Firefighters shot at while putting out blazes in Milwaukee riots

Six businesses and several cars were torched; one shooting victim was extricated in an armored vehicle


By Tony Briscoe
Chicago Tribune

MILWAUKEE — The fatal shooting of a black man by Milwaukee police is the latest in a nationwide series of police-involved shootings that have stoked growing unrest between law enforcement and the communities they patrol. Riots, vandalism, and then widespread disappointment quickly followed, as North Side residents said they understood the anger but not further victimization of their neighborhoods.

The shooting occurred Saturday afternoon after officers pulled over a "suspicious vehicle," according to Milwaukee's mayor, and two people fled the vehicle and ran in different directions. A Milwaukee officer who had been with the department for six years chased one of the men, identified by family members and police union officials as 23-year-old Sylville Smith.

Burnt cars sit in the parking lot of a gas station that was destroyed during protests Aug. 14, 2016, following a fatal police-involved shooting the day before in Milwaukee, Wis. (Photo/Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune)
Burnt cars sit in the parking lot of a gas station that was destroyed during protests Aug. 14, 2016, following a fatal police-involved shooting the day before in Milwaukee, Wis. (Photo/Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune)

The officer "ordered that individual to drop his gun," Mayor Tom Barrett said at a news conference. "He did not drop his gun. He held the gun -- or I should say I don't know that for a fact, but he had the gun with him -- and the officer fired seven times." The man was hit twice, in the chest and arm, Barrett said, adding that the unidentified officer had a body camera that was "operating" during the shooting. Police Chief Edward Flynn refused to identify the officer who shot Smith but said he is black, according to The Associated Press.

The shooting will be examined by Wisconsin investigators.

The man's death touched a nerve in a city that is among the most racially segregated in the nation, and in a state where the incarceration rate of black men and the poverty gap between blacks and whites exceed national averages. Nearly 40 percent of about 600,000 residents in Milwaukee are black and heavily concentrated on the north side. The 2014 shooting of Dontre Hamilton -- a black man who fought with an officer who had roused him from a park bench -- led to protests but no charges for the officer, who was fired for improperly escalating the situation.

After word of the latest shooting had spread late Saturday, some members of a gathering crowd began to throw stones and set buildings on fire. At one point Saturday night, as many as 100 protesters massed at 44th Street and Auer Avenue, surging against a line of 20 to 30 officers. Police made at least two efforts to disperse the protesters before the crowd finally dwindled after midnight.

Brian Rothgery, a 39-year-old activist and former campaign volunteer who has done political canvassing in the neighborhood where unrest broke out, described the scene Saturday night as "tense and unpredictable." Milwaukee police said gunshots by members of the public prevented fire officials from putting out fires at the local businesses.

One officer was hospitalized after being hit in the head with a brick thrown through the window of a squad car, police said. Crowd members also threw rocks at officers, police said. People in the crowd also chased off journalists with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, shoving and punching one journalist, the newspaper reported.

Several cars were burned.

Maina Fetaw went to the neighborhood Saturday because she was worried about her friends who live there.

"I saw some friends posting on social media about what was happening. I have a friend in the area who wasn't responding to my calls, and I went to report on what was happening and what I had seen," said Fetaw, 21, a journalism student at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.

"The feeling was a lot of anger and frustration. I saw the brother of the victim and their friends and family. I saw tears and pain and confusion. Many chanting 'black power' or 'black lives matter,'" said Fetaw, who is black and lives a few miles from the area where violence broke out.

"Many people, many of the ones I knew personally, were angry about another death by the hands of police," she said.

By Sunday afternoon, Republican Gov. Scott Walker, at the request of Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, activated the state's National Guard to support local law enforcement in case of further unrest.

"I commend the citizens who volunteered in cleanup efforts this morning," Walker said in a statement Sunday. "This act of selfless caring sets a powerful example for Milwaukee's youth and the entire community. I join Milwaukee's leaders and citizens in calling for continued peace and prayer."

President Barack Obama, who was golfing Sunday at Martha's Vineyard, has been briefed about the unrest, and a top adviser, Valerie Jarrett, has been in touch with Milwaukee's mayor to offer support, according to a White House pool report.

Milwaukee's police union was outraged by the response to the shooting and demanded that officers be assigned to two-man squads instead of working alone. The union also worked to portray the man killed in the shooting as a hardened criminal.

"Leadership must denounce violent riotous behavior! There can be no appropriateness in rationalizing terrorist-like actions," the Milwaukee Police Association said in a statement. "The thugs that caused this are certainly terrorists and must be held accountable."

The association also released a video that identified Smith as the man killed in the shooting. The video listed case numbers for past criminal cases involving Smith and what appeared to be social media photos of Smith showing his tattoos and holding a rifle.

State National Guard members were told to go to their local armories and prepare to deploy to Milwaukee as early as Sunday evening if necessary, according to a news release from the National Guard.

Meantime, residents rocked by the destruction began Sunday to clean up their neighborhoods. T'Juan Balfour, 22, who lives just blocks from the epicenter of the rioting, emerged from his home about 4 a.m. to see the damage for himself. He saw the shattered windows of a BMO Harris bank branch, damage to a corner store that appeared to have been looted and the charred remains of a gas station. All of it, Balfour said, left him deeply discouraged.

So Balfour joined a handful of people with brooms and gloves at an O'Reilly Auto Parts, where the sign had been melted by fire, the roof had collapsed, and glass littered the sidewalks and parking lot.

"They were venting because they were angry, but they could've vented in a different way," Balfour said Sunday. "They didn't have to do it in a destructive way."

The attacks on local businesses left lifetime Milwaukee resident Samuel Hendricks, 52, angry and embarrassed for his community.

"I just don't see how this ties into what happened. We're ripping apart our own community," Hendricks said. "I got kids. I got grandkids. I just don't believe in this."

Jimmie Butler, 45, a manager at the O'Reilly Auto Parts, had just worked a shift the day before.

"That was the last time I saw the building standing," he said. "If they are mad at the police, take it to the police. What does O'Reilly have to do with anything?"

He spoke with another manager who witnessed the building burning down. That manager told him their employment futures won't be certain for another week.

"I got bills to pay, a car note," Butler said. "I hope they don't burn up anything else."

Copyright 2016 Chicago Tribune

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