Op-ed: The nihilism in Milwaukee

  • By Rich Lowry
  • Wednesday, August 17, 2016 5:14pm
  • Opinion

Tim Pool is a fearless social-media reporter who specializes in getting close to the action. It almost doesn’t qualify as a protest or a riot if Pool isn’t live-streaming from the streets. But he is pulling out of Milwaukee because it is too dangerous for white people.

In a carefully stated YouTube video, Pool described the verbal taunts and threats, as well as actual violence, directed at whites. After an 18-year-old male was shot in the neck and extracted by Milwaukee police in an armored vehicle — Pool identifies the victim as white, although other press reports don’t mention his race — he concluded he had to leave. (For the record, Pool is half Korean — not that rioters care.)

The Milwaukee unrest has taken on a more explicitly racist cast than other riots after officer-involved shootings, in yet another new low for the anti-police movement that has roiled our cities in recent years. After Ferguson, the movement famously adopted the slogan “Hands up, don’t shoot.” If it were to take its next catchphrase from Milwaukee, it might be (per Pool’s reporting) “f*** white people.”

In other officer-involved shootings or deaths that have occasioned unrest, there has at least been a colorable case that the police acted wrongfully. In Milwaukee, a black officer shot an armed man, 23-year-old Sylville Smith, who by all accounts ran from his car after a traffic stop and defied an order to drop his (stolen) gun. The officer wore a body camera, and the police chief says the video shows Smith raising his gun before the cop shot him dead.

Presumably we will see the entire video and know more soon enough, but it’s not hard to believe that Smith was capable of recklessly threatening the officer. His long rap sheet is the story, in microcosm, of why inner-city communities are so miserably unlivable, and need to be policed so intensely.

According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Smith had been “arrested or ticketed nine times” since 2011, including for a shooting, a robbery, carrying a concealed weapon, theft, and possession of heroin and cocaine. He beat a shooting rap at a jury trial in 2015 when a witness recanted, allegedly after Smith intimidated him.

It is this criminality that is a constant, oppressive threat to black lives. Smith’s mother says her son got his gun because he had been shot twice and robbed four times. Three people were murdered last weekend within blocks of where the officer shot Smith on Saturday afternoon, and five people were killed in total over a nine-hour period Friday night and Saturday morning. The routine carnage is, of course, never the occasion for rioting.

Law enforcement should treat everyone professionally and respectfully, and be held responsible when it doesn’t. There are useful reforms to make the police more accountable, such as the body cameras that now loom so large in controversial cases. But the Milwaukee disorder is another stark illustration of how often the agitation over police-involved shootings fades into a noxious nihilism, heedless of the facts or reason.

Burning down neighborhood business establishments, throwing bricks at cops, trashing police cars and chasing white people — all features of the Milwaukee riots — may feel good, but they are simply more symptoms of the social breakdown that police are asked to respond to every day. Even if the cops conduct themselves perfectly in such communities, there will inevitably be tensions and tragedies that don’t occur in more orderly places where young men aren’t so often the perpetrators — and victims — of crime.

The deeper question in the debate over policing is how we can keep the lives of so many young men like Sylville Smith from sliding off the rails. But trying to answer it doesn’t hold the satisfaction of smashing windows, or provide ready fodder for cable TV debates. And so the beat, drearily, goes on.

Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com.

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