Tuesday, a crowd of about 100 people gathered at Red Arrow Park downtown to remember Dontre Hamilton, the 31-year-old man who was shot 14 times by a Milwaukee police officer in April. Hamilton’s family was also in attendance.
The rally, held on the five-month anniversary of Hamilton’s death, was organized as a remembrance as well as a call-to-action for city and state officials, who have failed to make a charging decision regarding the case or to release a report by the Wisconsin Division of Criminal Investigation, which was completed more than a month ago, while awaiting the results of another, independent, investigation.
Milwaukee County Supervisor, and representative-elect to the 10th District Assembly, David Bowen spoke plainly to the crowd. “The facts are that [the Milwaukee District Attorney’s Office is] not releasing the information that I asked for two months ago. I said, ‘The investigation is over from the state; it’s time to at least be transparent to the public so they can see that we’re working in their favor,’” he said, “…and we still have not seen that.”
And Nate Hamilton, Dontre’s older brother, told Milwaukee Stories the family is looking for a homicide charge, whatever the specifics may be. “We want the officer charged. You know, we want him charged with murder (homicide), whether it’s first degree, whether it’s intentional, whether it’s reckless, whether it’s negligent. He has to face what he did out here and we feel it’s only appropriate.”
Not an isolated incident
Others who have lost loved ones attended the event; among them were Michael Bell Sr. and Craig Stingley. Bell lost his son, Michael Jr., after he was shot in the head during a scuffle with Milwaukee police in 2004. Craig, the father of Corey Stingley, lost his son after three men, all civilians, restrained the 16-year-old inside a West Allis convenience store where Stingley had reportedly been attempting to steal alcoholic beverages. Stingley died of anoxic encephalopathy, brain damage caused by lack of oxygen.
In both cases, no one involved was charged and in Bell’s case a review board quickly absolved all officers involved of wrongdoing. According to Al Jazeera America, In 129 years, no Wisconsin police officer has ever been found by a review board to be at fault for killing someone.
The killing of Michael Bell Jr. led to a 10-year mission by Bell Sr. to address the conflict of interest that presents itself when police departments investigate their own officers. His goal was simple: “If a police officer takes a life, let’s make sure that the department [that] was involved in that shooting doesn’t investigate itself.” Bell’s effort resulted in Governor Scott Walker signing a bill in April of this year that requires all officer-involved deaths in Wisconsin to be investigated by at least two outside investigators selected by the police department from an agency that does not employ the officer involved in the death.
Craig Stingley has been vocal about the fact that he disagrees with Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisolm’s decision not to issue any charges in the wake of his son’s death. Stingley has asked the United States Department of Justice to look into the case as well as, in late 2013, starting a petition on moveon.org asking Chisolm to issue charges of 2nd Degree Reckless Homicide. Currently, there are just under 2,000 signatures on the petition, the latest from Sept. 29 of this year.
And, in spite of Chisolm announcing the decision not to issue charges, Stingley continues to push for a trial, driven by his belief that justice must be served. “I will keep on asking the government to do what they’re supposed to do. And, so, all I can do is hold up the documents that they say are supposed to govern me and put it right before them,” he said. “And, until they do it, I have to keep pushing.”
Because, in Stingley’s opinion, refusing to issue charges, any charges, shows a blatant disregard for the established laws. “I had another attorney who was a prosecutor tell me – and told the D.A. – ‘You have enough evidence to charge this case,’ and he (District Attorney Chisolm) refused to do it. That’s corruption, to me; that’s a cover-up…it’s a strong word and I’m gonna continue to use it.”
A bigger picture
The deaths of Stingley and Hamilton have occurred within a larger, nationwide narrative of violence and use of excessive force against unarmed Black males, including the killing of Trayvon Martin by a civilian in 2012 and the recent shooting of unarmed Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Mo., police officer. Other recent incidents involve a South Carolina State Trooper shooting an unarmed man in a gas station parking lot when the man reached into his car after the trooper asked for his license and an Ohio man who was holding an air rifle being shot to death by police in a local Walmart.
Curtis Sails addressed the crowd to open the event, Tuesday, saying, “As I look into this crowd, this diverse crowd, this multicultural crowd, this crowd of brothers, this crowd of sisters, this crowd of friends and maybe some enemies, we are here today to celebrate and honor the life of our brother, our fallen brother, brother Dontre Hamilton who was shot fourteen times right here in this park, a couple feet from where we stand. Today, we are gathered to honor his life. Today, we are gathered to pay tribute to him. But, today, we are also here to take a stand, a stand against injustice. We are here to say, as a community, we won’t take it any more. We’re here to say, as a community, that this has to stop. We are here to say, as a community, that our lives matter. Not just white lives, not just black lives, not just brown lives but all lives.”
That sentiment of social justice and the issues being bigger than just this situation was echoed by many of the people who attended including Cherise Dawson, an African-American mother of two girls. “It’s important for me to be there today because I’m a role model for my children and when injustice is done to one person in my community it’s done to everybody,” said Dawson. “I want to make Milwaukee better for my children and how can I do that if I don’t participate in this?”
Craig Stingley said the response we’re seeing is a result of not only the feeling that justice is not being served in these particular situations but that these situations are also only the most recent chapter in an ongoing narrative that, over time, has eroded the public’s trust in law enforcement and the judicial system, in general. “When you see examples of it decade after decade after decade and, you know, it doesn’t change and then another black life is taken and the judicial system doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do, people start losing hope and faith,” said Stingley.
Though those who attended the rally are looking for larger change, they also have some immediate, tangible goals in mind, which Nate Hamilton outlined. “We want the police department to change policies and procedures when dealing with an officer that’s under a criminal investigation. He shouldn’t be allowed to work, he shouldn’t be paid while he’s under a criminal investigation, meaning: you did something wrong to put you in this situation, we have to investigate it, we’re not gonna pay you to sit up here and be at work, be in the faces of other officers.”
As the protestors readied themselves to walk the streets of downtown, Steve Jerbi, senior pastor at All Peoples Church, implored the crowd with a message of hope. “We stand here, on hallowed ground, where the ground itself cries out for the blood that was shed here in this park. Month after month, week after week, we have come to cry out for a hopeful city, for a safe city, for a city that is not divided but a city that is united; for a city that will not stand for police officers to take on the title of judge, jury and executioner; to say that our public officials will not be able to turn away from our cries any more; to say that the time has come for Milwaukee to be free, for all lives to be liberated, for the forces of violence to be held back and to say that business as usual cannot continue. We are mourning the death of loved ones but we are also proclaiming a day of jubilee, a day when we will not be held back, a day when our voices will not be silenced.
“We are here to be a people on the move and we will bear witness to the hope for this city as we remember the lives of those who were lost. We do this not out of grief but out of power. We are a powerful people; let us march with power.”