Black Americans reflect on a brutal week: ‘We are sick and tired of being sick and tired’

Reflections on a week that saw the election of Georgia’s first Black senator and the fallout from a pro-Trump riot

By Mark Guarino, Amy B Wang and Brady Dennis

Jan. 9, 2021 at 6:56 p.m. CST

KENOSHA, Wis. — Anger. Sadness. Hope.

Pastor Monroe Mitchell III has heard all of these emotions from members of his mostly Black congregation in Kenosha, Wis., over the past week.

“But especially the first two,” he said in an interview Saturday. “We are sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

Mitchell echoed the roller coaster of emotions many Black Americans felt over the past week, which started with the Kenosha County district attorney declining to seek charges against the police officer who shot Jacob Blake and ended with a pro-Trump mob storming the U.S. Capitol.

On Tuesday afternoon, Xavier Simmons joined a few dozen mostly Black activists and community members sloshing through the icy streets to Civic Center Park to protest the district attorney’s decision. Blake, a Black man, was shot seven times at point-blank range in the back last August. 

The march was peaceful, and the lower turnout was expected, on account of the bitter cold and light snow.

Nevertheless, the activists were greeted by dozens of National Guard members holding assault weapons, a small portion of the 500 troops that had been mobilized by Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) in anticipation of the decision. Simmons, 24, thought the National Guard was overkill, but it was also a show of force he had come to expect from law enforcement in the face of Black protesters.

“Basically, they were wasting their time, and the mayor of Kenosha was wasting their tax dollars,” he said. “They were just here for nothing, just standing there.”

Later that night in Georgia, a pair of Democratic candidates — including the Black pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church — were headed for wins in tight Senate races, a historic flip of a traditionally red state that has been credited in a large part to the unprecedented organizing of and by voters of color.

For Tatiana Washington, watching the Georgia results come in brought a wave of mixed feelings, like being “in two worlds,” hours after finding out the officer who shot Blake would not face charges.

“It was exciting to see,” said Washington, 20, executive director of the Milwaukee nonprofit group 50 Miles More, which has rallied Black youth to protest systemic racism.

“But it was also like, ‘Wow, here we go again. Black people once again like stepping up and saving this democracy,’ ” she said. “It almost felt like a weird juxtaposition: I’m watching my friends in the South and in Georgia do this really great organizing work and get this win. And then myself and most of the organizers here in Wisconsin, we put all this energy in trying to protest and get some accountability for officer that shot Blake seven times, and we didn’t even get that.”

What joy she and others felt over the results in Georgia was short-lived, however. The next day, thousands of pro-Trump rioters took over the U.S. Capitol, ransacking it in an insurrection that appeared to have been met with little resistance from law enforcement stationed at the building. In photos, some can be seen waving Confederate flags.

“We’re back in the same fight that we’ve always fought since we’ve come to this country,” the Rev. Greg Lewis, a Milwaukee pastor, said. “It was a tough week. It really was. There was a little sunshine with the election in Georgia, but it didn’t last long because the next day we looked at a fate that could possibly be coming to a town near us.”

The feelings of injustice were particularly acute for Kenosha residents, for whom the Blake decision was front of mind as they watched the violence at the Capitol unfold.

“If Black people had done what these White domestic terrorists did today, can you imagine the reaction? They would have been tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed, arrested, and charged with felonies — or treason,” civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who represents Blake’s family, said in a statement. “Another tragic display of our two systems of justice.”

At Sir Claude’s Barber and Beauty Salon in Kenosha, patrons on Saturday were still angry about the clear double standard.

“It was terrifying to see that. I was terrified. Where was the FBI? Where were the police? Where was the National Guard?” Betty Crews, 66, said on Saturday in Kenosha’s Uptown neighborhood. “That tells me Black lives don’t matter to White people. They don’t matter to the police. We see that all the time.”

“If any other cultures were there, they’d get slaughtered before they got to those steps,” said Claude Hamilton, 53, the owner of Sir Claude’s.

But for Anthony L. Davis, the president of the Kenosha branch of the NAACP, the most frustrating part was how unsurprising it all seemed, how predictable it was that police officers would not face charges in Kenosha and how White rioters who ransacked the U.S. Capitol largely walked away unscathed.

“This country has been dealing with this for so long and hasn’t addressed it,” Davis said in an interview Saturday.

Davis sees the problem as one more piece of evidence that there are two Americas — one where the powerful don’t face consequences while the justice system cracks down hard on minorities and the poor. One in which the stock market is thriving, but many people in places such as Kenosha still struggle to find decent work.

At the end of a tumultuous week in which he had felt elated by the outcome of the Georgia Senate races, but gut punched by the events in Kenosha and Washington, Davis was feeling uncertain about what lay ahead. Hopeful, but wary.

“People are tired of just words. We’ve heard all the words,” he said. “You’re going to have to show me something now. No matter who’s in leadership, they’re going to have to show folks they mean what they say. That’s what folks are waiting on.

“People need action. That’s what the people need.”

The day after the riot, President-elect Joe Biden vowed that his Justice Department nominees would tackle the racial disparities in the criminal justice system. As the pro-Trump mob was laying siege to the Capitol, Biden said his granddaughter Finnegan had texted him a photo of militarized police officers standing guard against a Black Lives Matter rally the year before.

“You can’t tell me that if it had been a group of Black Lives Matter protesters yesterday, they wouldn’t have been treated very differently than the mob of thugs that stormed the Capitol,” Biden said Thursday. “We all know that is true. And it is totally unacceptable. Totally unacceptable. The American people saw it in plain view.”

For Washington, the youth organizer, Biden’s remarks were tempered by his comments on the campaign trail defending the police.

“I think it was a nice step to hear that, but of course actions speak louder than words,” she said.

Pastor James E. Ward, Jr., the pastor to Jacob Blake’s mother and grandmother, said in an interview Saturday that despite the upheaval of the past week, he plans to continue to focus on a message of healing and unity going forward.

“Our nation is more divided — ethnically, politically and racially — than ever before,” he said. “The question is: How do we bring reconciliation? How do we again be the ‘united’ states?”

He doesn’t plan to use the pulpit at his church outside Chicago to condemn Republicans or Democrats, he said, but rather to remind his congregation that God loves all people and that it is possible for a more equitable country to emerge from the tumult in Kenosha, Washington and elsewhere.

“Our nation is forgetting that message right now. We’ve completely lost sight of that,” Ward said. “We’ve made the monumental mistake of allowing people to think that God needs politicians more than politicians need God.”

He said on Sunday he plans to lean on a passage of scripture from the book of Isiah: “For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our king; it is he who will save us.”

It is his faith in such a notion — that the hatred and violence on display in recent days can lead to a better future if Americans turn away from racism and bitter partisanship — that gave Ward a measure of optimism at the end of a brutal week.

“I’m deeply saddened by the things I’ve seen in our nation over the past week and the past year. I’m heartbroken over those things,” he said. “But at the same time, I’m highly optimistic. Because when the darkness grows darker, it only means the light will be that much brighter … We can do better, and we will be better.”

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