Racism, Poverty, Education: A Closer Look at the Root Causes of the Milwaukee Riots
Catholic leaders in the city say that the riots involve long-standing social tensions and racism in society that even extends into church life.
MILWAUKEE, Wisc. — After riots last weekend in Milwaukee brought long-standing social tensions to the surface, Catholic leaders are calling for prayer first and foremost, but also action to promote justice.
A prayer service scheduled for Thursday at All Saints Catholic Church in Milwaukee’s center city hopes to “envelop the city in prayer,” Father Tim Kitzke, the vicar for urban ministry for the archdiocese, told CNA. Father Kitzke ministers to four parishes in the city.
It will be “just a time for us to open up the doors and have people come and pray,” he said, and “it’s the only thing in the long run that’s going to set our feet in the right direction.”
After Sylville K. Smith, a 23 year-old African-American man, was shot and killed by police last Saturday while fleeing a traffic stop in Milwaukee, riots in the city ensued. City police reported more than 40 arrests made Saturday night through Tuesday morning, with several businesses set on fire and 11 police officers injured. Multiple journalists were reportedly attacked or threatened by protesters.
Archbishop Jerome Listecki responded that the outrage over the killing was “understandable” but the violence committed against police officers and businesses was “never justified.” He exhorted everyone to “awaken our confidence, together, in Jesus Christ and the Gospel.”
Catholic leaders in the city say that the riots are manifestations of long-standing social tensions that have not been resolved.
A city health assessment states that the Milwaukee metropolitan area is “the most racially segregated” in the U.S. and the fifth poorest city in the country. Poverty is concentrated especially among the city’s African-American population, where 40% are at or below the poverty line.
The problems of racism, poverty, and inequality “are as old as the city” Father Kitzke told CNA.
Fifty years ago, African-Americans marched for fair housing. Two priests, Father Matthew Gottschalk and Father James Groppi, were among those Catholics accompanying the civil rights marchers. Since then, problems like “redlining” — a practice where lenders discriminate against residents of certain ethnic neighborhoods by deeming them high-risk and refusing them loans — have persisted, while poverty has grown worse.
Gun violence is also a huge problem in the city, with gun homicides rising by 40% in 2015, according to Wisconsin Public Radio.
All the problems, taken together, show a still-segregated city with poverty, poor education, violence, and lack of affordable housing all disproportionately affecting its African-African community.
Shedding Light on the Issues
Archbishop Listecki appointed Father Kitzke last year to head urban ministry, a move that has been hailed as a significant and important step for the archdiocese to address problems. Meetings were immediately convened to start resolving the problems amidst a “record number of murders,” and “levels of homelessness,” Father Kitzke said.
“People really wanted the Church to kind of be at the forefront,” he explained, “shining the light on some of the social issues that are especially endemic to us in the urban areas.”
The employment rate in Milwaukee’s African-American community used to be the highest among U.S. cities in the 1970s, but its unemployment rate is now over 50%, noted Rev. Steve Jerbi, senior pastor at All Peoples Church in the city. “It’s a radical shift of the Milwaukee reality,” he said.
Many of the manufacturing jobs that once existed left the downtown; many remaining jobs are in the suburbs, which are largely inaccessible from the downtown via public transit. There is reportedly a lack of affordable housing in the suburbs for low-income families.
Also, there have been “systematic cuts in education funding” and “systematic cuts in social services,” Father Michael McNulty said of Milwaukee’s poorer neighborhoods. A poor education system has resulted in only about 6 in 10 students graduating high school in four years.
African-American communities that are “economically depressed” and “educationally deprived,” have an experience of “indifference on the part of government” and “oppression on the part of the police,” he said.
There is “essentially no hope,” he added.
Existing tensions between the police and these communities haven’t helped the situation. “We’ve had members who were harassed by police officers,” Rev. Jerbi told CNA. “We’ve had folks in our congregation area who have been assaulted by local police officers.”
“Community leaders and elected officials have been asking for the Department of Justice to do a ‘pattern of practice’ investigation since at least 2012.”
Thus, frustration boiled over in the “perfect storm” of last weekend’s riots, Father Kitzke said.
“These issues have been simmering for a while,” he said, “and I think that the eruption this past weekend of the rioting was the result of not just one occasion of something that happened but a combination of factors.”
“They’re making rather unfortunate decisions about reacting to anger,” he continued, “with violence instead of proper ways of dealing with it.”
A Mixed Catholic Response
Although the closing of Catholic parishes in the city center hasn’t helped the outreach to troubled communities, religious groups have been fighting indifference to bring these issues to the forefront.
“We have some wonderful parishes in the central city of Milwaukee, and we’re working hard now to shore them up so they can serve the neighborhoods,” Father Kitzke said.
The Catholic response to the city’s ills has been “getting better,” he said, but added that “the problems are so overwhelming.”
Andrew Musgrave, who directs the social justice ministries for three parishes on the east side of the city, said that some parishes in the city have been “responding really well” to nearby neighborhoods, but many parishes outside the city are either unaware of the magnitude of the problems or are not helping to resolve them.
They don’t have “that same ease of relationship” to the neighborhoods with problems, he said, and are not necessarily “making the effort to do so.”
One parish in the western suburbs, for instance, is bringing young parishioners into the city to serve and be exposed to the struggles there, Musgrave said, but most parishes are “not making the effort.”
The split among Catholics isn’t new, he said. While priests took part in the civil rights marches 50 years ago, other Catholics actively opposed the marchers. Even recently, minorities on the west side of the city were “facing issues of overt racism in the Churches” where white parishioners refused to serve minorities or have black parishioners sing in the choir, he said.
However, Musgrave praised the “initial steps” the archdiocese made to address Milwaukee’s problems in appointing Father Kitzke to head the urban ministry, and noted that a “wide swath of people” gathered last year “to talk about what’s going on in the city.”
A group of Catholics also began meeting to take a course on the history of racism, both nationally and in Milwaukee, Musgrave said. Several members of Catholic groups “continued to meet” after the course and discuss topics like racism, white privilege, and reconciliation, he added.
Ultimately, for the problems to be resolved, everyone — including those from more affluent neighborhoods — must take responsibility for each other, Father McNulty insisted.
“Unless there is a concerted commitment on the part of everybody in Southeast Wisconsin, nothing is going to change,” he said. “Our faith says we are our neighbor’s keeper.”
Catholics must place their hope in God, Father Kitzke said, because “there’s a certain hopelessness that I find to be probably even more oppressive than anything.”
“There’s just fear of what’s going to happen next,” he said. “And we have to be stationed in our faith and move forward with that sense of faith that God will be with us and help us, especially if we’re working for the good of others.”
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- catholic leaders in milwaukee say that the riots are manifestations of long-standing social tensions that have not been resolved.
- archbishop jerome listecki