Antonio Ramirez, assistant professor of History & Political Science at Elgin Community College, writes about his own experience being tased by a Milwaukee police officer, and states that Milwaukee is an apartheid city where innocent people can become victims of the police.
How did Milwaukee Bucks player Sterling Brown feel walking on to the basketball court, I wonder, his face bruised from being needlessly roughed up and tased by Milwaukee police?
He probably felt humiliated, even though his only violation was to park across yellow lines in a mostly empty parking lot at 2 a.m.
That’s how you feel when six men with guns and power surround you and hurt you. That’s how you feel when you know they did it because you were black, in a Mercedes, and showed a shred of dignity. And that’s how you feel when you know they’ll get away with it.
I should know. In 2004, Milwaukee police officers broke down the door of an apartment I was in, threw me to the ground, and tased me without warning or reason. Then, while lying face down with my hands cuffed behind my back, Milwaukee police officer Daniel Masarik tased me a second time.
Masarik was terrifying. He stomped around, screaming like a wild animal, “This is my city! Don’t you see that now?” Masarik told me I was lucky he didn’t shoot me. I believed him.
Handcuffed in the back of a squad car, I asked Masarik’s partner, “Why don’t you do something about him?” He didn’t have to ask what I meant. He mumbled something and hung his head.
Some things don’t change. Police treatment of Sterling Brown, 14 years after my run-in with MPD, was similar to my own. Watching the body-camera footage, the officer that first approached him almost immediately yells, “I’ll do what I want!” while Brown speaks quietly. Brown is cooperative but soon surrounded by six men. One officer then escalates the situation, yelling “Get your hands out of your pockets!” seemingly without cause, but the others go along willingly, wrestling Brown to the ground and tasing him for a parking infraction.
Like Sterling Brown, I committed no crime. At no point did I lift my hand or provoke any officer. Instead, police — sworn to protect people like Brown and myself — brutalized us. And I, like Brown, have no doubt I was targeted because of my skin color.
Based on Masarik’s report, I was charged with felony assault and spent four days in jail. Like Brown, all charges against me were quickly dropped.
The only difference is, Brown’s got video.
And I’ll let you in on a secret that black and brown folks already understand: if we videotaped every interaction between police and non-white people in Milwaukee, you would see a lot of the same bullying and thuggish behavior you see when Brown was confronted by officers. You would see a lot of people who, like me and Brown, are slammed to the ground and tased for no good reason. You would see people shot, even murdered.
But we know how this story will go. The Bucks, Mayor Barrett, and elected officials are wringing their hands. The police union and those loyal to police will say that officers like Masarik, and officers in Brown’s video, are “bad apples,” and that this incident was a mistake. Most officers, they will say, are good people.
Sterling Brown’s statement doesn’t talk of “bad apples.” It clearly denounces racist policing in Milwaukee and beyond. You would think, as a well-regarded athlete that everyone agrees is completely innocent, Milwaukee would listen to him.
I think Sterling Brown would agree with me when I say that, despite being a victim of police brutality, I don’t doubt that most police officers are good people. I’m sure most of the six armed men that surrounded Brown for parking over painted lines are caring fathers, devoted spouses and want to help people. I bet they have pets they love, and feel sad when their mothers get sick.
But the problem isn’t with the individual souls of Milwaukee police officers. The problem is that Milwaukee is an apartheid city. And in an apartheid city, it’s the police’s job to enforce the rules.
What are those rules? First, as we’ve been told again and again, most recently by Sterling Brown, black lives don’t matter. At least not as much as white lives. That’s why, in Milwaukee, a black or brown person has to be rich and famous for anyone to care whether they were mistreated, tased or murdered by police. In an apartheid city, if you’re black or brown and not rich or famous, then whatever police did to you was probably your fault.
Second, Milwaukee is an apartheid city because it’s is a place where you can look at any part of society— schools, wealth, incarceration, infant health, clean water — and every Milwaukee resident can know with absolute certainty where black and brown people stand in relation to whites.
