What happened in Kenosha, Wisconsin the night Jacob Blake was shot, according to four people who were there.
By Martha Bayne and Grace Del Vecchio
On Sunday, August 23, police in Kenosha, Wisconsin shot twenty-nine-year-old Jacob Blake seven times in the back as he reached into his car, where three of his young children were waiting. According to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Blake had been trying to break up a fight between two other people, and police had been dispatched to the scene. In a video of the event shot by a bystander across the street, an officer chases Blake around his car before shooting him at point-blank range. Blake is Black and appears to have been unarmed; the officers are white. Blake survived the shooting, though his family says he is now paralyzed from the waist down.
As Blake fought for his life Sunday night, residents of the small city on Wisconsin’s southern border—fifty miles north of Chicago and forty south of Milwaukee—took to the streets in fury and frustration. Some set fires and otherwise damaged property. Police responded to the protests with the aggressive force that has become a hallmark of this summer’s uprisings against white supremacy and police violence. Reports of violent policing tactics, including tear gas and rubber bullets, are widespread. Then, on Tuesday night, an armed, teenaged gunman who “considered himself militia” allegedly shot three people with an AR-15 rifle, killing two of them.
Milwaukee and Chicago are two of the most segregated cities in the country, as is Kenosha, sandwiched between them. Out of just under a hundred thousand residents in Kenosha, 79.5 percent are white; just 11.5 percent are Black. The latter are largely concentrated in an area west of Sheridan Road between 75th Street and Washington Road—and largely overlooked in outsider narratives about the working-class Midwest. Once a major manufacturing hub with a bustling Lake Michigan port, Kenosha has—like the rest of the region—suffered from deindustrialization. The American Motors (later Chrysler) Lakefront Assembly Plant, which once employed ten thousand people, closed in 1988, and as of 2019 the city’s median income hovers around $53,000. But despite such markers of white working class disgruntlement, in 2016 Kenosha County voted to elect Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by the slimmest of margins: just 255 votes. Over the summer, following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, Kenosha mobilized with the rest of the nation around the fight for racial justice, but until this week had not seen widespread civil unrest.
In the aftermath of Blake’s shooting and the consequent protests, property destruction, and backlash of lethal violence, an international spotlight has been focused on this small Wisconsin city—one whose most recent media moment had come thanks to an essay in Harpers’ in which the writer proudly declared he’d never heard of Kenosha before he was assigned to visit. Both Donald Trump and Joe Biden have made trips to the city. Many of the facts in the case are disputed, and no body camera footage exists of Blake’s shooting. Though the city unanimously approved the use of body cams in 2017, their implementation has been delayed by budget concerns and procedural squabbles; they are reported to be in the 2021 budget.
A Monday, August 24 press conference by Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian was abruptly moved inside the city’s public safety building after a large crowd gathered and, after the crowd—including several journalists—tried to push into the building, police used pepper spray to keep them out. The Kenosha police chief has since defended police actions, and gone so far as to blame the protesters shot and killed for being out after curfew (he later tried to walk this back). Video later surfaced of sheriff’s deputies appearing to express support for white militia members. The ACLU of Wisconsin called for the resignation of both officers. Meanwhile, the Blake family has called for peace and hosted a “Justice for Jacob” community celebration.
Partisan rancor has, predictably, trumped useful information in the news cycle, as the official narrative is spun, and spun again. But official narratives are not the only ones worth hearing. What follows is an edited account of what some Kenosha residents saw and experienced on Sunday evening, August 23, as told to Martha Bayne and Grace Del Vecchio. It has been edited for clarity and concision.
Dr. Dominique Pritchett, thirty-five, is a mental health clinician in Kenosha specializing in trauma and racial trauma.
Pritchett: [When I heard the news about Jacob Blake], I was at home lying on my couch. And I got a call from some of the other black leaders and they said there’s another video. And I was like, “Of who?” And they said a black man got shot, and they sent it to me. I said, “I don’t need to watch it to know the outcome.” They said, “We need to meet at the police station now.”
So, from what I know the shooting happened about 5:11. Between 5:11 and 5:30. I got the call, I would say about 6:30, 7 o’clock. I made it to the police station about 7:15. It was about a fifteen, twenty minute walk to the police station. And at that time, me and several other community members and black leaders, we locked arms and formed our first few rows of the peaceful protests in front of the police.
Alvin Owens, fifty-two, is a community leader and owns a barbershop in Kenosha.
