A Citizen’s Perspective Of The Milwaukee Riots And It’s Militarized Response

Milwaukee Wisconsin, (TFC)– Calm seems to follow each day break here in Milwaukee, the night’s chaos passing with it. That calm is deceptive, insidiously distracting from the night’s atmosphere. A mass catharsis grips the Northside nightly, and has wrought an ominous government presence. It is that presence which is perhaps most unnerving.

Funny how it sometimes takes military units being deployed for people to pay attention to a certain place. As a lifelong Milwaukee resident, I must confess a kind of angst having the entire world’s attention on us. Milwaukee has been rated one of the most segregated American cities, the fourth poorest and yet, only now the world is watching. As if the blaze’s violent brilliance were a beacon, drawing in all manner of onlookers.

Most are aware of the catalyst– that being yet another police shooting. That phrase is beginning to carry it’s own kind of morbid weight it seems,“yet another”. After Milwaukee officers pulled over a car, the occupants ran and police pursued. The runner, 23 year old Sylville K. Smith, allegedly carried a gun as he ran from officers who eventually fired. Police released few initial details, but did offer information on the shooting officer.

That info included that they were 24 years old and had worked with MPD for 6 years, 3 of which as an officer. Following the first chaotic nights, it was revealed the officer was African American himself. MPD says they’d been placed on administrative duty pending an investigation into the killing. By contrast, no information on an officer involved in a recent Wauwatosa slaying has been released. None at all.

MPD says a body cam was worn which allegedly shows Smith turning to the officer with his gun. That footage hasn’t been released to the public, CNN reports. Reporters eventually caught up with Smith’s brother, who offered words for the now global audience.

After explaining the truth–that riots happen when people are dissatisfied with the state–the reporter exposed this little gem. “What’s it going to take for ‘you guys’ to be okay tonight and to stop this chaos?” Smith countered with “It aint me. It’s not me. I’m gonna let ya’ll know that right now. And it’s not ‘us guys’ neither. I’m glad that ya’ll said that, it’s not us.”

I’m glad he said it too, and that Smith’s brother pointed it out. The phrase ‘you guys’ puts distance between the speaker and who he’s speaking about. Lots of people get frustrated when “the race card” is pulled, and that’s understandable.

However, there are appropriate times to pull that card, and more often than you might think. Perhaps it just wasn’t the best time for that reporter to say those words in that context. Perhaps he wasn’t aware of how that may be interpreted by the person he’s interviewing–who, by the way, just lost his brother. But it does indeed illustrate the nature of racial divides across the nation.

When ignorance persists in people, they won’t even realize when they’ve crossed a line. I could tell you many stories, as a black person, where I’ve faced discrimination and targeting. Ironically enough, my white friends nonchalantly told lynching jokes in front of me–and expected I laugh along–before I’d ever been maliciously called a slur. It happened before I’d really even experienced malpractice and discrimination by law enforcement. At times, it’s as though I and my ethnic contemporaries were constantly the butt of some ongoing joke. A source of entertainment, though never to be taken seriously.

Other times, you’re a source of fascination. From your hair texture to whether you have color on the bottom of your feet. I could also speak of times when I’ve attempted to point out discrimination and been harshly shot down. Not in an intelligent, rational way ripe with critical thought but purely reactionary, emotional responses. Then when all is said and done, that conversation’s tension is often projected onto you for pointing prejudice out.

‘You guy’s’ is also very broad. In two words, that reporter bunched everyone into the riots–from peaceful protesters to people hiding in their homes. ‘You guys’ doesn’t distinguish between those inciting chaos, and those not. It pins blame on the entire community, which is as unconstructive as the burning of property and alleged beatings of whites on sight. Even mainstream outlets reported while some in the riot zone called for chaos and destruction, others chanted “peace!”

Other outlets reported shots fired blocks away, and seemed keen on stinging it all into a neat headline package. What people outside Milwaukee don’t understand is the context of the riot areas. 35th and Burleigh is one of those areas known for high poverty and crime rates. That being said, it’s not unusual to hear gunfire–however passionate–emanate in or around that area. I’ve heard it myself from time to time echo from other parts of the city. It happens.

And then came the word: that Governor Scott Walker activated the national guard after officials requested it. Perhaps people on the outside feel different, but people in Milwaukee seem unsure whether the guard was actually here. Sources report Governor Scott Walker activated the guard, though wouldn’t deploy them unless requested by MPD Chief Ed Flynn. I’ve ran into people who seem to believe the official narrative, but it sure didn’t seem that way come night.


News cast posted by Milwaukee residents on Facebook stating the guard hadn’t been deployed.


–Ground-Air Militarized Zone–


My first aircraft sighting was with friends, as a large military-style helicopter flew low over our heads. It appeared to be headed northeast, towards the Burleigh street riots. Then came planes at various altitudes, arriving over the course of an hour. This sustained until I left to meet other friends who were filming the orbiting aircraft.

After meeting, two of us witnessed a larger model of plane flying east to west emitting what appeared to be a mist or spray. The same plane would appear an hour later, going west to east. Whereas the helicopter was greenish, and appeared large enough to carry troops, the mist plane was grey and unmarked. It seemed sleek and smooth, flying quieter than the others. The craft seemed capable of going unnoticed were it not for the beautifully clear skies.

Shop fire in the Party Superstore, Lavender Hill, Clapham Junction, England, 8 August, 2011

FILE: Lavender Hill, Clapham Junction, England, 8 August, 2011 By Andy Armstrong via Wikimedia Commons

Several rotor-based planes flew in circles all night, remaining after other aircraft dispersed. Even as I began writing this on August 16th, these planes swept the city–two or three at a time–focused over the Burleigh area. The second night of the guard activation saw those planes do wider sweeps, and continued another night–August 17th–even though riots didn’t. Sweeps seemed to grow wider once a curfew was enacted, and then obeyed.

What they’re doing is a mystery, but a similar phenomenon occurred in Baltimore. As protests morphed into riots, residents used twitter to bring attention to unusual circling planes. A particularly ominous surveillance program had been dragged up from the depths of a joint techie-journalist investigation. FBI attached devices that trick phones to provide data by mimicking a cellphone tower to the planes, mass collecting data. Inferred technology was also used, powerful enough to see within people’s homes.

Both devices are unconstitutional by the way, and FBI was put on blast for their activities. Officials claimed the planes were used to detect riot activity on the ground allowing for rapid responses. In reality, they  largely flew over daytime protests collecting data from thousands of ordinary residents. As I watch rotor-planes pass through Milwaukee’s clouds–casting wider circles by the night–I can’t help but think of Baltimore. For two nights they came at the cusp of dusk and continued who knows how long into the night. Come day, they disappeared with everything else.

Other’s claimed to have seen military ground vehicles driving around the city responding with police. These are eye witness accounts, however, some relatively close to riot zones. None of these, to my knowledge, have broken through into mainstream coverage. As such, perhaps it’s best to take them with a grain of salt despite their high likelihood of being true. Some, including myself, saw aircraft which didn’t fit the profile of usual manned craft. These may or may not have been rotor drones, though we can’t be sure.

The first night’s air traffic was the most intense, the most dramatic. This eventually lessened from military craft flying about to simply the roter planes doing their cryptic sweeps. Reports of riots have ceased, though I do suspect the only one’s who know what’s going on are those who live there. As ominous as the militarized atmosphere just days ago was, it has apparently halted. Is this to be trusted, or are we all just waiting for things to flare up again?