On Tuesday evening, a group of about 30 or 40 people gathered in the Sherman Park neighborhood, near the site where police had shot and killed Sylville Smith. This killing had led to a couple of nights of racial unrest in an already volatile neighborhood.
A frustrated resident in the area had a go in with the group and called police. They showed up in force and arrested about ten people for disorderly conduct and resisting an officer.
A couple of hours later, Wisconsin State Representative Jonathan Brostoff and ACLU organizer Jarett English went to the neighborhood to speak with residents about public policy and to deescalate tensions.
That's when things went bad quickly:
"I was having a nice conversation with some folks," Rep. Brostoff told the Daily News on Wednesday. "As that conversion was going on, the police kind of rush over, tell me to get over by a car."
He said the officers told him and Jarrett English, a youth organizer for the ACLU, that they heard cursing. Officers threw English to the ground and handcuffed him, Brostoff said. He also said he started recording the incident on his cellphone, but police took his phone and threw him to the ground.
Brostoff said he was "totally compliant" and did nothing wrong. He said he was only in the neighborhood to help. When other people recognized him, cops let him go, and he convinced them to let English go as well.
The lawmaker told The News he saw a doctor Wednesday because his wrist was injured when he was slammed to the ground, and is awaiting test results. He said he wants to talk to Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Police Chief Edward Flynn about what took place.
The ACLU issued a statement blasting the police and their aggressive policies:
“The Milwaukee Police Department has once again demonstrated its preference for occupation, excessive force and belligerence over genuine engagement, civil dialog, and de-escalation,” said Larry Dupuis, Legal Director of the ACLU of Wisconsin. “People have a right to stand on a street corner – to observe and record the police, as Jarrett was doing, or for any other reason. Unfortunately, rather than protecting people and their rights, law enforcement in this community all too often engages in the sort of destructive behavior to which Jarrett and Jonathan were subjected last night. Although no one deserves to be treated like this, the police made the mistake this time of abusing people who were in a position to insist on their rights.”
Jarrett English said, “The situation was confusing, because I really did not know what I was being arrested for. It was embarrassing and dehumanizing, and I did not feel that I was being treated with the dignity and respect that should be afforded any individual. But I was mostly thinking about all of the young people this happens to every day who don’t have anyone to call to get free. We cannot continue doing this to our people. It has to stop.”
A spokesman for the Milwaukee Police Department said that the incident was "under investigation" to make sure that proper procedure was followed. He then went on to blame Brostoff for not making his identity and his profession known to them earlier. He said that because they didn't know Brostoff, that led to "confusion." This is ridiculous since Brostoff has been in the area several times before and the police knew who he was.
Brostoff called their statement "unbelievable" and pointed out some of the real issues related to this incident:
On Wednesday, Brostoff said it wasn't right that he and English were arrested in the first place because they had done nothing wrong. It also was not proper, he added, for police to give him a break because he is a state rep.
"It doesn't matter what my job is," Brostoff said. "That's ludicrous."
Indeed, what happens to the hundreds of people this happens to and don't have the authority or the ability to speak out for their rights like Brostoff and English do?
I had the chance to briefly speak with Brostoff on Wednesday evening.
He told me that he still hasn't gotten the results of the tests taken on his wrist.
But being the kind of person that he is, Brostoff said that he did not want the focus to be on the incident or what happened to him or English. Instead, he wanted the discussion to be around the serious problems facing the community and ways to effectively address them.
Brostoff identified some of these issues as the need for better funding for Milwaukee schools so that children can receive quality educations so that they can improve their lives and their community. He also cited the need for good jobs with livable wages to come back to the area, which was once a thriving industrial/manufacturing hub. Brostoff also said that the police need to back off of their punitive policies and adopt a more preventative approach.
Brostoff also said that the City of Milwaukee's Office of Violence Prevention needs to be fully funded to carry on their mission.
As Brostoff also pointed out, with Walker and the Republicans in charge of the state government, Milwaukee cannot expect any substantial help from them. That makes all the more imperative that the people of Milwaukee take action locally to address these issues.