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The police shooting of Jacob Blake, explained

Blake’s shooting has inspired intense protests, a professional sports strike, and fiery rhetoric from President Trump.

Three young black men, two of them shirtless, stand together, raising their right fists high into the air. The man on the right is wearing a multicolored shirt with the sleeves pushed up. They are lit by the yellow glow of sodium lights and by the lights of passing cars. A crowd of protesters is clustered behind them.
Protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on August 26, 2020, raise their fists at a demonstration against the police shooting of Jacob Blake.
Kerem Yucel/AFP/Getty Images

Amid America’s summer of protests against police brutality and racism, another police shooting of a Black man has gone viral: that of 29-year-old Kenosha, Wisconsin, resident Jacob Blake.

Blake survived the shooting, and said in a video taken at the hospital where he is receiving treatment that he has been in “nothing but pain.”

“Your life, and not only just your life, your legs … can be taken from you like this,” Blake said in the video, snapping his fingers.

Blake’s father told the Chicago Sun-Times his son is paralyzed from the waist down. Rusten Sheskey, a white officer who is a seven-year veteran of the Kenosha Police Department, reportedly shot Blake in the back at close range seven times on August 23.

The shooting sparked local protests (during which a 17-year-old vigilante killed two people), reignited national unrest, prompted professional athletes to strike, and has become a central talking point for Democrats and Republicans as each party attempts to use it as evidence of the other side’s inability to govern.

Now, the FBI has opened a civil rights investigation into the shooting, in conjunction with an investigation by the Wisconsin Department of Justice. And both Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, have called for Blake’s shooter to face criminal charges.

Sheskey and the other two officers on the scene — Vincent Arenas and Brittany Meronek — have been placed on administrative leave. Arenas and Sheskey both shot Blake with Tasers before the latter fired on him with a handgun; Meronek was at the scene. But these developments and their impact on Blake and his family have been eclipsed by a national conversation about what Blake’s shooting means, and what the resultant protests say about the state of America.

Blake’s shooting, captured on video by a bystander, quickly went viral and further stoked the ongoing national protests against police brutality and for civil rights that began following the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.

In Kenosha, protesters were quick to respond to the video. Hours after the shooting took place, demonstrators gathered in downtown Kenosha; in the resulting uprising, buildings and car lots were set on fire and protesters who launched fireworks clashed with police officers in riot gear who fired tear gas.

Immediately following that uprising, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers called in the state National Guard to bolster the ranks of local law enforcement and to enforce the city’s curfew.

More National Guard members were deployed during the third night of uprisings — a night that saw armed citizens standing guard outside local businesses. One of those citizens, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse of Illinois, was arrested and charged with murder in the shooting of three people, two of whom died.

That shooting, in turn, has led to an even greater National Guard presence — and to Evers accepting a deployment of federal law enforcement officers amid pressure from President Donald Trump to do so. Trump has cast the uprisings in Kenosha and in other cities as symptoms of mismanagement and has attempted to use them to argue that he is the presidential candidate who will bring “LAW & ORDER!” to the United States. Democrats like presidential nominee Joe Biden have attempted to place the blame for violence adjacent to uprisings at the feet of the president.

Blake’s mother, Julia Jackson, has pleaded for politicians to “fix our country” while condemning the destruction that happened during the early uprisings in Kenosha. “As his mother, please don’t burn up property and cause havoc and tear your own homes down in my son’s name,” she said on CNN after the first two nights of protests.

In Kenosha, protesters heeded Jackson’s request but have continued their demonstrations. And across the US, Blake’s shooting has given new urgency to demonstrations in other cities and towns, sharpening the calls of protesters who say Americans must continue to take to the streets to fight the harmful cycle of police brutality and put pressure on lawmakers to defund the police.

Police shot and severely wounded a Black man in broad daylight

Police were called to the scene of a domestic incident at 5:11 pm on Sunday in the Wilson Heights neighborhood of Kenosha, according to a police report. The Wisconsin Department of Justice notes the police were called to the neighborhood by a woman who requested assistance because “her boyfriend was present and was not supposed to be on the premises.”

In dispatch audio of the incident, a dispatcher can be heard saying, “Jacob Blake isn’t supposed to be there and he took the complainant’s keys and is refusing to give them back.”

Following the shooting, several witnesses told Kenosha News that Blake was trying to break up a “verbal altercation” between two women just after 5 pm. By 5:15, there were three officers on the scene, with one requesting more officers be sent.

Two videos of the officers’ interaction with Blake have emerged. The first, which went viral, depicts Blake’s shooting; the second shows some of what happened in the seconds immediately prior.

