Greg Powell used to bond with his son over games of basketball in Washington Park, but after recent shootings at the park, he said nowhere feels safe anymore.
“It always seemed like one of those places that’s really safe, morning or night,” he said.
Powell, who is part of Peace Garden Project MKE, was one of a group of about 15 community members who gathered at Washington Park to discuss the recent violence in county parks.
Community Task Force MKE called the meeting, prompted by “almost a dozen incidents of violence, death and injury in or around local county parks,” according to a flier for the event.
A drive-by shooter injured four men at Washington Park on Aug. 4. A spokesperson for the Milwaukee Police Department said no suspects have been identified in the Washington Park shooting.
Days later, a gunfight killed two men at Holton Bridge Swing Park, which is a city park. On Sunday evening, a 28-year-old man was fatally shot, a 14-year-old was injured and a 4-year-old was seriously hurt in an incident near 10th and Burleigh.
In Washington Park, attendees pleaded for city officials to listen and take action to curb the violence plaguing community spaces that should be safe for families.
“There are bullets flying and bodies on the ground,” said Vaun Mayes, founder of Program the Park and a community activist. “But nobody is coming out to help.”
“We’re here today to say that our communities are doing all the work. Don’t ask us to do that for free,” he said. “If officials are calling on the community to make a change, they have to do it too.”
Members of the group say their neighborhoods have been ready to make changes for years, but the aldermen, state representatives and Mayor Tom Barrett aren’t doing enough.
“The community is always the one to extend the olive branch, and those at the top aren’t talking to us,” Mayes said. “It’s not enough, all the work we do.” Mayes has pleaded not guilty to federal charges related to a planned firebombing, which never took place, during the 2016 unrest in Sherman Park.
Danielle McClendon-Williams, a candidate for state representative in the 16th Assembly District, said there’s a problem with police, politicians and teachers not involving themselves in the community.
“This has been going on for years and I’m very upset that the same politicians are still in office,” she said.
Powell said the key to decreasing violence is to redirect young people’s energy to productive outlets such as summer jobs and outdoor activities, but that can only work if “both sides” work together.
“The youth are bored and idle,” he said. “Programming is something that can curb the speed of the recklessness.”
Powell suggested actions such as stationing instructors and equipment on the unused tennis courts in Washington Park and building a skate park or ice skating rink.
“If we don’t shape the future, we lose the future,” he said.
Lack of funding for programming is the biggest obstacle communities face, according to Powell.
“Obviously there’s limits to who can get money, but organizations in the community are basically put on the stand before they can get funding,” Powell said.
He added, “The city seems to have an opinion on who is worth it and who isn’t. How many new restaurants and stores can open downtown while people are dying in our communities?”
Attendees agreed that implementing security and activities will help the parks and neighborhoods become safer for everyone.
Akyra Harris, who lives near Washington Park, said she has lost multiple close friends to gun violence and wants to see immediate change.
“I felt like I was next,” said Harris about the murder of her best friend. “I tried to hang in there but it just kept happening. People are losing loved ones every day, and I wouldn’t wish that pain on anyone.”
Powell said the city can’t put all of the blame on residents for the violence.
“There’s a lot of talk about black-on-black violence, but we’re all just snakes in a cage with no food. It’s inevitable,” he said. “Everything you see is a result of something systematic, but it can be reversed.”
“We’re all saying essentially the same thing, and that is we are out here trying, but we need help.”