About a year ago, I wrote in this space about “The Two Milwaukees,” observing the stark differences between the booming downtown area and the central city that is plagued with crime and poverty.
The dramatic differences between those two Milwaukees has rarely been more evident than during, and shortly after, the violent unrest in the city’s Sherman Park neighborhood in mid-August.
I received a news alert on my phone on Aug. 13 about the police shooting of Sylville Smith and I worried what the reaction would be. That night, I was at the Brewers game with one of my oldest and best friends and our sons, blissfully unaware of what was going on just four miles to the north.
That is, until I got home and watched the news with horror late into the night. Several businesses, which provide desperately needed employment opportunities in that part of the city, were burned. Then on Sunday, more violence – this time directed at police – as rocks and bricks were thrown at officers.
Despite the violence in Sherman Park, it was business as usual Monday morning downtown. People seemed to go about their days as they normally would.
But business as usual won’t cut it for Milwaukee.
The violent behaviors obviously can’t be tolerated, and hopefully those responsible for the fires and worst of the unrest are prosecuted. And officials need to be transparent with information about the shooting of Smith.
The violence that occurred in Sherman Park is more than just a reaction to the police shooting. It is largely people stuck in a cycle of poverty, bad family situations and lack of education that are lashing out.
The problem is complex and lacks an easy answer; otherwise, it would have been solved long ago.
City, county and state leaders need to step up, more than ever, to come up with plans to improve the central city by somehow attracting more businesses, reducing crime and improving educational opportunities. Again, there are no easy answers. But different sides of the debate need to talk to each other and listen to each other, rather than playing the blame game, which is what typically occurs.
What is absolutely clear is new approaches are needed and leaders need to be open to new ideas. Trying the same old approach that has been taken for decades obviously is not working.
Businesses have a role to play and can make a huge difference. Just two days after the violent unrest in Sherman Park, representatives from 50 Milwaukee businesses and nonprofit organizations announced their “draft selections” at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in West Milwaukee. At the event, 237 students were “drafted” to work as interns one day a week during the school year. Cristo Rey has a diverse student body and many of the students come from low-income families. This is a great opportunity for them.
Then there is the Joseph Project, a faith-based initiative that connects individuals in Milwaukee who need jobs with employers, typically in Sheboygan County, that need workers. Those job opportunities can change people’s lives.
Of course there are other programs, but Milwaukee needs even more initiatives like these and they need to be scaled up dramatically to address the huge need to create opportunity in the city.