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The problems that led to Milwaukee’s riots exist in way more US cities than Milwaukee

Police violence, mass incarceration, and segregation are a big part of many large American cities — and they leave black communities hurt and angry.

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Violence and riots erupt in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, after police shooting. Bilgin Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

When riots and protests break out in an American city after police kill yet another black man, many people react with shock and disbelief. The latest events in Milwaukee were no different. Quickly, the theme on predominantly white social media circles fell on two questions: Why is this happening? What’s wrong with these people?

But not everyone was surprised. Many of Milwaukee’s residents, particularly its black residents, seemed to have known this was long in the making. Milwaukee alderman Khalif Rainey, for example, described the city as a “powder keg” that “has become the worst place to live for African Americans in the entire country.”

Patrick Jones, a historian who studied the civil rights movement in Milwaukee and wrote The Selma of the North: Civil Rights Insurgency in Milwaukee, agrees, telling me, “It is, sadly and tragically, the inevitable result of a process that’s been ongoing for decades and decades — a process of systemic discrimination, oppression, inequality against the African-American community.”

Knowing the history behind all of this, Jones said, is crucial not just to understanding what made the city explode following the police shooting of Sylville Smith, a 23-year-old black man. It’s also critical to understanding why this kind of unrest is happening not only in Milwaukee but in Baltimore, Ferguson, Missouri, and other places that have reacted with fury to police killings of black men over the past few years.

In these places, there have long been big problems — housing, jobs, basic health, incarceration — that have aggrieved and hurt black communities, leaving a lot of anger ready to boil over at the point of just one more perceived injustice.

So although it may be easy to write off the events in Milwaukee as a one-off reaction to a single police shooting, they’re really about a system and society all across the US that has left black people behind for generations.

The many warning signs in Milwaukee

The aftermath of riots in Milwaukee after the police shooting of Sylville Smith, a 23-year-old black man.
The aftermath of riots in Milwaukee after the police shooting of Sylville Smith, a 23-year-old black man.
Bilgin Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

In the initial round of reactions to Milwaukee, many people asked why Smith became a martyr for the city’s protesters. He had a long arrest record. Police said he was armed. And he allegedly fled from police at a traffic stop. Simply put, Smith wasn’t the ideal face of a protest movement.

The simple truth is Milwaukee’s black residents have long had reason to take to the streets to voice their anger and frustration. Smith’s death, regardless of his story’s details, was just the last straw.

It’s a well-known problem within the city. In 2015, NPR published an article frankly asking, “Why Is Milwaukee So Bad For Black People?” And previous analyses declared Milwaukee the most racially segregated metropolitan area in the country.

The segregation is extremely obvious with one glance at a demographics map. Just look at this example, from the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service:

A map of racial segregation in the Milwaukee area. Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service

There’s almost no overlap here: Black residents are focused in the north urban core, Hispanic residents in the south, and white residents remain along the outskirts of the area.

But while Milwaukee may get special attention for some of its extreme numbers, its story is really not unlike that of other Northern cities in the midst and aftermath of the Great Migration — when black Americans, throughout the 20th century, moved in droves from the rural South to the urban North to escape Jim Crow and find new job opportunities. But in the North, black people found a different type of systemic racism.

Jones, the historian, explained:

What they find is a different but new system of inequality and racial discrimination. They face broad and widespread employment discrimination, which then results in significant unemployment and impoverishment among African Americans. They’re discriminated against not just by employers, but many labor unions. … In housing, there’s systematic segregation — restrictive covenants, redlining, blockbusting, steering. … You had an unequal education system. You had a social system of segregation that was not mandated by law but by the behavior of whites against African Americans. … You had broad and pervasive racial stereotyping against African Americans — denigrating black people [and] black impoverishment.

The result is devastating for black communities — stranding them in neighborhoods ridden with poverty, crime, and poor schools, and without the means to climb out.

These factors then limit job and educational opportunities, inhibiting black residents from progressing. Study after study has repeatedly found that where you live can have an enormous effect on your life — from income to life expectancy. Segregation, then, dooms many black people to die younger and struggle with poverty while they’re alive.

These disparities have only been worsened by a criminal justice system that frequently targets black Americans. Milwaukee was not indifferent to this particular issue; the police killings of Derek Williams and Dontre Hamilton over the past few years also inspired protests against police.

These deaths led to some 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 in their daily lives that police are being held more accountable for violence and misconduct.

