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Growing Racial And Economic Divide In Kenosha, Wis., As City Faces Week of Violence

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Tensions are high in Kenosha, Wis., since police shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, on Sunday. Two nights later, two protesters were shot dead, allegedly by a white armed teenager. The week of violence is highlighting the growing racial and economic divide in a changing city. The former manufacturing hub is becoming a bedroom community for people who commute to both Chicago and Milwaukee. Corrinne Hess of Wisconsin Public Radio reports.

CORRINNE HESS, BYLINE: James Hall heads the Urban League in Kenosha. He says years of Black oppression led to this moment in his city.

JAMES HALL: There's a lot of pain, a lot of fear and a lot of trauma. Both sides are scared of both sides because no one communicates to each other. And we go to our subdivisions, and we don't even engage anymore with each other.

HESS: Kenosha is located on Wisconsin's southeastern border, about an hour north of Chicago. Over the last 30 years, its population has grown 25%. For decades, it was home to a large American Motors car factory. When it shut down in 1988, the land was redeveloped into condos and apartments where many Illinois transplants live. Wisconsin historian John Gurda says this type of growth is rare and can overwhelm public agencies.

JOHN GURDA: There's been a great deal of movement from the Chicago area - you know, African American families especially - seeking quieter neighborhoods.

HESS: Police conduct has been an issue in Kenosha before. In 2018, Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth lashed out at what he called garbage people after five people of color were arrested for allegedly stealing about $5,000 worth of merchandise.

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DAVID BETH: We need to build warehouses to put these people into it and lock them away for the rest of their lives. Let's stop them from truly - at least some of these males going out and getting 10 other women pregnant and having small children.

HESS: Beth was reelected months after he made that statement. Michael Bell Sr. is a white man who's been an advocate for change in policing since 2004, when his son was shot in the head by an officer. Police said the shooting was justified. Bell hired his own investigators, and the family later received a $1.75 million wrongful death settlement. Bell says Kenosha's white professionals have no idea what police are really like.

MICHAEL BELL SR: They wouldn't even believe the atrocities that are occurring until cell cameras and social media came about. I often do think that the Kenosha Police are probably maturing, that a lot of things that they thought they can get away with before, they can't.

HESS: When 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse allegedly killed two protesters and injured a third during a protest this week, it brought new attention to Kenosha's history of policing. Sheriff's deputies were shown on video socializing with Rittenhouse before the shooting. In a news conference the next day, police chief Daniel Miskinis seemed to blame the protesters for the shooting.

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DANIEL MISKINIS: Persons who were out after the curfew became engaged in some type of disturbance, and persons were shot. The curfew's in place to protect. Had persons not been involved in violation of that, perhaps the situation that unfolded would not have happened.

HESS: At a news conference today, Miskinis said his comments had been misconstrued. But the ACLU is calling for Beth and Miskinis to resign. Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian has defended police. He says his city will do better.

JOHN ANTARAMIAN: We're also working with the Department of Justice and looking out in the future having some meetings that'll occur at churches, having people come in and say - talking about what we need to do. The Department of Justice is going to help us to incorporate those type of things.

HESS: Antaramian didn't offer more details. And Hall from the Urban League said he's heard these types of promises before. For NPR News, I'm Corrinne Hess in Milwaukee.

(SOUNDBITE OF LORD HURON SONG, "FOOL FOR LOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.