Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker Sunday activated the National Guard after an angry crowd set fire to buildings and attacked police cars the night before in response to a police shooting in Milwaukee.
“I commend the citizens who volunteered in clean-up efforts this morning,” the governor said in the statement in which he announced the guard activation. “This act of selfless caring sets a powerful example for Milwaukee’s youth and the entire community. I join Milwaukee’s leaders and citizens in calling for continued peace and prayer.”
The unrest began after police shot and killed a black man who officials said was armed. Officers pulled over a “suspicious vehicle” Saturday afternoon, according to Mayor Tom Barrett, and two people fled the vehicle and ran in different directions.
A Milwaukee officer who had been with the department for six years chased one of the men, identified by family members and police union officials as Sylville Smith.
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The officer “ordered that individual to drop his gun,” Mayor Tom Barrett said at a news conference. “He did not drop his gun. He held the gun – or I should say I don’t know that for a fact, but he had the gun with him – and the officer fired seven times.”
The man was hit twice, in the chest and in the arm, Barrett said. The unidentified officer had a body camera that was “operating” during the shooting, he said.
The Wisconsin Department of Justice’s Division of Criminal Investigation will lead an inquiry into the shooting, WISN reported.
At a news conference Sunday, Milwaukee Police Chief Chief Edward Flynn said the officer involved in the shooting was black. Flynn, citing threats, said there was reason to fear for the officer’s safety and that of other police; he said the officer was staying outside the city. The chief described the incident as having turned from a traffic stop to a foot chase and shooting in under a minute.
Smith’s death touched a nerve in a city that is among the most racially segregated in the nation, and in a state where both the incarceration rate of black men and the poverty gap between blacks and whites exceed the national average. The 2014 shooting of Dontre Hamilton – a black man who fought with an officer who had roused him from a park bench – led to protests but no charges for the officer, who was fired for improperly escalating the situation.
After word of the latest shooting had spread late Saturday, some members of a gathering crowd began to throw stones and set buildings on fire. Brian Rothgery, an activist and former campaign volunteer who has done political canvassing in the neighborhood where unrest broke out, described the scene Saturday night as “tense and unpredictable.”
“I don’t know if you would call it a protest. People were (angry) and wanted to smash stuff,” said Rothgery, 39, who heard of the commotion from friends and via social media before leaving his home in Riverwest, about 45 blocks from the rioting, to observe.
Milwaukee police said gunshots prevented fire officials from putting out fires at the local businesses. One officer was hospitalized after being hit in the head with a brick thrown through the window of a police car, police said.
Members of the crowd also threw rocks at officers, police said. At least one car was burned.
On Sunday morning, residents, clergy members and activists gathered to hold prayer circles where fires had burned the night before and to clean up the streets.
The Coalition for Justice, a group that formed after Hamilton’s death, put out a call for the cleanup and said the violence had burst open after years of black residents’ frustration over inequalities.
“We are the worst city for black children to grow up. We are a city of inequities, of under-education, of unemployment, of oppression, of drug abuse, of violence,” the group said in a statement.
“What happened last night was a revolt and an uproar, not just a disturbance. The media has no problem to classify us at thugs, but have been reluctant to call a spade a spade. The people are angry. The people are fed up, and the people are demanding their freedom.”
Milwaukee’s police union was outraged by the response to the shooting and demanded that officers be assigned to two-man squads instead of working alone. The union also worked to portray the man killed in the shooting as a hardened criminal.
“Leadership must denounce violent riotous behavior! There can be no appropriateness in rationalizing terrorist-like actions,” the Milwaukee Police Association said in a statement. “The thugs that caused this are certainly terrorists and must be held accountable.”
The association also released a video that identified Smith as the man killed in the shooting. The video listed case numbers for past criminal cases involving Smith and what appeared to be social-media photos of Smith showing his tattoos and holding a rifle.
State National Guard members were told to go to their local armories and to get ready to deploy to Milwaukee as early as Sunday evening if necessary, according to a news release from the national guard.