Owens: When we got there, I would say around about 6:30, 7:00 o’clock, they were already riot gear, standing at the police department on Sunday night. So myself and a couple of other people from the NAACP organization…We were waiting for the night—I’m sorry, the shift supervisor [to come and talk with the other leaders]. He never came out. I don’t believe that they were going to come talk to anybody. But we wanted to make sure that we got down there, myself and a couple other community leaders to get there to kind of calm the crowd.
Koerri Elijah is a thirty-one-year-old freelance videographer and graphic designer from Kenosha who live-streamed the protests.
Elijah: I head down where the group was at the corner where all of the commotion and everything took place. And so once I got down there, [I] kind of touched base with some local people that I’m tapped in with. Kind of got a rundown of, you know, everything that had been going on. Things have been peaceful. I found the crowd was relatively large, but it wasn’t nearly as big as it got. It was calm for the most part. The police were lined up around the tape. So I just kind of went back and forth, just kind of filming, seeing everything going on. A lot of people were trying to have dialogue with the police. A lot of people were distraught. There’s a lot of people crying. You know, you could—once I got there, and once I got kind of in the middle of the crowd of the residents and family members, you kind of feel like, “Okay, yeah, this is kind of different from things that have happened in the past.” As nightfall began, things got a little bit more heated, more police ended up on the scene.
Pritchett: The police had already had their armor gear on and their masks and their wooden stick batons. So we lock arms and we’re within arm’s length of the police officers. There was no violence. We are chanting as usual—Black lives matter, etc.
And so at that moment the crowd starts building. And within thirty minutes of the crowd, you know, getting bigger and standing there chanting, without provocation, to my knowledge, the police drop the noise bomb, you know, the desensitizer bomb, so I couldn’t hear, I couldn’t see, I’m screaming for my friend. And then they threw the tear gas. So we all are coughing, you know, trying to get out of the gas. And so we run and then they start lighting us up with soft bullets.
So at that moment the crowd had dispersed, but we came right back, we locked arms again, and we stood our ground. And for me personally, I’m looking face to face with people I—police officers who I’ve known for years. And I could see it in their eyes, telling me, “Dr. Dominique, go home.” And in my eyes, I said, “My community, one voice.” So it was kind of just a symbolic energy. And at that moment, as we were standing there, we started hearing, you know, screaming. And out of the corner of my eye, I can see one of the garbage trucks on fire. And then at that moment, we lost our voice and the rioting started happening.
Owens: That’s when all hell broke out. And the tanks showed up. We couldn’t believe it. They started burning down the dump trucks. But I kind of feel that the Kenosha Police Department could have handled it a little bit better. Not trying to give them immediate criticism, but we were there peacefully, we got the crowd to calm down. We know that it’s a small city so we all know each other. But because there was no communication…the crowd just got so weary. And then of course, you have people coming from side towns who are just coming in and they were agitators. So It was unfortunate.
Elijah: Things got really riled up. At that time, there’s already people standing on top of police cars. And that’s when … destruction of property started. [A] team of officers were trying to get into one of the vehicles. The larger male officer, I’m sure you’ve heard, ended up getting a brick thrown at his head, knocked out, and that kind of caused the rush of police to come out and try to rescue him, which kind of, in turn, riled people up more. So yeah, they were able to successfully evacuate him [and] get the vehicles that were damaged out of there. And then, you know, retreat northbound to Washington Road and 28th…After that the crowd decided to head to the courthouse, and then we followed the march there.
Pritchett: So we’re looking from all sides of us. We see police cars, we see armored trucks. We see—they tried to corner us in, [and] they tear gassed more, so we ran, and once I ran to, I think it’s 56th Street, by the courthouse, [it] look[ed] like a complete Warzone. It wasn’t just one garbage truck on fire. And so you can hear the garbage truck tires popping, the electrical is going out. People are screaming and running. And then the armored trucks are hit, you know, hitting people with the soft bullets. And at that moment, I see a white man with an assault rifle standing in front of an armored truck and the armored truck starts backing up from him, which was symbolic on top of symbolism.
And then we just start seeing multiple people with assault rifles, you know, white individuals. We’re like, this is not going to be good. And at that moment more police came, and it was all hell broke loose at that point. So people started trying—they broke windows. I think it was a legal office, the records department. They began breaking the window and trying to set the courthouse on fire. And then the police started protecting the courthouse. They destroyed the dinosaur museum. So the place for children. And at that point I said, you know, “guys, we gotta go.”
Elijah: So once everybody got to the courthouse, you know, they kind of rallied outside, marched again. They went around the courthouse, ended up stopping at the public safety building. By then I believe Racine PD was there. They came in [and] created a kind of a wall. Kind of blocking the protesters from getting inside or to the front of the public safety building. People are trying to break in, break the door. So they set up a wall, a barrier, then reinforcements came with the riot gear on. They were loading tear gas and they had, you know, the rifles, paintball gun-looking things with the rubber bullets or the assault pellets, whatever they were using.
