Two shootings thrust Kenosha, Wisconsin into the national reckoning over racism and police brutality this week.
On Sunday, a white police officer identified as Rusten Sheskey shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, in the back.
During demonstrations over the incident in the city on Tuesday, a white 17-year-old identified as Kyle Rittenhouse shot three protesters, killing two.
Residents told Insider the differences in how law enforcement handled the two incidents reveal the racial issues the city has had for decades.
KENOSHA, Wisconsin — Several Kenosha residents are pointing to the glaring difference in how local law enforcement handled two shooting incidents this week as examples of the systemic racism they say has long plagued this small Wisconsin city.
The first involved a police officer shooting an unarmed Black man seven times, and the other incident involved an armed white teen who was able to go home after fatally shooting two people.
"If he were Black or brown, they would've opened fire with all they had," Rev. Monica Cummings told Insider. An assistant minister at Bradford Community Church Unitarian Universalist, Cummings has lived in Kenosha since 2008.
Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, was shot in the back seven times by a white Kenosha police officer — identified as Rusten Sheskey — on Sunday as he tried to enter his vehicle while his three young sons watched from inside. The shooting left Blake with a severed spinal chord and paralyzed from the waist down.
During protests over Blake's shooting on Tuesday night, graphic videos circulating on social media showed a gunman running down a Kenosha street with an AR-15 as someone yells that he shot someone. He trips and is seen opening fire as several people approach him. After he gets up, he's seen carrying his gun and walking toward law enforcement vehicles. They didn't arrest him.
On Wednesday, Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old Illinois resident, was taken into custody and charged with two-counts of homicide and one count of attempted homicide in connection to the shooting of three people — two of whom have died.
"Unarmed Black man gets shot seven times in the back. A white guy with a long gun gets to shoot people and then go home and sleep in his bed and then get arrested the next day," Cummings told Insider.
Lifelong Kenosha resident Porche Bennett, 31, has been leading peaceful protests all week. Bennett, who is Black, said she's happy that Rittenhouse has been apprehended but doesn't like that it didn't happen immediately.
"They didn't arrest him right then and there like they should have. But if it had been one of us, we actually would've got shot down with our weapon on us. Even though this is an open-carry state, we would've got shot down, arrested right then and there," Bennett told Insider Wednesday evening as a crowd of protesters began to disperse at a park near the Kenosha County Courthouse.
Neither the Kenosha Police Department and the Kenosha County Sheriff responded to Insider's requests for comment on this story.
The mayor of Kenosha says 'there's an issue of racism and that's systemic' — and many residents agree
When Insider asked Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian on Thursday whether the city has an issue with racial discrimination, he said, "If you look at all communities, there's an issue of racism and that's systemic, and that's part of the problem that we've been dealing with."
The mayor said the city has been working with local religious and community leaders for at least two months about "how they were going to deal with racism" and other issues Kenosha's facing.
"I think when you look at it from a historical basis, there's always been different levels of racism in any community that you go to," Antaramian said, adding that his office is working with the Department of Justice on how to handle things moving forward.
Though Monique Webb-Papia, 45, no longer lives in Kenosha, her family members do, including her mother, who lives across the street from Blake. Webb-Papia said she is "happy" that Kenosha's racial issues are being brought to light.
Webb-Papia told Insider that she and her brothers experienced racial discrimination while in high school, and white guys shouting the N-word once chased her down the street when she worked as a hospital volunteer.
"The way most white people treat Black people and people of color in Kenosha has never been good," she said. "There's a mentality with the white people in Kenosha where it seems that we're never going to be equal."
A 31-year-old Kenosha native of Mexican heritage, who preferred to go by his nickname Rebel, told Insider that "it's a common thing" for him or any other person of color to be stopped by the police while walking down the street.
"This is Kenosha, and it is very obvious to us here that there is that latent racism," Rebel said.
Another Kenosha resident, Brian Little, 34, echoed Rebel's sentiments, saying the racism here has "become very normalized over the years."
Though most residents agree that Kenosha is segregated along racial lines, pockets of it, like Blake's neighborhood, are racially diverse with Black, white, and Latino residents. Kenosha's population is about 100,000, with whites comprising nearly 80%, Blacks 11.5%, and Latinos 17.5%, according to the US Census.
Residents say many white people 'say nothing. They just ignore it.'
While some residents, including its mayor, say that Kenosha has a problem with racism, others don't think so.
Insider spoke with several middle-aged, white Kenosha residents who didn't think their community had issues with racism but didn't want to share their thoughts on the record.
"The attitudes, the silence — the complicit silence — of the people who say they are my friends and love me that I have known for 20 years is unbelievable to me. They say nothing. They just ignore it," Webb-Papia said.
Comparing the dismissive attitudes toward racism's presence to an ostrich with its head in the sand, Scott Alberts, 46, said it didn't hit home for some people that Kenosha has an issue with racism until the aftermath of the Blake shooting.
"Maybe they're not doing it on purpose, but they're also not purposely educating themselves," Alberts, who is white, told Insider.
His wife, Amanda, 48, said she thinks there are "racial tensions and attitudes" but is hopeful things can change.
"I think it's not necessarily intentional but generational and just the way it's always been," she said.
The Kenosha county sheriff has come under fire for past comments
Also fanning the flames is a January 2018 video of Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth saying "some people aren't worth saving" and other controversial remarks after a shoplifting case involving five Black people has resurfaced this week, with some calling his statements a dog whistle for racists.
In the video, Beth said he was "tired of being politically correct," saying, "we need to build warehouses to put these people into it and lock them away for the rest of their lives."
Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. played audio from the video during a Thursday morning press conference in Kenosha with the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, the NAACP, and other civil rights leaders.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Beth apologized a few days later for his heated comments after facing backlash.
Alderman Anthony Kennedy, who represents Kenosha's 10th district, said he called Beth out on his comments previously.
"I think he's misguided and ignorant but I don't think he's a racist," said Kennedy, who is Black.
Despite the apology, Webb-Papia said she thinks Beth's comments are indicative of the racial bias and believes the sheriff would've responded differently had the offenders been white.
"There wouldn't have been a press conference. You wouldn't have heard about it. The fact that he knew they were Black and spoke about them like they were beasts and animals speaks volumes of how police and deputies treated Black people in Kenosha for years," she said.
Friday morning, the Wisconsin Department of Justice identified Vincent Arenas and Brittany Meronek as the two officers who were there when Sheskey shot Blake. They've been put on administrative leave along with Sheskey.
None of the officers have been charged.
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