By Mark Guarino
Jan. 5, 2021 at 5:00 a.m. CST
CHICAGO — With prosecutors in Kenosha, Wis., expected to decide as early as this week whether to charge the White police officer who shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, seven times in the back in August, the city is once again bracing for the national spotlight.
Businesses are being boarded up, roads are being closed and security fencing is being erected around public buildings. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) said Monday he was sending the National Guard to Kenosha at the city’s request to assist local law enforcement.
On Aug. 23, police shot Blake, who witnesses said had been trying to break up an argument between two women, as he walked back toward his SUV, an officer trailing behind. Three of Blake’s sons watched from the vehicle as officer Rusten Sheskey fired toward Blake’s back at close range.
The incident was recorded on video and widely shared, setting off a fresh wave of protests in what had already been a summer of unrest and strife after the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
For many, the decision regarding Sheskey will be a referendum on whether social justice is possible in a city where police already have a strained relationship with those they are sworn to protect.
“It is going to weigh on this city and this state for years to come,” Justin Blake, the victim’s uncle, said of the pending decision.
On Monday night, Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian asked for and was granted emergency powers by the city’s Common Council that will allow the city to quickly respond should protests break out following District Attorney Michael Graveley’s charging announcement. The authority is good for eight days starting with the announcement and the city is already preparing for public demonstrations by erecting protective fencing, scheduling road closures and detouring city buses. Officials also are planning designated sites for protesters.
Graveley did not respond to emails seeking comment, but according to Antaramian’s resolution to the council, Graveley notified the mayor on Dec. 29 that he would make the announcement before Jan. 16.
Blake’s family members said they are prepared for the same outcome as Breonna Taylor’s family. Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency room technician, was killed in the early hours of March 13, when several officers arrived at her Louisville apartment to serve a warrant on her ex-boyfriend as part of a drug investigation. No officers have been charged in Taylor’s death, although the Louisville department did move last week to fire two officers involved in the raid.
Blake’s father, Jacob Blake Sr., told reporters on Monday that his family plans to take the case to the federal level should charges not be brought against Sheskey.
“This has to be federally heard, not just for my son, but for everyone who suffered police brutality. Everyone. We can’t sit around anymore. We can’t wait,” he said.
Sheskey’s attorney said the officer fired because he thought Blake was holding a knife and that he was attempting to kidnap a child. Blake’s father said the argument was false. “There’s no misunderstanding. [Sheskey] shot him seven times in this back. Unjustifiably. Nobody’s life was threatened. The only one’s life who was threatened that day was my son,” he said.
The family also said they were frustrated at having to wait so long for a decision on charges. Graveley has had the investigative results from the Wisconsin Department of Justice since early December. The files include 170 reports and multimedia evidence.
“This was handled in a terrible manner,” Justin Blake said. “Sheskey needs to be fired, indicted, have his day in court and convicted. Until we get that, the Blake family is not leaving Wisconsin.”
The family led a candlelight vigil through downtown Kenosha on Monday, ending in an assembly outside the courthouse. Family spokeswoman Tanya McLean said the family is calling for no violence “no matter what the decision is.”
“We want people to make a lot of noise, but we don’t want anyone harmed and we don’t want anyone’s property destroyed,” she said.
Justin Blake said his nephew is living in an undisclosed location outside Chicago where he is going through physical therapy. He is paralyzed from the waist down. “He can motor his arms and stimulate his muscles to hopefully get his lower region to work again,” Blake said.
Justin Blake said President-elect Joe Biden had spoken with family members “at least three or four times” since the shooting and that the family was encouraged that Biden said he plans to make civil rights a priority of his administration. Publicly, Biden has said he will revive the Department of Justice’s Office of Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, which will examine police misconduct cases.
“A lot of promises were made, and our great new president intends to keep them,” Blake said.
Protests roiled the city for days after the Blake shooting. Rioters also looted stores and set fire to vehicles and several buildings in an area stretching from downtown to Uptown, a neighborhood whose central business district of modest two-story brick buildings was largely gutted by fire. Plywood went up immediately and stayed for months throughout the city.
The most tragic incidents to occur during the protests were the Aug. 25 killings of Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, and Anthony Huber, 26, two demonstrators who police say were fatally shot by Kyle Rittenhouse, an Illinois teenager who was among dozens of civilians who took up arms that week in what they said was an effort to protect local businesses.
Rittenhouse, who has since emerged as a folk hero for the far right, will be arraigned in Kenosha County District Court on Tuesday.
Rittenhouse, who was released on a $2 million bond in late November, is charged with first-degree intentional homicide and first-degree reckless homicide in the killings. He is also charged with attempted first-degree intentional homicide in the wounding of a third man, Gaige Grosskreutz. Additional charges include possession of a dangerous weapon while younger than 18, failure to comply with an emergency order, and two counts of first-degree reckless endangerment.
Rittenhouse, who turned 18 on Sunday, is living in an undisclosed location with his family.
Many Kenosha residents, like Dirk Ingram, say that the city is still experiencing “post-traumatic stress” from the summer’s events. Boards went up Monday on the windows of the downtown wellness clinic where he works as a massage therapist.
“We have a sick feeling in the pit of our stomachs again,” Ingram said. “I’m curious to see what the city of Kenosha has learned since the Blake shooting.”
Dave Prill, who owns a used-car dealership that was destroyed during the unrest, said he suffered nearly $500,000 in losses. Rioters burned or wrecked 54 cars and he is still fighting his insurance company for full reimbursement, he said. “I’m nervous,” he said. “I’m definitely not going to have a large inventory next time.”
Many business owners blamed the lack of police presence, which they say allowed rioters to destroy property without consequences. “People were pretty violent. A lot of people in this crowed were armed and there was no police presence. You had the sense you had to [protect your business] yourself,” Prill said. “I wasn’t counting on any police coming.”
The Blakes and victims’ families said police encouraged the presence of armed citizens like Rittenhouse.
Last week, attorneys for the families of Huber and Grosskreutz filed paperwork notifying city and county officials that they planned to sue for at least $10 million each. The Huber claim, for example, alleges “multiple state law claims” against the city, county and other law enforcement agencies that include “negligence, negligent supervision and training, negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress, wrongful death [and] survival.”
Attorneys for the Grosskreutz family said in their claim that the “Kenosha Police and Kenosha Sheriff’s Department were aware of, condoned, cooperated with and enabled the actions of” a local militia “and other armed vigilantes through explicit and implicit support.”
Federal lawsuits for both claims are expected to be filed in February.
The Kenosha County Board of Supervisors will address the claims during a meeting Tuesday night.