In that second video, Blake, wearing a white tank top and black shorts, can be seen attempting to stand as two officers struggle to force him to the ground; various bystanders shout throughout. After about 15 seconds, Blake can be seen standing and walking around the front of a gray van. All three officers on the scene have weapons trained on him; two follow him around the van.

This is where the first video picks up. Blake can be seen walking around the front of a gray van, coming from the passenger’s side and heading toward the driver’s side. Two officers follow closely behind Blake.

Both officers have their weapons pointed at Blake’s back. Many people can be heard yelling. As Blake opens the driver-side door, one officer snatches the tail end of Blake’s tank top. It stretches out as Blake attempts to enter the vehicle; seven shots are fired at Blake’s back. No other officer opened fire. The van’s horn blares, the officer continues to hold on to Blake’s shirt, and a woman screams at the side of the vehicle where Blake was shot. One of the officers pushes the woman away, and the 19-second video comes to an end.

Blake remains hospitalized. The bullet damage reportedly forced doctors to remove most of Blake’s colon and small intestines; his kidneys, liver, and arm were also seriously damaged.

A statement from the state Department of Justice notes that officers tried to arrest Blake; following the shooting, Kenosha Police Chief Daniel Miskinis said Blake is currently under arrest “for an outstanding warrant for third-degree sexual assault.”

It is not clear whether the officers who were called to Wilson Heights were attempting to arrest Blake due to this warrant. It is clear that they first used Tasers to try to apprehend him; the Wisconsin DOJ statement says the nonlethal weapon “was not successful at stopping Blake.”

The police department said in a statement that Blake received immediate aid and was airlifted to the hospital in Milwaukee. The state attorney general, Josh Kaul, has said Blake noted he had a knife in his possession when the shooting occurred. Officials from the department recovered the knife from the driver-side floorboard of Blake’s vehicle.

The Kenosha Police Department does not have body cameras, so the officers were not wearing any at the time of the incident, according to the statement.

Jacob Blake’s family retained civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, who also represents the family of George Floyd. According to a statement from Crump, Blake was shot by police in front of his three young sons, who were inside the vehicle.

“We all watched the horrific video of Jacob Blake being shot in the back several times by Kenosha police,” Crump said in the statement. “Even worse, his three sons witnessed their father collapse after being riddled with bullets. Their irresponsible, reckless, and inhumane actions nearly cost the life of a man who was simply trying to do the right thing by intervening in a domestic incident. It’s a miracle he’s still alive.”

Meanwhile, both Biden and Harris have called for the officer who shot Blake to face charges. “I think that there should be a thorough investigation and, based on what I’ve seen, it seems that the officer should be charged,” Harris said in an August 28 interview. And when asked on September 2 if he agreed with her, Biden said that “there’s a minimum need to be charged” and “we should let the judicial system work its way.”

Nights of unrest — and the shooting of three people — in Kenosha

Protests began the night after Blake was shot on August 23, leading to a number of uprisings and escalating tension with local police.

Following the shooting, videos on social media showed protests that included garbage trucks being set on fire, windows of buildings at and near the courthouse being smashed, and crowds clashing with police dressed in riot gear. In response, county officials instituted a curfew, and Wisconsin’s governor began to deploy members of the Wisconsin National Guard to Kenosha.

The city grew more tense in the following nights as organized marches outside the Kenosha County Courthouse gave way to uprisings after the 8 pm curfew. Fires burned in much of Kenosha’s Black business district, according to Reuters, and protesters used bats to break traffic signals and signs. When the crowd of people reached 1,000 at a park near the courthouse, police shot small beanbags and used “ear deafening audio” to disperse the people who refused to move, according to the Washington Post. The unrest has since spread to other cities including Madison, Portland, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York, and Seattle.

On August 25, violence erupted at the protests in Kenosha when a group of men with guns who said they were protecting the property clashed with protesters. Online video footage shows that people were chasing after one of the armed men, identified as 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, in an attempt to capture him and seize his AR-15-style rifle. During the chase, Rittenhouse trips and falls to the ground, where he shoots at a few of the people who were following him. After the shooting, he gets up and walks toward law enforcement officials, who do not detain him, despite bystanders screaming that he had just shot people.

Two of three people were fatally hit, with the other taken to the hospital with “serious, but non-life threatening injuries,” according to the Kenosha Police Department.

Rittenhouse is a self-proclaimed militia member, has ties to law enforcement as a former member of various law enforcement youth training programs, and was front row at a Trump rally in January. Rittenhouse’s Facebook profile, which is no longer publicly accessible, revealed that he is a committed Blue Lives Matter supporter:

[...] a 2018 post on Rittenhouse’s page shows that he asked his followers to donate to the police advocacy nonprofit organization Humanizing the Badge on his birthday. “I’ve chosen this nonprofit because their mission means a lot to me, and I hope you’ll consider contributing as a way to celebrate with me,” Rittenhouse wrote.

