A demonstration of support for Black youth at Milwaukee’s Sherman Park quickly turned into a confrontation between law enforcement officers and community members after an African-American teen was taken into custody by Milwaukee police.
The incident, which occurred shortly after 8 p.m. Thursday night, involved a Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Deputy and two Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) officers approaching a group of teens who were playing music through a speaker and dancing near the Sherman Park playground just south of West Burleigh Street. There were about 80 people present, including state and local elected officials and individuals from the City of Milwaukee Office of Violence Prevention. A number of law enforcement vehicles and clusters of officers had surrounded the area occupied by the group, even before the incident occurred.
According to MPD Officer Steve Basting, the law enforcement officers asked the teens to stop the music because it was too loud.
“Then, there was another individual, apparently going to fight somebody,” Basting told a group of local media who arrived after the incident. “Officers intervened … He eventually got — according to what … I wasn’t here — got off his bike, squared off with the officer and was taken into custody.”
But eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Kwabena Nixon, a local spoken-word artist and part of the “Saving our Sons/I Will Not Die Young” campaign, said he saw the officers approach six to eight youth on the fringe of the playground whom he described as “peaceful.”
“One police officer came over in a defiant mood, [and said], ‘You gotta go.’ We asked them (the children), ‘Okay, move to the center (of the playground) over here.’ He (the officer) says, ‘No, they can’t even do it over there,’” Nixon said.
“[As] soon as that happened, one young man on the bike rode up, and he said—he said a few words, but he rode off on his bike,” Nixon continued. “He said something outta pocket but that was it — he rode off.”
Gabriel Moses, 34, a resident of the area, corroborated Nixon’s account. “His back was to [the officer]. It was like three or four police on their bikes,” she said.
She said, as the young man was leaving, the officer, whose identity has not been confirmed, threatened to arrest him if he said anything else.
“You already see he’s upset and he’s a teenager and, you know, he’s not gonna give you the last word — that’s how teenagers are. So, you tell him that you’re gonna give him one more time … of course he’s gonna say, ‘Man, fuck you, this the park; you leave me alone,’ you know, and ride off,” Moses said. “But he was already riding off.”
When asked by a reporter if there was anyone else they could speak with, who was present during the incident, Basting said, “No, you’ve got me. No, not the officer (who was involved).”
He added, “This is what happened, okay. He squared off with the officer and he was taken into custody.”
Bystanders could be heard saying, “He has the right to speak,” and “Disrespect is not a crime.”
A Milwaukee Stories reporter observed MPD officers tackle the young man, who reports said was as young as 14 or 15 years old, from behind while on his bicycle. The crowd of bystanders and additional law enforcement reacted quickly to the incident, swarming to where the officers and young man had gone down.
“People [were] just asking simple questions and they got super hostile,” Nixon said. “They formed their wall … and it got worse and worse. Several of them (people in the group) were just asking simple questions and they were like, ‘Back up, I don’t have nothing to say to you.’ So, who’s hostile, us or them?”
Leaders of the group, including elected officials, city officials, members of the Black Panthers and others, helped to de-escalate the tense situation. Though one 13-year-old boy was hit in the jaw when attempting to pull others away from a police car, no one else was detained by law enforcement. The crowd was ordered to return to the playground area, which it did. By then, there were at least 20 squad cars and more than 50 law enforcement officers in the immediate vicinity.
Moses said the heavy presence of law enforcement is “aggravating” and “threatening” to the children. “They’re not up here to protect them, they’re up here to arrest them,” she said. “And they (the kids) feel that so that’s why they [are] extra defensive and anything they try to tell them to do … they are not gonna take it in stride because they feel threatened already.”
Maria Hamilton, the mother of Dontre Hamilton who was shot and killed by a Milwaukee police officer in 2014, said she spoke with a Sergeant at the scene who informed her the young man had been taken to the District 7 police station. A District 7 Lieutenant Charles, who declined to give his first name, said he was “not aware of anybody who’s been taken into custody” and declined to confirm any details including the child’s age, charges, whether he had been released and who the officers involved were.
Charles said, “I’m not in the habit of giving that information out over the phone. My policy doesn’t indicate that I have to.”
Reports at the scene indicated the boy had been arrested and charged with disorderly conduct.
District 9 Ald. Chantia Lewis was also present during the incident. “This is very disheartening, because it was a great moment,” she said. “A great moment where we could come together as elected officials, community leaders, to wrap our arms around our kids and let them know that we’re here for them and that we are gonna make sure that they’re safe and that they’re secure. And, then, we have overzealous officers just taking it too far. So, I’m not happy.”
David Muhammad, who was involved in organizing the demonstration, said the event’s original intent was to be a “holistic response to community trauma.” Muhammad, a violence prevention manager with the City of Milwaukee Health Department, said the events of Wednesday night — when it was reported that a large group of youth were involved in a violent standoff with police in riot gear — were the result of young people not having productive outlets for their energy.
Marlyn Tinsley, with the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office, said the children at the park on Thursday were not the same ones involved in Wednesday’s incident.
Muhammah also said the youth may simply not know the best way to properly engage with law enforcement, or each other. He said it’s important for the older generations to show them love and respect and listen to their needs.
“We don’t need to see any more situations like what happened [Wednesday] night. So, it’s our intention to make our presence known wherever young people are this summer. The older generations that have failed them are now taking responsibility for atoning for the things we’ve done wrong.”
However, that’s not the only issue, according to Muhammad. “Violence is the symptom of bigger problems. It’s a health concern,” he said. “What we see happening in the city is just symptomatic of the fact that there’s a community that has suffered neglect.”
An original member of the Milwaukee Black Panthers and a general of the party who identified himself as King Rick, said the group, which he’s been a part of since 1967, has been patrolling the city streets for the last five months, particularly in the 53206 ZIP code, Milwaukee’s poorest. “Our goal is to make sure that our children are taken care of, our women are taken care of and our community is taken care of — that’s why we’re here,” he said. “We want to make sure that our children know you [need to] love, honor and respect them.”
At the same time, William Muhammad, a student minister at Muhammad Mosque #3, implored the youth, after Thursday’s incident, to act with restraint.
“You can not allow them to provoke your anger, your action. You have to have control over yourself so that the media won’t say, ‘Well, they can’t be dealt with in a civil manner; they can’t be respected because they don’t have respect,’” he said. “You are the best that we have made. And, what just took place, it was not your fault — it was their fault. So, you keep your emotion, because we all know what happened here. You keep your dignity. We know. And, what I’m telling you, and what I’m letting you know … [is] we got your back, we will speak for you, we will fight for you.”
By 9 p.m. a light rain had begun to fall on Sherman Park, and the crowd started to disperse, while law enforcement vehicles, some with their lights off and some on, continued to surround the area. All Milwaukee County Parks close at 10 p.m.