“We the People” attend a Listening Session: Polite Rage in Action

Two days ago, I got a call from a number I didn’t recognize. The woman on the other end had a story idea for a paper for which I’ve done a lot of work. Her son, a local orthodontist, was recently back from a medical trip to Guatemala, where he and several other dentists had spent 10 days treating anyone who needed care, at no charge.

We had a pleasant chat before ringing off.

Afterward, I thought about the numbers of people here who need and can’t afford medical and dental care. And I wondered what a medical trip from Milwaukee’s nicer, stable neighborhoods to the ones where boarded-up houses, absentee landlords and gunplay are rampant would look like.

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People lined up to speak at the Community Listening Session about the Milwaukee Police Department (Photo Credit: Martha Pincus)

Part of the reason could be where I’d been the previous Thursday. I went to a Community Town Hall Listening Session hosted by the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), a branch of the US Justice Department. The session was part of its Collaborative Reform Initiative for Technical Assistance with the Milwaukee Police Department. It’s basically a giant audit. A group of outside professionals examines every component of your operation and does focus groups with your customers. Then, they ride off into the sunset and come back with a report that includes a naughty & nice list –what you’re doing right, and what you might want to do differently.

More than 700 people packed the public auditorium. Demographically speaking, it was a very heterogeneous house. At least two different groups were dressed in matching T-shirts with printed messages.

There were political types,  incumbents and candidates both, mostly schmoozing with each other and the occasional constituent/voter. The exception was a guy I think of as Alderman Rage-a-holic, because every time he’s on TV – which is pretty often compared to other alderpeople – he’s spitting mad about something. He sure didn’t look approachable, sitting in a seat surrounded by empty seats toward the back of the room. His eyes were narrowed, and he looked as if he had just finished sucking the juice out of every lemon in the city.

Speaking truth

The program began. A sign language interpreter stood to the side of the stage, translating the speaker’s words into ASL. After lining up in front of two microphones posted at the edges of the aisles, everyone would have two minutes to speak. There was also a portable mic for people with mobility issues, and a Spanish-language interpreter. Note-takers were posted throughout the room to capture the information. The moderator invited people to approach the microphones.

A polite stampede ensued. People rose up from everywhere and aimed themselves at the aisles bordering the center section. In less than a minute, two orderly lines stretched back past the doors at the entrance.

I did what I always do when I’m not sure what to do and I have a computer in front of me. I took notes. Nine pages of notes, from 33 people. To a one, the speakers were respectful, even when they were angry, and many had a right to be angry. There were some terrible stories.

There was the woman who’d moved to Milwaukee at 18, and while visiting friends in a different neighborhood, was arrested for prostitution. When it kept happening, she asked one of the officers why, and he told her that then-chief Harold Breier said that if they saw a woman in a neighborhood more than twice, she was a prostitute. She had been ticketed 16 times.

Craig Stingley’s son, Corey, 16, died at a convenience store when three customers and a store clerk restrained him after seeing him shoplift. His death was ruled a homicide. Corey was black. The customers and clerk were white. No one was charged with a crime.

“My son was murdered by four individuals – choked to death … My son made an initial act that was out of order, but four adult individuals took it upon themselves to be the judge, the jury and the executioner.”

The mother of a six-year-old described how police had chased her son down, hit and arrested him after someone attacked him and his friends while they were playing basketball. Her son had begun running when he saw the officers. “He was scared,” she said, adding that “I speak for all the African-American boys who are stereotyped.”

The white woman who began by sharing that she’d “lived in a black neighborhood for 30 years,” elicited a collective gasp, followed by rumbles of disapproval. Someone shouted, “What’s a black neighborhood?”

Craig Stingley, who hadn’t yet spoken but was in front of the other mic, hushed the crowd.

“I have seen terrible, terrible things. Terrible things have been done to my neighbors. A man was kicked in the head by three black women. People have been dragged out of their cars. My tenant, a black doctor, was made to lie on the street in November while his car was carjacked. Our city has been overcome by violent black youth.”

The crowd was roaring, booing, shouting over her. She stood there.

Again, Craig Stingley intervened.

“It’s her truth,” Stingley said. “We’ve all got to get our shit together. Let her talk.”

When it was Maria Hamilton’s turn, she didn’t mince words.

“My truth is that of all these moms across the US whose kids have been taken from us through senseless violence by police departments.”

Her son, Dontre, was 31 when he was shot and killed by a police officer in a nearby park. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, he was homeless, and not on medication. His family cared about him and was struggling to advocate effectively for him. The officer was fired, but not charged.

Now, their advocacy work is focused on social and racial justice, with a focus on supporting mothers whose children were shot by police or vigilantes.

Some speakers had specific recommendations.

“We in Milwaukee need a good police department, and we have some good officers but also we have some bad ones. There are always a couple of rotten apples in any barrel, but when these apples have been able to survive, thrive and grow in numbers, there’s something wrong with the barrel,” said a 70-year-old Milwaukee lifer.

“We need to look at use of force as to how we train, how we weaponize and how we humanize.

Chris Ahmuty, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, asked that the review not disappoint the people who live here.

“Don’t just look at what the police want to talk about. It’s an affront to human dignity when people treat people in a third-class fashion.”

At 8 p.m., the session was supposed to end. At least 30 people were still in line. The moderator asked that no one else line up. Then he said the session would continue until those people spoke.

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