But the biggest reason Milwaukee is an apartheid city is because most white folks — the governor, bigoted suburban Republicans, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, the mayor — know all of this to be true and do little to fix it.
When I was in jail in 2004, I almost failed out of the African-American history course I was taking at UW-Milwaukee because of the time I missed. Since then — inspired by that incident, that class, and growing up in and around apartheid Milwaukee — I became a history professor myself.
As a historian, I study race and politics. And I’ve learned that one of the tricky things about white supremacy, about apartheid systems like Milwaukee’s, is that they hide in plain sight. They depend on people fooling themselves and spinning fantastic stories to explain inequality and oppression. And, most importantly, they depend on people forgetting.
Most Milwaukeeans won’t remember that after my run-in with Masarik, some allies and I stood in front of the Milwaukee police chief’s office on the evening news and identified Daniel Masarik by his badge number. We warned he was an aggressive and violent officer who, we found, regularly abused his taser.
Most folks won’t remember that within months of publicly identifying him, Masarik and multiple other off-duty officers beat a biracial man bloody in the front yard of another officer’s Bay View home. They held a gun to his head, broke his fingers, jammed a pen in both his ears, and stomped on his head until people nearby could hear bones cracking.
By the time this tragedy took place, most had already forgotten that the ringleader of that beating— Milwaukee police officer Jon Bartlett — had murdered unarmed Larry “Jody” Jenkins in cold blood two years earlier, shooting him seven times. Most have now forgotten that Larry’s mother Debra Jenkins — a loving mother-turned indispensable Milwaukee activist— sued the police department in federal court and lost.
Most Milwaukeeans have forgotten that Bartlett was likely a member of a rogue gang of crooked cops that operated for years with impunity inside the Milwaukee Police Department. That gang probably included Masarik, too.
Most folks forget that Bartlett later called in a bomb threat at his local precinct and, perhaps inspired by white supremacist literature like the book The Turner Diaries found in his apartment, was arrested after purchasing semi-automatic weapons and a huge cache of ammunition.
Most won’t remember that Daniel Masarik himself is currently serving a 17-year sentence in federal prison for the Bay View beating.
We’ve forgotten all this because it’s painful to think that Milwaukee police officers like Bartlett and Masarik didn’t chase gang members and criminals; they were the gang members and criminals. Officers like these are the white supremacists, thugs and potential mass shooters that we fear. And they are armed, wear badges and get government paychecks.
It’s easier to follow the rules of apartheid. It’s easier think that the all the black and brown people murdered by Milwaukee area police — Samuel Rodriguez, Wilberto Prado, Derek Williams, Sylville Smith, Dontre Hamilton, Jay Anderson, Jr., and so many others — were somehow all at fault.
But the Sterling Brown video is so shocking because it’s clear that he’s not at fault. And they brutalized him anyway.
But I’m sure we’ll forget about this, too. It’s easier to forget.
It’s easier to forget than to demand structural changes like replacing the Fire & Police Commission (FPC) with a democratically-elected Civilian Review Board that includes representatives from the black and brown communities most affected by police misconduct in Milwaukee.
After Masarik tased and arrested me, I filed a complaint with the FPC. I didn’t find out until later that it had almost never found an officer at fault in its over 100-year history. The FPC is a mess and an open joke, a body that experts say has “failed to provide an effective means for people who have had an encounter with an MPD officer to …receive an independent, thorough and fair investigation.” Shockingly, a previous investigation of the commission “did not find a single person, inside or outside the FPC, who stated that the complaint process was effective or even acceptable.”
A democratically elected, racially and socioeconomically diverse Civilian Review Board with real oversight power could probably help Milwaukee’s police brutality problems. But giving power to the people isn’t easy.
It’s easier to just forget. That’s easier than acknowledging that we’re living in an apartheid city where innocent people — even the most well-known and wealthiest African-American residents like Sterling Brown — can become victims of police.