need our vote," he says. "They don't need our vote! And that's the honest truth."
"Stop asking us about Trump," Norris told us, even though we hadn't asked about the president. Instead he urged us to ask him and other Kenosha residents about local officials, from the school board to the aldermen to the mayor's office.
"Some of them (local voters), they don't know. They think it just starts and ends with the president," Norris says. "It doesn't."
Many here agree that changing deep-seated racial inequalities starts at the ballot box (or mailbox) this November. And in a county that President Trump won by just 255 votes four years ago, in a state he unexpectedly and narrowly won, the police shooting of Jacob Blake, and the protests and violence that followed, are likely to influence election results from Kenosha's city hall to the White House.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.