So I was just going around asking, like, what their plan was. Like, were they planning on firing on the people? Because it looked like it. Nobody really answered me until I got down to where the commander was, and he basically explained that he was just there to make sure that nothing got too intense, and that they weren’t planning on it, but if they had to, they would have to.
Jake, who asked that we not use his last name, is twenty-eight, and has lived in the city for most of his life. After Jake and his partner heard from a friend what was happening, they went out to join the protest.
Jake: It was probably around nine o’clock, and we saw the video of Jacob Blake being shot seven times in the back with his three children in the car. It was kind of a mad scramble of, “Oh shit, oh fuck.” I made a few phone calls, to make sure everyone that I know was aware of what’s going on. [My partner and I] both kind of come from a metal and punk scene, so we both decided to wear just plain black leather vests, because we’re like, hm, added protection never hurts. And we decided just to take a walk, to see what was going on.
I kind of live on the south side of Kenosha, and what happened was closer to the north side. We were like, okay, we’re just going to walk up to 52nd Street, taking Sheridan, and then just loop through downtown and come home. But as we went down the road we reached the Kenosha hospital, which is right on Sheridan. And I kind of look up and see smoke and, I mean, it’s getting dark, and that’s not normal. There used to be a smokestack in that area, but that got demolished years ago. We got a little bit closer and there were probably five or six garbage trucks, and two of them were on fire. And there’s a large crowd of people—I’m going to say two hundred. Maybe more, maybe less? And they’re smashing on the burning trucks. And we’re like, “Oh, okay. We found what’s going on.”
Elijah: I don’t know how tear gas got deployed. But I positioned myself by press, which was off to the side, kind of north of where the giant crowd was. Not in by the protesters. Kind of off to the side by the Racine police department, probably twenty-five feet or so away from them, just to kind of get a shot of everything. At that time [the police]—I don’t know why—they just deployed tear gas. One of the canisters came by me and by the press people. I don’t know why they fired it, but it was clearly, like, people with cameras and press. It was like a foot away from me. The wind was blowing in our direction, so I kind of kicked it away. As soon as I kicked it, I got shot in my arm. People then, they kind of ran off, headed back by Civic Center Park. By that time, the cops, they still were positioned there. None of them really wanted to speak about what had happened. I told [one officer] I was disappointed. It didn’t really look good how everything went down.
Jake: In front of the courthouse is a little park, and on the north side of the park is the courthouse, and on the south side of the park is a high school. And then on the west side is [the Dinosaur Discovery Museum]. And then to the east of the park is Sheridan Road, the main thoroughfare. Two of the trucks on Sheridan are now on fire, and those blocking the side roads are also on fire. The ones on Sheridan are newer blazes. The other ones weren’t smoldering ruins at that point, but they were definitely getting to their last leg. More people are showing up; it kind of spills into the street. Cars are trying to get through and trying to avoid, you know, the garbage trucks on fire…There’s some people near the trucks still and some people in the park, and a couple of people yelling, “Get the fuck away from the trucks, they’re gonna blow! Don’t be a fucking idiot!” And then one of the truck tires blows up from the heat and the pressure. It wasn’t a movie-style fire and brimstone, more of just a loud bang and some flames kicking out.
We didn’t know what happened, so my partner and I get behind a car that is parked and there’s these two guys there, and one of them is [talking about seeing snipers] … “You look high and left, you look low left, I’m going to look low right,” and my partner looked high right. And I was like, “hm, this guy might have some military training?” It wasn’t really organized at all. It was more of an angry mob at that point, and shortly after a couple of canisters of tear gas were shot. [There] was a … large, military-style armored vehicle, and it starts to creep up and shoots tear gas at us. So we all disperse. My eyes stung a bit, my partner’s eyes stung a bit—and they have asthma. So I’m just kind of asking them, like, are you okay? Do you want to go home? And they’re like, “No, I want to stay.”
We lucked out and got the fuck out of the tear gas as soon as possible. Our eyes only stung for a minute, a little bit worse than an onion. Other people were yelling that their eyes were on fire. So we’re all about a block away from the courthouse now, on the other side of this tourism building, and nothing is necessarily happening, we’re just occupying that space and being very, very vocal. And then a large group of people start heading east towards the downtown area and start smashing windows and grabbing stuff, though I only saw a handful of people actually grab anything from a store.
