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Jacob Blake’s shooting, the protests calling for justice and an end to police profiling and brutality and the rioting that left Kenosha’s Uptown and Downtown devastated, all placed Kenosha squarely at ground zero of America’s racial divide.

A year later, as the smoke, dust and tears have cleared, Black leaders and other community leaders who support them say they continue to do the work they believe is required to take awareness of systemic racism to the next level.

For some it has taken a toll on their psyche, and friendships. For others, there is hope that community can become involved in the social and political process, weather the storm and have the difficult and courageous conversations. Others believe Kenosha has a long way to go.

Progress ‘bittersweet’

For Kenosha native Alvin Owens, a local barber and the founder of the spring break college tours that have opened opportunities for college and careers to hundreds of Kenosha and Racine youth, the work has been exhausting.



Owens

The day of the shooting was Owens’ birthday. He had just opened his new business, the Regimen Barber Collective, at the corner of 13th Avenue and 52nd Street. Immediately after the shooting, he and others protested, but he also led events that focused on “the good in my community” as the Collective has served as a hub for activism.

If any progress has been made, Owens describes it as “bittersweet.” In the early days that followed the shooting and protests, he felt betrayed at the disparaging comments in the media made by local business owners and even teachers about the Black community, he said. The comments were from people he knew.

“And it wasn’t just the Black community that partook in the civil unrest, it was all kinds of people, but, in the end, as usual, the African American community gets the blame,” said Owens. “I was very hurt and disappointed with people I grew up with in the city.”

Some, who were friends later reached out to him privately saying because of their jobs or “political affiliation” they couldn’t speak out as the protesters had. He laments that “white supremacy and intimidation” had won out.

“Where does that leave me? That made me realize that white on white intimidation is just as real as Black on white intimidation and no one wants to talk about that part,” he said. “I felt abandoned by my white friends.”

Protecting his community

That gave Owens the motivation to spotlight “my community.” It has left him protective of up and coming Black entrepreneurs by those who might want to exploit them.

“In the last year, I’ve been very protective in focusing on building up the community we do have,” he said. “And it’s been coming across really great.

“We now have a Kenosha Black business directory. We have a new, enhanced Juneteenth. We have Black Wall Street market,” added Owens, a recent winner of the Mahone Fund’s Living Legend award for his work in uplifting the community. “So we’re doing some things.”

Following the unrest, Owens said he was invited to join “every city, county and faith group.” He couldn’t.

“I was too close to the situation,” said Owens, who has supported and hosted the Blake family’s community rallies. “I was just exhausted about listening to white people talk to me about how white people should treat Black people. I pulled away from a lot of those groups. I wasn’t mad or angry. I needed to make sure I was OK.”

“I will say that I’m proud Kenosha has a lot of people and all the names who’ve wanted to make change. I know white, Black, Latino, Middle Eastern people on these groups and I appreciate that.”

“Do I feel there is progress? Yes. Baby steps progress, yes,” he said. “Still, we have a hell of a long way to go.”

Citing U.S. Census data for Kenosha, Owens said residents of Italian descent make up 12 percent of the local population and African Americans around 11 percent. And yet, the gaps remain in education, political leadership, health care, among others

“And we’re only one percent away in population from another community. We salute the Italian American Club and every building you look around, we eat at a lot of their restaurants and patronize a lot of their businesses,” he said. “But how can Kenosha be strong without a strong, thriving African American community?”

Of body cameras, burning out

Uptown resident Porche Bennett-Bey, whose leadership of peaceful protests following the Blake shooting were among the actions that led to her selection of one of Time magazine’s Guardians of the Year, said the community has become more of aware of people’s needs.



Porche Bennett-Bey

Bennett-Bey

“But, it’s a work in progress still,” she said.