In a press conference on the Rittenhouse incident, Kenosha Police Chief Daniel Miskinis tried to shift the blame of the shootings onto the protesters and the people who were shot, saying that if protesters had stayed inside, the shootings would perhaps not have taken place. “Everybody involved was out after the curfew. I’m not going to make a great deal of it, but the point is that the curfew is in place to protect. Had persons not been out in violation of that, perhaps the situation that unfolded would not have happened,” he said.

At the same press conference, Kenosha Sheriff David G. Beth responded to the concern that police officers did not apprehend Rittenhouse when he walked past them. “I’ve been in a shooting before. In situations that are high stress, you have such incredible tunnel vision. You have no idea what’s outside right here if you’re looking right here,” Beth said, holding his hands up to gesture.

Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian, meanwhile, said he does not want militia members at protests. “I don’t need more guns on the street, in the community, when we are trying to make sure we keep people safe,” he said. “Law enforcement is trained. They’re the ones who are responsible. They’re the ones we have faith will do their job and make sure it gets done. That is why the curfews are there.”

On the national level, Republicans are trying to paint the unrest in Kenosha as a preview of Joe Biden’s America, even though the shooter was a Trump supporter and the protests are happening during Trump’s presidency. “Joe Biden would double down on the very policies that are leading to violence in American cities. The hard truth is you will not be safe in Joe Biden’s America,” Vice President Mike Pence said during the Republican National Convention. Trump went on to tell Americans that the protests show “no one will be safe in Biden’s America.”

Biden has rebutted these attacks, saying in a speech in Pittsburgh, “These are not images of some imagined Joe Biden America of the future — these are images of Donald Trump’s America today. ... He keeps telling you, if he was president, you’d feel safe. Well, he is president — whether he knows it or not.”

Police violence is not uncommon in Wisconsin

The ongoing protests continued those that began after Floyd’s death and underscored the fact that police shootings of unarmed Black civilians are not new occurrences in Wisconsin, a state in which Black people make up just 6.7 percent of the population. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Milwaukee region has been home to a number of high-profile police shootings — particularly of Black and Latinx men — in the past two decades, in which officers were not charged. One of the victims, 22-year-old Adam Trammell, died in 2017 after officers from the West Milwaukee Police Department broke down the door of his apartment and repeatedly Tased him as he showered.

The 2019 police shooting of Ty’Rese West in Racine County, just north of Kenosha County, also resulted in no charges against the police. A police sergeant stopped West one evening for not having the proper lights on his bicycle. A struggle ensued after the sergeant thought West had a gun. The incident ended when the sergeant fatally shot West. The death sparked protests across Racine County, and West’s family has not stopped issuing calls for justice.

Years of grassroots organizing after the police shooting of 21-year-old Kenosha County resident Michael Bell in 2004 led to the passing of a Milwaukee law in 2014 that prevents police officers from conducting their own investigations of officer-involved shootings. As in Blake’s case, an outside law enforcement body must step in to lead the investigation.

But in the wake of George Floyd’s death, criminal justice reform advocates have argued that law doesn’t go far enough, and protesters have demanded state legislators make changes to the criminal justice system. Some local officials across the state responded to these demands by terminating school district contracts with police officers. In June, Evers announced a legislative package that included banning chokeholds and no-knock warrants, adding the requirement that officers take deescalation training, and putting $1 million in grants toward community-based anti-violence programs, according to Wisconsin Public Radio.

However, lawmakers likely won’t vote on any of the proposals until next year. And the package of bills from the state’s Democratic governor has received little support from the Republican lawmakers who control the state’s legislature.

Evers has used Blake’s shooting to call for a renewed focus on race and policing in his state, saying, “We stand against excessive use of force and immediate escalation when engaging with Black Wisconsinites. ... In the coming days, we will demand just that of elected officials in our state who have failed to recognize the racism in our state and our country for far too long.”

But the governor’s statement — and proposed initiatives — have garnered pushback. Pete Deates, president of the union representing Kenosha police officers, denounced the governor’s statement, calling it “wholly irresponsible and not reflective of the hardworking members of the law enforcement community.” Deates asked that people “withhold judgment” about the shooting and let the investigation “play out fairly and impartially.”

Despite this response, protesters in Kenosha and across the country are still demanding systemic change. Michael Bell Sr., the father of shooting victim Michael Bell, told the New York Times following the shooting of Blake, “The system is broken. The system here is broken.”

Correction, August 26: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Jacob Blake was fatally shot.

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