Civil militias and rioters, a deadly mix in Wisconsin

Attention: the images can be experienced as shocking:

It was the third grim night in Kenosha, after the black man Jacob Blake was shot in the back by a policeman last Sunday. A video of that event led to fierce emotions throughout America. In Kenosha people took to the streets. An initially peaceful protest resulted in looting and arson. According to the police, there were two dead and one wounded last night.

And early this morning there was that latest video of the bizarre shooting in the street. Yesterday armed vigilantes formed in Kenosha, who started patrols in the evening to prevent a repetition of the looting. We were also on the street, with a team from the CCeit, to make a report about the vigilante. Fortunately, at the time of the shooting, we were just back inside our footage.

Firework bomb

The evening begins in front of the court of Kenosha, where a small but fierce group of demonstrators has gathered. Some in Black Lives Matter shirts, have come to make their voices heard against racism and police violence. Other groups are clearly present to riot; bandanas in front of the face, projectiles like fireworks and bottles in the hand.

The riot police are lined up behind crowd fences around the court. The youngsters move in formation closer and closer to the police cordon, behind homemade shields, wastebaskets and traffic spies. “Please spread out and do not come near the police cars”, it sounds from a loudspeaker of the police. The young people are yelling and crawling even closer together. A heavy fireworks bomb lands between the policemen.

Advocates of Blake told Tuesday about the injury he sustained:

A group of men and women in military clothing gathered on a large parking lot in the city. Most of them wear semi-automatic weapons around their shoulders, some of them also wear bulletproof vests. It is a spontaneously formed militia of people from the area. “I live in a suburb of Chicago,” says Brian, a tough guy with a black beard. “Our friends here said they needed help.”

According to Brian, there are groups of militiamen on guard all over town, who can be called up by people or companies who feel threatened. “Those rioting youths have set fire to business premises, they’re looting through the city,” Brian says. The militia, he says, is there to prevent further looting. “We’re not here to confront them, we just want to scare them off.”

Earlier in the evening we drove past several places in the city where demonstrators did indeed keep quite a house. Several blocks of business premises are completely in the ashes. Here and there the fire still smoulders from the night before.

“As soon as the police chase the rioters apart in court, they spread throughout the city,” says Brian. “Then the looting begins.” And the police are unable to be anywhere in the city at that time, he explains. In recent days the National Guard has also been called in, reservists called in by the Governor of Wisconsin. “Where they can’t make it, we’ll jump in.”

Then comes the message that the police broke up the demonstration at the court. Slowly it gets busier on the streets, and in the distance we see groups of young people walking into town. Brian’s militia brace themselves. “Think about it; stay calm and don’t react to provocations”, he says while he clicks on the buckle of his helmet.

Stunned on the ground

Driving to our hotel, where we want to assemble the reportage, we see groups of armed men at several places along the road. This must almost go wrong, I still think; so many weapons, and so many strong emotions in one heap.

The video that appears on social media later that night shows the shooting boy getting up after hitting two others and opening fire again. There are at least eight more shots, bystanders running in all directions. Shortly afterwards another video appears; most of the arm of one of the wounded has been blown off. Stunned, the man sits on the ground, while members of the National Guard chase away the crowd and start taking care of him.

A firefight, right in the middle of people in the center of an American city. What began as a protest against police violence ended in a very violent confrontation between rioting demonstrators and civilian militias in three days. In the middle of the night, it is not yet possible to find out exactly who fired the first shot and why this had to get so out of hand.