Some of that movement has begun to happen as activists, like Bennett-Bey have pushed for the Kenosha Police Department’s purchase for body camera for officers. On Aug. 16, the City Council approved the contract between vendor Motorola Solutions that will outfit 189 officers with body cameras and equip about 50 squad cars with dashboard cameras. The cameras were initially included in the city’s of 2022 capital improvement budget. The plan soon became fast-tracked to this year due to the Blake shooting.

Bennett-Bey said she is still waiting to see when they’ll actually be implemented. Interim Police Chief Eric Larsen said he expects the new technology in use by his officers in late October.

“It’s beneficial for both sides,” said Bennett-Bey.

Like Owens, she struggles with becoming burned out.

“I pray we never have to have this again,” she said of the shooting and violence that followed. “I still haven’t had time to fully heal.”

‘Cautiously hopeful’

Adelene Greene, a founding member of the Kenosha Coalition for Dismantling Racism, an organization that began nearly 25 years ago and has persisted in its community conversations about race relations, is “cautiously hopeful” of the progress that has been made in the past year.

“I believe there has been a greater interest on the parts of lots of people — not just African Americans or Hispanics, but white people in particular.



Adelene Greene.

Greene

“A lot of awareness, a lot of interest, a lot of wanting to learn about racism, how it works systemically and personally and so people, in general are more aware and wanting to become more knowledgeable about how racism impacts people of color. I’ve seen evidence of that,” said Greene. “We know that change happens slowly. You don’t see an impact overnight or even years later.”

Greene is hopeful because more young people have become active in their community following the Blake shooting.

“They were starting with the George Floyd situation. But, when it happened right here in our own community there were all sorts of groups that cropped up that wanted to make an impact on this community and there are younger faces. There are diverse faces and voices. There’s young, there’s old and there’s in between and I see that as a positive that they really want to see change happen in this community.”

New generation getting involved

Greene said younger people of all races are realizing the importance of attending local government meetings whether City Council, County Board or School Board.

“And they’re not being quiet any more … they’re letting people in power know these are the kinds of changes they want to see,” said Greene. “Just the fact that the county has put together this Racial Equity Commission, all this is progress and gives me hope that things are going to happen for the better in this community.”

The other positive change, she said, is that more people of color are becoming part of the political process they can directly affect.

“Local government impacts us probably more than what’s happening on the national scene and they’re seeing the importance of getting involved in the process,” she said.

In the spring, the first African American to run for a soon-to-open judge seat emerged. Coalition member Angela Cunningham, a Kenosha attorney who had been prosecutor in the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office, ran for the circuit court judge seat that was being vacated by the retirement of Judge Mary Kay Wagner. Cunningham was the top vote-getter in the primary election, but she eventually lost to Kenosha County Deputy District Attorney Angelina Gabriele in the general election.



Angela Cunningham

Cunningham



Last month, Atifa Robinson, added a Black voice on the Kenosha Unified School Board as she was unanimously appointed to fill the vacancy on left by long-time member Dan Wade. Robinson, a community strategist for Kenosha’s Lifecourse Initiative for Healthy Families, was chosen from a field of 13 candidates. She has said that in seeking the position she hoped to help empower youth of color and wants them to see that their are positive role models and leaders.

Community-police relations

Long-time Ald. Anthony Kennedy, one of two Black members on the City Council, represents the city’s 10th District, where Blake’s shooting occurred. He said one the positive results of the last year is the formation of Kenosha Coalition Organizing Resolution. The organization is a coalition of community leaders, organizations and local officials that hopes to combat gun violence and racial disparities in Kenosha. It utilizes a violence interruption model to mediate conflicts and reduce negative community-police interactions.



Anthony Kennedy

Kennedy



“I find that to be very, very promising,” he said. “I don’t know that we would’ve gotten there (with KCOR) so fast without the civil unrest. I think the that definitely put it on a fast track and I think that we have the right (police) chief who has the mindset and knows how to engage.”

Kennedy said while the groundwork was laid by former Police Chief Daniel Miskinis, he said interim Police Chief Eric Larsen is the one who is “really grabbing this and taking this to the finish line.”