Elijah: People started trying to light things on fire. There was more fire at the courthouse, and there is vandalism of the courthouse, and [it] eventually started moving to the [Dinosaur Discovery Museum]. By that time I’d say it was about eleven o’clock at night. The dinosaur museum doesn’t really have anything to do with the police. It’s a public building. At that point, you know, I had not spoken up about anything because all of the animosity and everything was directed basically to the police. But as someone that lives in the community, I didn’t want them to burn down the dinosaur museum. You know, [kids and people from the community] go there, and it’s been in the community for a long time. At that point. I kind of, like, stopped being neutral and kind of yelled, “Hey, like, what are you doing? Who are you people even? Like, are you [even] from here?” Like, if you were from here, you would understand that the dinosaur museum had nothing to do with anything.
At that point, I kind of got into an argument with some mostly unrecognizable people, they got upset because I was asking them questions where they were from and at that point, I can kind of tell they, they left then came back with some fairly large people and kind of tried to, like, box in a lot of people in the crowd. They love me, like I said, because I’m from here. So they came and they came to support me, and at that time, after the large crowd came and stepped in to back me up, I kind of slid out and left and got to a safe place, and then eventually just went home because at that point, it just seemed like it was way too dangerous to be out there after that.
Jake: Meanwhile, there’s more tear gas being shot at us and pushing us further away from the park toward the high school. And the trucks are still on fire. And then we see lines of just riot cops—you know, shields, helmets, the whole nine yards. They basically make a wall in front of the courthouse and we all fall back to the south side of the park, and we’re kind of weighing our options and then a group of people with rocks and fireworks are coming out from behind the museum and using the museum as cover and lobbing rocks at the cops, shooting fireworks at the riot cops—and not just like little ones, like bigger fireworks, Roman candles. And then the hail of rubber bullets comes, so everyone kinda ducks and covers, runs.
I happened to find a bottle of water on the ground. I see a couple of people who got hit with the tear gas and they’re just yelling [for] water. So I run and pour some in this person’s eyes, pour some in this person’s eyes. I see a half gallon of water so I grab that and I give that to my partner, and we’re kind of doing the active medic duty, as best we could. [We don’t have any medical training], but I know to flush people’s eyes out just from being involved in radicalized political work for a long enough time.
And then it escalated. The wall of protestors advanced on the wall of cops. And it kind of broke into two groups, [with] some of the cops closer to Sheridan, some of them closer to the dinosaur museum, with the center being kind of open. And I see the guy from before, who I thought had military training, and he’s saying, “Don’t let them do this, they’re trying to separate us.” And I’m like, “I’m ninety-nine percent sure he has military training.” He wasn’t a leader by any means, though. There wasn’t anyone who was like, the head.
My partner was kind of in the background, kind of a blur of what the fuck was going on. I asked how they’re doing, and they’re like, my lungs are starting to really hurt. I need to get out of here. So, okay, we’re gonna go…I live maybe a mile away from the downtown area and from where all this happened, and we check our phones when we get home and we see that there’s a car lot across Sheridan from the high school that’s on fire. There’s this Unitarian church there, and I commented on it on the walk home that, “Oh, they changed the sign to say ‘BLACK LIVES MATTER.’” It was about quarter to two in the morning when we headed back, and we got home just after two o’clock in the morning.
Owens: [Since learning about the shooting of Jacob Blake] We’ve been talking not only with just community leaders, but our students, our youth, families, parents. We’ve all been in connection with each other. We’re still a small minority in Kenosha, the Afro-American community. So the thing that we are [saying] the most, that many of us are saying, is that no one’s really communicated with us. And it seems like everybody, including the media, only talk about the civil unrest. The civil unrest is because Jacob Blake was shot.
Pritchett: I am a mental health clinician, and I specialize with race-related trauma and stress. I think [the shooting of Jacob Blake] perpetuates a system of, “Who can people trust?” You know, for over four hundred years, black people have been fighting for equity, inclusion, and equality. And if we can’t even trust the people that’s supposed to protect us, how are we ever supposed to, you know, heal and feel a sense of community shift?
So that’s my personal opinion, but my professional opinion is that trauma. We added another layer to it, not just watching a video of a black man get shot seven times, but knowing the journey, the chaotic journey his three boys are about to go through from witnessing that. So what this did is set us back hundreds of years. And it’s going to take everyone black, brown, white, and all allies to pull together to serve our people. ■
Martha Bayne is a senior editor at Belt Publishing and managing editor of the South Side Weekly.
Grace Del Vecchio is a Chicago-based freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the Chicago Reader, the Daily Beast, and elsewhere.
Cover image of Kenosha, Wisconsin on August 25. Photo by Grace Del Vecchio.
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