August 25th, 2016 (a conversation from a year ago)
We got together with our son, Hans, a few days ago. My wife and I were staying at a retreat house in northern Ohio, and Hans rode his Harley up from Columbus to visit with us. We made small talk for a while, and then Hans smirked and asked me,
“So, how is that ‘Black Lives Matters’ thing working out for you in Milwaukee?”
I knew where Hans was going with that. He must have seen the news. Since the media made the shooting at Sherman Park and the subsequent unrest look like the Apocalypse, Hans probably had the notion that all of Milwaukee had gone up in flame. I told Hans what I knew about the shooting of Sylville Smith by a Milwaukee policeman. I also told Hans what a black friend of mine had said to me about the incident.
The day after the shooting I called Ernie, a guy who I had worked with for over twenty years. Ernie is black. He lives near Rufus King High School, and I have been to his house a couple times, and he’s come down to Oak Creek to my place too. I asked Ernie what he thought about the cop killing Smith. Ernie is not a man to mince words or hide his true feelings.
Ernie told me, “Frankie, that guy was a fucking idiot. If a cop tell you to drop the gun, you drop the goddam gun!”
Hans heard me out. Then he told me,
“Dad, I think that Black Lives Matter is a hate group, just like the Ku Klux Klan.”
Hmmmm…that’s a stretch, but it made me start remembering things from a long time ago.
I was just a kid when the riots hit Milwaukee back in 1967. I grew up on 82nd Street in West Allis, back when the city was a gritty industrial town, full of factories and taverns. My neighborhood was full of people with small homes, tidy yards, conservative views, and unpronounceable Slavic surnames. My little town was inhabited by solid union members, and it was racist as all hell.
I don’t remember many details from the 1967 riots. I do remember, quite clearly, the feeling from that time. Even as a child, I could taste the fear and the anxiety. I remember my dad and his brothers, sitting on the porch, talking about buying guns to “keep the niggers out”. People were scared. Really scared. I remember also that my father voted for George Wallace in the next election.
Hans brought me back to the present. He said, “Black Lives Matter targets whites. It’s like Malcolm X.”
To be honest, I was a bit surprised that Hans even knew about Malcolm X. Hans often surprises me that way. He’s not a stupid man, and he spends time to think things out.
I told Hans, “Well, if Black Lives Matter targets whites, then why are black cops getting killed?”
Hans answered, “Black Lives Matter isn’t very good at what they do.”
I told Hans, “Okay, so why don’t I rob a liquor store or burn down a gas station? Maybe it’s because I own a home, or I have a job, or I got some skin in the game. A guy who has no stake in the system, or has no hope of ever having a stake in it, has no reason not to set the world on fire.”
Hans was having none of that. He’s struggled mightily since he came home from the Iraq War. He’s been at times both unemployed and homeless. He told me,
“There are jobs out there. I found one. I had to move from Texas to Ohio, but I found work. These guys burning stores can find work too.”
We moved on to other topics.