“I find that to be really very encouraging in reference to improving community and police relations,” he said. “Do we have some work? Yes. But the work actually has to be done in the community because our police officers aren’t super heroes who are putting on a cape and fly around to save the city. They’re also not these deviously duplicitous people who are trying to kill minorities.”

Kennedy said those are the narratives that are “very dangerous.”

“Our police officers are human beings doing a very difficult job,” he said. “And, if you think they are super heroes wearing capes, then you’re not going to be willing to be critical of them.

“At the same time if you think they are evil beings out to kill the minority community, you’re not going to look at their accomplishments, you’re not going to see them as a resource added. Both those are very dangerous things and have their own problems that will manifest themselves as we try to continue to fix problems in our community that were there before the Jacob Blake situation.”

More action needed

Gregory Bennett Jr., a member of the Coalition for Dismantling Racism, founder of Peace in the Streets Inc., and KCOR’s chief of staff, believes there has been some change, but more action needs to happen for change to be realized.

Bennett, who was recognized with a humanitarian award at the Gateway Technical College annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebration, said people in the community are starting to have the conversation about how systemic racism has held back people of color.



GREGORY BENNETT JR

Gregory Bennett Jr.



“I hate for a real world event like the incident with Jacob Blake for people see that, but the only way Kenosha can see that true justice isn’t meant to be true justice because the officer (Sheskey) got off and we still gotta see the justice for Kyle Rittenhouse and what it’s going to be,” he said. “If it was a Black or brown person that whole case would’ve already been finished.”

WATCH NOW: Kenosha Coalition Organizing Resolution

KENOSHA COR PRESS CONFERENCE

KENOSHA COR PRESS CONFERENCE

The Kenosha Coalition Organizing Resolution, a group that promotes violence interruption, held a press conference at Civic Center Park on Wednesday.



KENOSHA COR PRESS CONFERENCE

KENOSHA COR PRESS CONFERENCE

The Rev. Caliph Muab-El speaks during a press conference held by the Kenosha Coalition Organizing Resolution on Wednesday at Civic Center Park.



KENOSHA COR PRESS CONFERENCE

KENOSHA COR PRESS CONFERENCE

The Rev. Jonathan Barker speaks during a press conference held by the Kenosha Coalition Organizing Resolution on Wednesday at Civic Center Park.



KENOSHA COR PRESS CONFERENCE

KENOSHA COR PRESS CONFERENCE

The Rev. Caliph Muab-El speaks during a press conference held by the Kenosha Coalition Organizing Resolution on Wednesday at Civic Center Park.



KENOSHA COR PRESS CONFERENCE

KENOSHA COR PRESS CONFERENCE

Interim Police Chief Eric Larsen speaks during a press conference held by the Kenosha Coalition Organizing Resolution on July 7 at Civic Center Park. The department is in the midst of several changes including a focus on communication and building community relationships.



KENOSHA COR PRESS CONFERENCE

KENOSHA COR PRESS CONFERENCE

Alderman Anthony Kennedy speaks during a press conference held by the Kenosha Coalition Organizing Resolution on Wednesday at Civic Center Park



KENOSHA COR PRESS CONFERENCE

KENOSHA COR PRESS CONFERENCE

Kenosha Coalition Organizing Resolution President Nick Dennis speaks during a press conference held at Civic Center Park on Wednesday.



KENOSHA COR PRESS CONFERENCE

KENOSHA COR PRESS CONFERENCE

Erica Ness, public relations director, speaks during a press conference held by the Kenosha Coalition Organizing Resolution on Wednesday at Civic Center Park.



KENOSHA COR PRESS CONFERENCE

KENOSHA COR PRESS CONFERENCE

First Vice President of Kenosha Coalition Organizing Resolution Olivia Crudup speaks during a press conference held at Civic Center Park on Wednesday.



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