As he showed with his remarks on the prospect of relocation during the fight to secure hundreds of millions of dollars in public funding for a new arena, Milwaukee Bucks president Peter Feigin is comfortable making blunt statements. He burnished those bona fides during a visit last week to the Rotary Club of Madison, Wis., during which he called Milwaukee — a city found by multiple analyses in recent years to be the most segregated city in the United States — exactly that, according to Dennis Punzel of the Wisconsin State Journal:
[Feigin] also said that the [Bucks arena development] project will infuse life into a part of the city desperately in need. The New York City native said he’s had his eyes opened to the issues facing Milwaukee and said the team is determined to help wherever it can. Its top three priorities are wellness, education and work development, he said.
“We know we can’t cure the world,” Feigin said. “But we are very determined to get ourselves involved in programs that we can measure a difference in and put our claws into for a long period of time and show a difference.
“Very bluntly, Milwaukee is the most segregated, racist place I’ve ever experienced in my life. It just is a place that is antiquated. It is in desperate need of repair and has happened for a long, long time. One of our messages and one of our goals is to lead by example.”
Feigin held firm when Rich Kirchen of the Milwaukee Business Journal followed up on the comments Monday, saying “he was discussing the ‘hard truths’ about the difficult issues facing the city of Milwaukee.”
Feigin certainly isn’t the first business executive or public figure to make statements about segregation and racial issues in Milwaukee, which made national headlines during the Sherman Park unrest in mid-August that caused millions of dollars in damages to local businesses. However, Feigin’s remarks do stand out for, as he said, their bluntness — in this case from the most public face of a professional sports franchise that relies on fan and sponsor support and is seeking more of both for the new $500 million arena.
The “Sherman Park unrest” refers to public protests that followed the fatal shooting of 23-year-old Sylville Smith by 24-year-old police officer Dominique Heaggan-Brown after a traffic stop in mid-August. Police say Smith was fleeing from the traffic stop after refusing to drop the handgun he was holding, and that a foot chase spanning only a few dozen feet and 20 to 25 seconds preceded the confrontation. Smith was African-American; so is Heaggan-Brown.
Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn said that footage retrieved from the body camera Heaggan-Brown wore showed that Smith “was armed,” that he “did turn toward the officer with the firearm in his hand,” and that “you can’t tell when the officer discharges his firearm.” The footage wasn’t released to the public because, according to Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel, “Release of the videos would compromise the integrity of the investigation.”
The protests spanned several nights following Smith’s death and turned violent, “with protesters throwing rocks, bricks and glass bottles at police, shots ringing out and a shooting victim rescued by officers and whisked to a hospital in an armored vehicle.” Multiple businesses were set on fire in the ensuing riots.
While some argued that Heaggan-Brown was justified in shooting Smith based on the specific circumstances of the incident, others noted that the “unrest” didn’t just spring up out of nowhere. From Ashley Luthern and Gina Barton of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
As Milwaukee took a step back from the unrest sparked by Saturday’s fatal police shooting of 23-year-old Sylville Smith, two questions were repeated over and over.
The first question: Why did this happen?
And the second: Why didn’t it happen sooner? […]
To the people asking the second question, a series of obvious and relentless factors contributed to the unrest Saturday and Sunday nights: concentrated poverty, high unemployment, broken families, pessimism about the future, a sense that people with power don’t care or have turned their backs. Smith’s shooting was the spark. He was well-known and fleeing in the light of day through Sherman Park, a once thriving neighborhood where quality of life has diminished and tense episodes involving residents, businesses and law enforcement have become almost routine. There and in some surrounding neighborhoods, police are struggling for the public’s trust as homicides and shootings tick upward.
“When it finally all over-boiled and people got tired of the oppression, that’s what happens: People just take out their anger the best way they can,” said Tay Smith, 23, who lives about 3 miles northwest of where the shooting occurred. “If they ain’t got nowhere to go, they tear up their own neighborhood, tear up their own things.”
