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For Milwaukee, the police shooting of Sylville Smith was the last straw on a huge pile

A man talks to police in riot gear in Milwaukee, following riots and protests over the police shooting of Sylville Smith.
A man talks to police in riot gear in Milwaukee, following riots and protests over the police shooting of Sylville Smith.
Darren Hauck/Getty Images

As Milwaukee’s black community takes to the streets demanding justice over the police shooting of Sylville Smith, many people watching the demonstrations are wondering: Why are people marching — and, at first, burning down their own community — over the police shooting of an armed man with a lengthy arrest record?

Based on what police have said, it sure seems like Smith wasn’t the ideal figure for the broader Black Lives Matter cause over racial disparities in the criminal justice system. He was allegedly armed with a reportedly stolen handgun, which he may have aimed at police. He apparently fled from police in a traffic stop. He had a lengthy arrest record.

But people are furious nonetheless. They have held protests in Milwaukee for the past three days, two of which turned violent late at night. The violence got so bad on the first day that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker activated the National Guard. And after two days of violence, the city shut down the biggest site of the protests — Sherman Park — during the third night.

So why is this shooting apparently infuriating so many people? There are three key things to understand here: For one, there are big racial disparities in police shootings, which activists would like to close even if it means embracing supposedly imperfect victims. There’s also no actual video of the police shooting, so all the reports so far have relied almost entirely on the police account. And while this one police shooting may have been the catalyst for the protests and riots, these demonstrations are really about far deeper issues.

1) There are big racial disparities in police shootings

During protests and riots, it is easy to look at the one catalyst of the event — such as the most recent police killing — as the sole reason people are upset. But as historians who have studied social unrest previously told me, there is usually something deeper going on when people lash out violently on the streets.

One of those deeper issues is that this is not solely about Smith’s death but rather what his death represents — particularly, that there are big racial disparities in how police use force.

Police killings by race. Alvin Chang/Vox

An analysis of the available FBI data by Vox's Dara Lind found that US police kill black people at disproportionate rates: Black people accounted for 31 percent of victims killed by police in 2012, even though they made up just 13 percent of the US population. (The data is incomplete because it's based on voluntary reports from police agencies around the country, but it shows the vast disparities in how police use force.)

Now, police are disproportionately deployed in minority communities, in part because these areas tend to have more crime as a result of broader socioeconomic issues. But a 2015 study by researcher Cody Ross found, "There is no relationship between county-level racial bias in police shootings and crime rates (even race-specific crime rates), meaning that the racial bias observed in police shootings in this data set is not explainable as a response to local-level crime rates." That suggests something else — such as, potentially, racial bias — is going on.

There are also other Milwaukee police killings of black men in recent years that have led to more distrust in police — specifically of Derek Williams and Dontre Hamilton. These deaths helped lead to state and local policing reforms, including changes in how Wisconsin investigates police shootings and a plan to equip all police officers in the city with body cameras by the end of 2016. But for locals, the progress is slow — with few signs police are being held more accountable for violence and misconduct.

Dismantling the racial disparities is at the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement. So since activists would like to see these disparities come down, any death of another black person at the hands of cops is widely seen within the movement as unacceptable — even if the person isn’t a “perfect victim” with a totally clean record.

2) There’s no public video of the actual shooting

So far, we only know what police have said about the shooting, because there’s no publicly available video of the moments of the shooting. And for many protesters and activists, having just the police account is as good as knowing nothing, since they don’t trust police officers enough to take them at their word.

The lack of trust is largely on the criminal justice system and police. Over the past few years, as videos of police shootings have become more widely available, America has seen multiple police killings — Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina, and Samuel DuBose in Cincinnati as two examples — in which officers claimed that a black suspect attacked an officer, only for video to show that nothing of the sort happened.

It’s under this context that many are skeptical of the official police story that Smith tried to turn the gun he had on the officers. So until police release body camera video — as they’ve said they’ll do — protesters are putting their bets on the shooting victim.

3) The protests and riots are about more than police shootings

In the case of Milwaukee, there are other issues, besides police shootings, that led to the protests and riots.

For one, the Milwaukee metropolitan area is the most segregated in the country. This means many black residents are effectively stranded in neighborhoods languished by poverty, crime, and poor schools, feeding into distrust of not just police but the entire system.

A map of racial segregation in the Milwaukee area.
A map of racial segregation in the Milwaukee area. There is almost no overlap between white, black, and Hispanic areas.
Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service

That’s just the beginning of the city’s problems for black residents. As Ashley Luthern and Gina Barton reported for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the city’s schools remain tremendously segregated, and the state’s black-white achievement gap in schools was the highest in the country during the 2013-’14 school year.

The state’s incarceration rate is also very high, with one in eight black men of working age locked up — again, the highest rate in the country. And about two-thirds of the black prison population comes from six zip codes — two of which are in Sherman Park, the site of the protests.

It’s all of these issues that led people to lose so much faith in their communities and governments that they lashed out — even violently at times. For them, it’s not just policing that’s broken, but the whole system.

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