For example, in Wisconsin, one in eight black men of working age are locked up — the highest incarceration rate in the country, according to research by John Pawasarat and Lois Quinn at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. And about two-thirds of the state’s black prison population came from six zip codes in the poorest neighborhoods of Milwaukee.

So over the weekend, Smith’s death was simply the boiling point for tensions that had been steadily climbing for years and years. What’s more, many other cities are primed for discord with the same set of issues.

It’s not just Milwaukee. It’s Baltimore. It’s Ferguson. It’s Cleveland. The list goes on and on.

Police stand guard in Baltimore as riots and protests break out over the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody.
Police stand guard in Baltimore as riots and protests break out over the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The big mistake anyone can make looking at Milwaukee is thinking that the riots and protests are just a one-off event. That is not true on a local level; there’s a very long history of problems for the city’s black population. But Milwaukee isn’t an anomaly; there are many, many other cities in America facing the exact same issues — and not just in the South or in Republican-majority communities, where many people assume systemic racism is clustered.

“This is a national problem,” Jones said. “Milwaukee is in the spotlight right now, but it gives us an opportunity to see the national problem. That’s why the state of Wisconsin and the city of Milwaukee alone are not going to be able to address it: It’s a problem that we’ve created nationally over many decades.”

Look at the Democrat-controlled, Northern city of Baltimore, where residents also took to the streets last year to riot following the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who was fatally injured while in police custody.

In the news reports and social media reactions that followed, many focused on the facts of Gray’s case — that he had an arrest record, didn’t cooperate with police, and so on. But what people were really furious about was not just Gray; it was the overall system that had, from their perspective, let people like Gray languish in poverty and crime for decades.

Baltimore may not rank as highly as Milwaukee in terms of segregation, but residents of color there still fare pretty badly. In fact, Baltimore’s government was a national leader in establishing neighborhood segregation — creating a legislative model that enacted residential segregation, which cities from Birmingham, Alabama, to New Orleans, Louisiana, to Indianapolis, Indiana, swiftly followed. Those policies still have a lingering impact on Baltimore housing today.

Like Milwaukee, the segregation in the Baltimore area is readily seen on the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service’s map, with black and white neighborhoods very cleanly divided:

A map of racial segregation in Baltimore. Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service

Then there are all the other problems that come with segregation. For example, a 2015 report by the Justice Policy Institute and Prison Policy Initiative found that more than half the residents of the Baltimore neighborhood at the center of protests over Gray’s death didn't have jobs between 2008 and 2012, and nearly one-third of the residential properties in the area were vacant or abandoned in 2012.

“Only six miles separate the Baltimore neighborhoods of Roland Park and Hollins Market,” John Hopkins University’s Jonathan Bagger explained, “but there is a 20-year difference in the average life expectancy.”

And then there’s what we now know about the Baltimore Police Department. As the Department of Justice found in its thorough investigation, this police force effectively failed at every single level. It was racially discriminatory, with leadership giving and covering up outright racist orders. It violated rights protected by the First and Fourth Amendments. It apparently failed to take sexual assault cases seriously, with officers at times dismissing serious rape allegations as “bullshit” and mocking the victims. And it had little to no serious accountability when cops were abusive to locals.

Think about this for a moment. Baltimore’s black population lived under this racist, dysfunctional police department for years. They filed lawsuits complaining about it. They told the media their stories. No one seemed to listen. No one with the ability to change anything took them seriously.

Is it any wonder the city exploded into riots and protests after years of dealing with this?

As with Milwaukee, the lesson from Baltimore is that the city was long primed for the kind of chaos and disorder it witnessed after Freddie Gray’s death. One police killing may be the immediate cause, but deeper issues led to the anger that eventually erupted.

You could do this with just about any big city in America. Whether it’s New York City, Cleveland, Chicago, New Orleans, San Francisco, Los Angeles, or any big urban area, all these places have similar problems with racial segregation, economic inequality, health disparities, concentrated pockets of crime, and troubled, discriminatory police forces — some of which were investigated by the Justice Department as well, with unsettling results.

That’s the takeaway from Milwaukee, Baltimore, and other places rocked by unrest in the past few years: It may seem like this violence came out of nowhere. But for black residents in these places, it was no surprise — for good reason.

“Leading up to the civil rights era, many white people [in Milwaukee] loved to pat themselves on the back, saying, ‘We’re not like other cities. We don’t have these problems,’” Jones explained. “Until these kinds of explosive moments begin to happen. And then there’s a sense of, ‘That’s not us. This can’t be really us. It must be something about those people bringing those problems in.’ That’s where we see racism comes into it.”


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