More, from Brendan O’Brien of Reuters:
“When you hold a person down so long, they are eventually going to fight back,” said [Sherman Parks community activist Randy] Jones, who recently ran for election to the city government but lost. “It was going to happen eventually, it was just a matter of when.”Jones said when he was growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, he had a job each summer. Now teenagers, especially young black men, have no income potential and too much idle time.
“They have no hope at all,” he said.
By some measures, Milwaukee is the most segregated city in America. The Brookings Institution think tank last December ranked the segregation of cities on a scale of zero to 100 using U.S. Census Bureau data. Milwaukee came in first with a score of 81.
Almost 40 percent of black males in Milwaukee between ages 24 and 54 lack a job, a rate four to five times higher than for whites, said Marc Levine, founding director of the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee’s Center for Economic Development.
Still more, from Ray Sanchez of CNN:
In Milwaukee, African-Americans are overwhelmingly concentrated in the city and a few nearby suburbs.
Blacks and Hispanics outnumber whites and account for 57% of the city’s nearly 600,000 residents.
By comparison, the surrounding suburban counties of Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington are less than 2% African-American and less than 5% Hispanic. […]
On virtually every indicator of racial inequality, Milwaukee consistently ranks among the worst five cities in the country, experts say.
“Milwaukee is emblematic of a whole range of challenges facing the United States right now,” says Robert Smith, an associate professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
“And when we add the question of race to the mix, we rise to the top. It’s very fair to say that the cultural and political wars of our day are playing out in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in egregious patterns. This is one of the ground zeros.”
A member of the Bucks experienced the racial tensions firsthand last year.
Power forward/center John Henson claimed he’d been racially profiled during a trip to a jewelry store in Whitefish Bay, Wis. Shortly after signing a new four-year, $44 million contract with the Bucks, Henson traveled to Schwanke-Kasten Jewelers to look for a new watch. He was met with a locked door and a store employee who turned him away when he requested service before calling the police because she didn’t “feel comfortable letting them in. I just really don’t at all. It seems bad to me.”
“[The officer] had to go in the back [of the store] and tell them to come out it was safe but this is after they ran my plates and I overheard them talking about doing more of a background check on the car,” Henson wrote in a since-deleted Instagram post. “The employees finally came out of the back and proceeded to conduct business like they previously were as we walked up. This was one of the the most degrading and racially prejudice[d] things I’ve ever experienced in life and wouldn’t wish this on anyone.”
The store’s owner later apologized to Henson.
[Follow Dunks Don’t Lie on Tumblr: The best slams from all of basketball]
This complicated history and its present-day impact informed Feigin’s remarks, and while the directness of his statement will certainly raise eyebrows, he didn’t run away from it on Monday. More from Kirchen of the Milwaukee Business Journal:
When I asked Feigin for further comment Monday, he said: “This is a difficult issue and complex conversation that requires some hard truths. We’re focused on working with the terrific community leaders and organizations that are taking meaningful action to help bring people together and bridge divides in our community.” […]
“There clearly are issues that exist in the country and they’re not Milwaukee issues and they’re not Chicago issues,” [Bucks co-owner Wes] Edens said [during the team’s Monday Media Day session]. “To me, the question is not whether there is an issue. The question is how can you best do something to identify the root causes of it and make inequality something that is in the past. I think that actually Peter being as direct as he was about it is the kind of thing you need so that people don’t debate whether an issue exists.”
Feigin and Edens also trumpeted the Bucks’ efforts to use the massive arena development project to spur local economic growth — requiring construction contractors to hire city and county residents, for example — as part of the overall push to reduce the employment and economic inequalities that have persisted in Milwaukee. If you’re wondering whether those efforts might be bolstered even more significantly by redirecting the hundreds of millions in taxpayer money that will go into building the Bucks’ new gym toward initiatives aimed at chipping away at the inequality and segregation problems, well, you’re not alone. While we hold our breath waiting for that, though, I’ll spare a nod toward Feigin for calling a bad thing by its name, and maybe spurring some people (like me, for example) to get a bit more educated on a big problem in the Brew City.
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