After a second night of civil unrest rocked Milwaukee after the fatal police shooting of a black man, police Chief Ed Flynn cast blame for the disturbances in part on a Chicago-based group, while officials announced a curfew for teens as one measure to bring calm back to the streets.
Members of the Revolutionary Communist Party, a national organization headquartered in Chicago, led dozens of people through the north side of Milwaukee late Sunday and into Monday as protests continued over the shooting earlier in the weekend of Sylville Smith, 23, after a traffic stop and foot chase.
At a news conference Monday, Flynn said RevCom, as the group is also known, helped incite unrest within a group of activists who were otherwise protesting peacefully. Later, Flynn expressed general frustration at outside groups coming in to further their agendas at the expense of the community, as he described it.
“The Revolutionary Communist Party of Chicago showed up, and actually they’re the ones who started to cause problems leading into (Sunday) evening by marching and trying to take over (the intersection of) Sherman and Burleigh,” Flynn said. “That was about 11:30 at night. We made it to 11:30 in the evening, and we had these characters show up.”
Self-proclaimed members of the party led a march late Sunday to the city’s then-barricaded District 7 police station. Though the demonstration was mostly calm at first, chaos erupted when the primarily young crowd passed officers at the charred remnants of a BP gas station that was torched in Saturday’s riots. Bottles and rocks were flung at officers, and Flynn said they were also targeted by protesters who fired weapons.
Yet the organization’s leaders downplayed their role in instigating the Milwaukee crowds.
RevCom spokesman and founding member Carl Dix called Flynn’s comments “straight-up wrong,” saying the rioting was prompted by conditions in the community that existed before his group arrived.
“In blaming RCP for the violence, (the police chief) is trying to take attention away from what is really causing the conditions for this happening, how black people live in Milwaukee, the way in which black people are harassed on a daily basis by police,” said Dix, who was not in Milwaukee during the weekend’s upheavals.
RevCom, whose roots are in the Vietnam War-era protests, has been vocal in protests against police brutality in Chicago and nationwide. Members have recently protested in Baltimore during the criminal proceeding against officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray; in Baton Rouge, La., after the death of Alton Sterling; and in Minneapolis-St. Paul for police shooting victim Philando Castile.
Though Sunday night’s protests were generally calmer than the previous night, when several north side structures were torched, Flynn pointed to a significant level of violence toward police. Officials said several officers were hurt and three squad cars damaged.
“It certainly appears there are people who are willing to shoot at (police) without concern of whether they injure or kill them,” he said during a Monday news conference. “We do have people who are recklessly firing firearms generally, and clearly some of them are firing at police.”
Flynn noted that “none of our officers returned fire.”
An 18-year-old Milwaukee man was shot and wounded, apparently by another protester, in Sunday night’s violence. His condition was unclear late Monday.
On Monday evening, police peacefully dispersed people from Sherman Park, roping off the perimeter with plastic fencing and zip ties.
Nearby, several squad cars and police with riot gears stood guard, and in a briefly tense moment, officers arrested a young man who had an outstanding warrant.
A member of a local religious group talked down the crowd, and the young man gave himself up.
In response to earlier violence, many community members condemned the acts of protesters who harmed local businesses and called for peaceful protests. Some also took issue with the chief’s assertion that the Chicago group fueled the activists.
Barry Givens, president of the community association board of Sherman Park, the Milwaukee neighborhood where most of the unrest occurred, said he didn’t think it was “totally accurate” to blame Sunday’s disturbances on the Chicago group.
“I believe a lot of these individuals (involved in disorder) acted on their own,” said Givens, who has lived in Milwaukee for 30 years but is a Chicago native and said he witnessed the 1968 riots in Chicago.
Flynn acknowledged a history of conflict between police and minority communities dating back to the pre-Civil Rights era. Noting that the officer who shot Smith was also African-American, he said the reaction spoke to “an undertone of tension.” Officials have not identified the officer involved. They also have not released bodycam footage that they say shows Smith had a weapon.
“Regardless of the factors of this situation, clearly there was an undertone of tension that erupted in violence, whether the shooting turned out to be completely justified or whether it wasn’t,” the chief said.
In a statement released Monday, Dix referred to Flynn as “pig chief” and said Milwaukee residents “are right to stand up and say no more to this state sponsored violence.”
In an earlier statement, RevCom referred to weekend riots as a “righteous rebellion.”
Dix later said: “Look, when people rise up, it doesn’t follow anyone’s script. … It’s not enough to just express your outrage. We are going to support the people for an actual revolution.”
Flynn lauded faith and community leaders for curbing violence Sunday night, saying he saw “were consistent calls for calm, discussion and peaceful change.”
In addressing the police shooting of Smith, Flynn said Smith was shot about 20 seconds after a traffic stop for a “suspicious vehicle.” Flynn announced that an autopsy report confirmed the police’s preliminary information that indicated Smith was shot in the chest and arm, refuting rumors that was struck in the back.
Mayor Tom Barrett singled out groups of young people on the streets of Sherman Park who he said were intent on causing trouble.
“Those individuals, in my mind, are deliberately trying to damage a great neighborhood in a great city,” Barrett said at a news conference Monday.
Barrett warned parents and guardians that police will be strictly enforcing the city’s 10 p.m. curfew for teenagers.
“This is not the place where you go to gawk. This is not the place where you go to take pictures,” he said. “This is not the place where you go to drive your car around.”
Gov. Scott Walker on Sunday put the National Guard on standby, but so far no guard members have been deployed.
The Wisconsin Department of Justice is investigating Smith’s death, as required by state law for police-involved shootings. Barrett said he hoped the officer’s body camera video could be released soon.
Police cited Smith’s “lengthy criminal record” as they identified him. Online court records showed a range of offenses that were mostly misdemeanors. In a more serious case, Smith was accused in a shooting last year and charged with recklessly endangering safety, a felony.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Smith was subsequently accused of pressuring the victim to recant statements that identified him as the gunman and was charged with trying to intimidate a witness. The charges were dropped because the victim recanted the identification and failed to appear in court, Chief Deputy District Attorney Kent Lovern told the newspaper Sunday.
Speaking at a Sunday night vigil, Smith’s sister, Kimberly Neal, told The Associated Press that the family wants prosecutors to charge the officer who shot him.
The anger at Milwaukee police is not new and comes as tension between black communities and law enforcement has ramped up across the nation, resulting in protests and the recent ambush killings of eight officers in Baton Rouge and Dallas.
Nearly 40 percent of Milwaukee’s 600,000 residents are black, and they are heavily concentrated on the north side.
Milwaukee was beset by protests and calls for police reform after an officer shot and killed Dontre Hamilton, a mentally ill black man, in 2014.
In December, the U.S. Justice Department announced it would work with Milwaukee police on changes.
Critics said the Police Department should have been subjected to a full Justice Department investigation like the one done in Ferguson, Mo., after the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown in 2014 touched off violence there.
Associated Press contributed.