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My birthday was a week ago, and as sad as it is to say, I’m not really much of a birthday person. In fact, on my 17th birthday, the only things I did were come home from playing a baseball game, get a card from my dad, watch "Lost" and go to sleep.
But I do remember the walk home though. It was around 10 or 11 p.m., and I always hated walking home at night because I lived near a wooded area and one never knew what was out there waiting for you. In essence, I was quite concerned for my safety as a young man living in inner-city Milwaukee. Even though much has changed for me over the last seven years, two things that haven’t changed are the area of the city in which I live and that fear of not knowing if this walk home could be your last.
One thing that is very noticeable is the increase in crime occurring in the city of Milwaukee. Last year, crime was up over 70 percent compared to previous years. That stat in and of itself is disappointing. But what is even more disappointing is the response by the leaders of this city to this astounding spike in crime, which has ranged from anemic to patronizing to just plain disrespectful. I don’t really ask for much when it comes to leadership. Just being present is really enough. The problem in Milwaukee though is that we only see the presence of leaders when bad things happen. It’s reactionary leadership, leadership with no plans or sound solutions.
It’s great that Mayor Tom Barrett was going to black churches and doing a press conference with black community leaders following the killing of 9-year-old Za’Layia Jenkins a couple weeks back. But there are two issues I have with his handling of this tragedy. First, it would be nice if he could check in on us inner-city folk more often. I know it’s easy to overlook us, you know with the rampant crime and sparse opportunities. But still we’d like a visit from Mayor Barrett during times other than election season and times of unspeakable tragedy.
Also, the ones that truly need to be reached are not where this mayor seems to be willing to go. They’re in the streets. They’re at failing schools all over the city. Some of them happen to be people who fell off the right track and just need an opportunity to get back on. Right now, though, they’re feeling ignored because they have people leading their city who would rather engage in divisive rhetoric than roll up their sleeves and get to the heart of what is ailing the city. This isn’t "The Lion King" where there are clearly defined sides of good and evil. Inner-city Milwaukee isn’t that shadowy place you must never set foot in. What you see happening in Milwaukee, and in inner cities all over the country for that matter, is the result of years of lip service, neglect and dog-whistle politics.
Speaking of dog-whistle politics, Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn, while speaking at an annual ceasefire breakfast, unveiled his handy-dandy "Four Simple Rules for Not Getting Shot in Milwaukee," which if we’re being honest sounds like it would be one of the worst sitcoms ever. Those four rules are:
- Don’t be part of a gang or crew
- Don’t be a drug dealer
- Don’t carry a gun illegally
- If you get into an argument with people who have criminal records, just walk away
I don’t even want to get into the actual merits of Flynn’s rules. This is only because Flynn is ignorantly, egregiously wrong about the information contained within his rules for not getting shot in Milwaukee. Both the people that do dirt and people that keep their noses clean are getting shot all across the city. In the year 2014, Milwaukee, the city Flynn is supposed to be keeping safe, had 11 children shot.
Laylah Petersen, a little girl who was just sitting in her grandfather’s lap, may not have been a part of a gang. I’m not sure 100 percent sure, though. Bill Thao, a 1-year-old boy shot and killed in his home, more than likely was not out selling drugs. He was probably more concerned with taking his first steps and saying his first words. Sierra Guyton, who was shot in the head while on a playground, wasn’t out there playing cops and robbers with a gun she illegally acquired.
I don’t know if Chief Flynn meant for those rules to be semi-comical or amusing. But best believe they are neither. The pain and anguish of the families of those killed by random stray gunfire is nothing to make light of. It’s not a game out here. People are losing their lives everyday. Even more people are sleeping with one eye open, wondering if they’ll be next. It seems that Flynn’s response to these salient concerns is and has been to villainize the entire community, to surmise that whoever gets shot in this city probably broke the law or sold drugs, so it’s of no concern to him. The attitude that Flynn holds towards the inner city is completely incomprehensible, especially for someone who is supposedly charged with keeping all of us safe.
What I find most disturbing about Chief Flynn’s comments is how patronizing and dismissive they are. We aren’t all lazy, we aren’t all gang-bangers and all of us aren’t on government assistance. You can try to reassure people outside the inner city that there’s no way they’d be shot because the violence is contained in that location and only bad people are shot. But what does that do for the people in the inner city who are kind-hearted and work hard to raise their families? People like me who live and work in fear, questioning on a nightly basis whether they’ve unknowingly entered into that tragic realm of wrong place, wrong time.
With Mayor Barrett, his unwillingness to address the real issues facing this city became glaringly apparent during his mayoral primary a few months ago. During Barrett’s primary race, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published a piece by Daniel Bice in which Bice lambasted Barrett’s primary opponent Joe Davis for having the gall to meet with gang members in Milwaukee’s inner city during what was one of the most violent summers ever in Milwaukee. The meeting happened in July, a full nine months before the article was published. The point of Davis’ meeting was to see what could be done to quell the violence tearing the city apart. But when asked about Ald. Davis’ meeting, a spokesperson for Mayor Barrett called the meeting "irresponsible."
Irresponsible. That one word told me all I needed to know about Mayor Barrett’s leadership quality and the way he views the inner city. Barrett here showed characteristics of what I like to call the "worst type of politician." This is a politician that offers no substantive solutions of their own, yet is quick to shoot down everyone else’s solutions no matter how effective they might be.
How are you going to thumb your nose at someone who is doing the work you are supposed to be doing? These shootings keep happening, and Barrett keeps paying lip service by going to black churches to try to stabilize the situation. It’s an effort to save face from Barrett, an act that’s getting very old and very frustrating. We need for him to be bold and to spend actual time and money in these communities, so that these sad situations don’t occur in the first place. Unfortunately, both Barrett and Flynn don’t seem interested in doing that.
I do want to say, though, that I happen to agree with a good amount of what Flynn has to say about the issue of crime in this city, especially as it pertains to lack of opportunities for people who have served their time and want to be fully integrated back into society. But the issue of how he and Barrett engage with the community still stands, and shows that we cannot even begin to fix a problem that Milwaukee leadership is on record as unwilling to confront. We cannot even begin to help a community that for the most part these leaders have been unwilling to engage with.
Tragedy compels individuals to show us, through both action and inaction, who they truly are. In the case of inner city Milwaukee, these recurring tragedies have shown us what Flynn and Barrett truly think about the Milwaukeeans that reside there. They have shown us that they aren’t here for us. They aren’t working for us and don’t plan to any time soon. We, as a city, need to come to grips with this realization. Barrett, Flynn and a whole host of others are unfit to lead this city, and it’s about high time for some drastic changes to come to the the city of Milwaukee.