Op/Ed: R-E-S-P-E-C-T that’s what we need today

After mob violence erupted at the Wisconsin State Fair, the police presence has been stepped up, including the members of the State Patrol. Photo by the Wisconsin State Fair administration.

I’ve always considered the Wisconsin State Fair my own. I grew up on 97th and Greenfield and I went to the fair at least four times a year. I never felt any trepidation on the grounds or on the walk home.

West Allis residents put up with the invasion of people over the 10 days of the fair every year. Many of the families east and west of the park turn their yards into parking lots, making enough money for a nice vacation or monthly house payment.

Sure, there are problems during fair week – minor property damage, the occasional drunk relieving himself on the front lawn – but nothing like what happened last Thursday. Instead of an orderly close to the first day of the fair, 84th Street in particular became the scene of a what is being described as a mob violence.

According to eye-witness accounts and police reports, anywhere from 50 to 200 African-American teens swarmed out of the park and began attacking whites with impunity. People were punched in the face, pushed to the ground, hit in the back of the head and kicked as they tried to flee. People who tried to help were threatened and cars driven by white people were jumped on, had objects thrown at them and were the recipients of racial slurs.

Dozens were injured, including seven State Fair police officers. Milwaukee and West Allis police have arrested 25 people involved in the melee and are looking for more. Officials at the State Fair were so alarmed by the behavior that they instituted a Parental Guidance policy at the park similar to the one at Mayfair Mall, requiring a parent or guardian escort of teens after 5 p.m.

This is the second major incident of young black people going on a rampage this summer in Milwaukee. There was the looting of the BP station on Humboldt and North while others strong arm robbed white patrons watching fireworks at Reservoir Park on July 3.

Community leaders, including Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, West Allis Mayor Dan Devine, James Hall from the Milwaukee NAACP affiliate and Milwaukee Alderman Willie Hines have all come out and condemned the behavior of the mob at State Fair and called for complete investigation and charges against those involved.

Rep. Josh Zepnick (D-Milwaukee)* sent a letter to Milwaukee District Attorney John Chisholm asking him to make use of the “hate crime” enhancers if it can be proven that the violence in either the State Fair or Riverwest attacks was racially motivated.

“Should a fair and factual investigation determine that people were either targeted for their race, or ethnicity was an aggravating factor, these charges would not only fit the seriousness of these crimes, it would send a strong signal to the rest of Milwaukee that no matter what the color of your skin, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, etcetera – our community will not tolerate for one second this kind of disgusting, immoral and harmful behavior,” Zepnick said in a July 7 letter to Chisholm.

So what is happening in the greater Milwaukee area?  Is this a case of disgruntled teens who are angry with the economic and social situation they and their families are in?  No, not really.

My husband is the lead chaplain at the Milwaukee County Correctional Facility – South (or as the rest of us know it, the House of Corrections). He spent Friday morning with a 19-year-old African-American man who was in jail and has a history of violence. This young man knew exactly what was going on in the minds of the teens who committed these crimes. He explained the thinking of his peers, saying they weren’t doing it out of anger, but for power.

According to this inmate, these teens knew exactly what they were doing – spreading fear among white people. They knew that running wild in the streets, pounding on cars and throwing some punches and kicks would do the trick.

And what better place to do than at the State Fair?  The eyes of the state are here, as kids from all over Wisconsin come to the big city to show their cattle, pigs and chickens. Talk about making an impact – scare white people statewide.

So why do these teens want power? Probably for the same reasons all teens want power  – they’re tired of being told what to do, they want to spread their wings and get into the world.

But these teens, African-American teens, feel powerless is more ways then their white counterparts. High rates of poverty, illiteracy, pregnancy, incarceration and low rates of employment all lead to that feeling. And while Mikel Holt went on Sunday Insight with Charlie Sykes said these kids struck back at whites because whites control the government and all the institutions that are holding them down, I don’t think they thought that far.

They just wanted to scare the hell out of white people.

So what do we do about this?  Do we have more midnight basketball leagues, more inner-city jobs programs, more money for education?  Do we toss these kids in jail and throw away the key?

I think it is much simpler. We need to teach these kids some respect – for themselves and others. I look at my own children and there are days they are the bratty, obnoxious, temper-driven things all teenagers are. I think to myself they are lost causes. But then I hear from others that my kids are respectful and well-behaved at school and in public. You know why? Because my husband and I, their teachers and others took the time to teach them to respect others, to respect their elders and to respect themselves.

Unfortunately, many teens in our society haven’t been taught that one thing, respect. They don’t respect themselves, they don’t respect their parents, they definitely don’t respect authority. They see nothing in the future so they have nothing to respect, not even themselves.

How do we teach respect for oneself and others? It’s not making them feel good about themselves. It’s not making them think every little thing they do is incredible. It’s through old-fashioned modeling of respect. If they see their parents, their relatives, their elders treating them and others with respect, they will learn respect. If they are taught to say “please,” “thank you” and “excuse me” they will.

This may sound naive’ or simple, but respect is something that transcends race or class. It is something that doesn’t need tax dollars to teach, it’s something that doesn’t require a master’s degree to understand.

It boils down to respect. If you respect yourself and others the need to disrespect is gone.


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