KENOSHA, Wisconsin — Deshauntis stepped outside and surveyed the scene in his hometown. In the aftermath of days of protests over the police shooting of a Black man, dozens of people had come to paint the city’s boarded-up downtown in bright, colorful murals. A man was singing folk music. A local church was handing out big cups of free strawberry lemonade.
“I see the effort,” Deshauntis said, tightly. He added, “I don’t really see a lot of Black people out here.”
And the murals — they didn’t say “Black Lives Matter.” The message across all of downtown Kenosha, where some buildings had been scorched during the protests and others reduced to still-smoking rubble, was about love. That’s what people were painting almost everywhere: “Love is the answer.”
The way Deshauntis saw it was this: There are white people on both sides, and even some Black people too. For Deshauntis, who is Black and supports Black Lives Matter, it was hard to trust the motives of the white people who had come to paint Kenosha’s downtown.
“You never know why they’re really doing it. It be hard to answer that question,” he said. “You never really know if they’re like, ‘OK, we don’t want this shit on here, we finna cover it up.’ Or some people might really feel like this is how they show they care for us and they care for what’s going on.”
In Minneapolis, after George Floyd was killed by police in late May, hundreds of murals across the city’s boarded-up windows were painted with the racial justice movement’s signature phrase, “Black Lives Matter.”
Like in Minneapolis, protesters in Kenosha tagged the city with slogans like “BLM” and the anti-police “Fuck 12.” But on the streets of downtown Kenosha, a much more politically moderate city in a county that tipped to Donald Trump — along with the rest of Wisconsin — in 2016, the words “Black Lives Matter” were far more scarce as the cleanup began.
And they were becoming scarcer.
A few blocks away from Deshauntis, John, a white retired teacher from Kenosha, watched a man with a gray paint roller work his way down a wall of pressboard. He gestured to the words painted in black spray paint: “No justice, no peace,” on one side, and “BLM” on the other.
“Are you going to get rid of all of that?” he asked.
“I think so,” the man said.
He nodded approvingly. “Good.”
“I support the protests,” John, who like other people interviewed for this story asked not to have his last name used, told BuzzFeed News. “I do not support the violence and the anarchy.”
He pointed, though, to the words “No Justice, No Peace,” a common rallying cry of the Black Lives Matter movement. “I totally disagree with this,” he said. “That’s not the way it goes. Justice and peace I agree with, but when it’s worded this way, that is not the way to handle it. Otherwise we’ll continue to have anarchy.”
As for the other slogan on the wall: “Black lives — no, cut me out,” John said. “All lives matter.”
The protests over racial injustice in the days after a Kenosha police officer shot Jacob Blake, leaving him at least temporarily paralyzed from the waist down, according to his family, are playing out in a tense national political moment. On Tuesday night, as Black Lives Matter protesters marched and others burned parts of Kenosha, a white 17-year-old obsessed with law enforcement and Donald Trump allegedly shot three people, killing two.
As the Republican National Convention unfolds in parallel, Kenosha, in the swing state of Wisconsin, has drawn new attention to white voters’ support of Black Lives Matter — and how it might tilt the coming election.
Polls in the wake of the killing of George Floyd showed that the vast majority of Americans, including white Americans, said they support the protests. But months later, some signs point to that support ebbing — or even, in places like Wisconsin, potentially being wiped away entirely.
The white residents who flocked to Kenosha’s downtown on Thursday morning were a stark reminder of what lies beneath the surface for many white Americans in the height of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The vast majority of the people who came to paint Kenosha in murals of “LOVE” over tags like “BLM” and “Fuck 12” were like John — they ultimately said they “supported the protests.” But for almost all of them, Republican and Democrat, the question of what that support meant was agonizing, met with long, weighted pauses.
“That’s a tough question,” said Becky, a Kenosha resident who was in the midst of painting a mural downtown Thursday morning. “I do support peaceful protests, but I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way on any one of these issues. I think there’s a lot of gray area. This has been coming to a head for so many years, but I also am upset by the devastation and the property damage.”
For many residents, their support of the protests came with qualifications — lots of them.
“The peaceful protests, that’s fine. I understand that. But there’s no need for the violence,” said Betty, a retired AT&T employee from Kenosha. Betty said she supported Black Lives Matter, too: “I do. I’ve never felt like I was prejudiced, no.”
Then Betty’s voice grew low. “I’m not sure if you’d want to print this, but I feel like it was — it was maybe kind of a stupid move from the guy that got shot. Stop, just stop. And maybe a stupid move on the part of the cop. Two stupid moves, and then the whole city is now paying the price.”
Blake was shot seven times in the back Sunday by a white officer, Rusten Sheskey, as he tried to enter his car — walking away from police officers during what the Wisconsin Department of Justice described as an attempted arrest. The Wisconsin DOJ said Wednesday that Blake told officers he had a knife, which the agency said was recovered from Blake’s car.
Theresa Martin had come to downtown Kenosha on Thursday to donate paint, she said, moved by the “uplifting” murals that were springing up across downtown. She was a Democrat who said she was “voting against Trump and everything she stands for,” and said she supported protests.
But too many people in Kenosha weren’t protesting, she thought — “They were just angry.”
She thought the original message of Black Lives Matter was good, but in recent years, she believed it had become twisted.
“I think they should have chosen something else though, because it was too easy to put a negative note on it. All lives matter, that’s true, and they didn’t convey that with the ‘Black Lives Matter’ message. I don’t know what it would be, though. I don’t have the answers.”
Near the site where paint was being handed out, a sign instructed painters: “Theme is <3. Let’s cover our downtown with messages & images of love, hope and unity.”
The theme was the idea of a local artist, Francisco Loyola, who is Latino. He said he wanted to change the image of violence and unrest that had been painted over Kenosha over recent days.
“There’s a global spotlight on Kenosha, and everyone’s looking at the news — that’s not who we are,” Loyola said. He’d chosen the theme of love to bring people together, he said, regardless of politics.
Under a tent in front of the creative art space where Loyola is the director, there were paints and rollers on offer for anyone who wanted them. “The way we’re doing it is, if it’s politically divisive in any way, cover over what’s already there,” one volunteer told a few people who had gathered. “If it’s art, leave it.”
Debbie and Korey, friends and lifelong residents of Kenosha, were running their foam rollers up and down the wall, spreading white paint over the words “BLM” and “No Justice No Peace.”
Of the protests, Debbie said, “We love that people can say what they believe, and that they can do that peaceably, and we’re 100% behind that.”
She said she wanted to “love” people from Kenosha who had been protesting. “Our city is broken, and we are broken with them. So we’re going to weep with them, and we’re going to rebuild with them.”
But Debbie, who is conservative, said she was saddened by the state’s Democratic governor, Tony Evers, who she said had not done enough to protect Kenosha.
“He made statements that helped rally people to do this,” Debbie said. “He publicly said, ‘This isn’t the first time that a cop killed a Black man.’ That felt like he rallied this.”
“There’s a lot of implications with that statement,” Korey explained.
Korey didn’t support the organization Black Lives Matter, she said emphatically. “I think they do more harm for the Black community than they do good.” But, she said, “I support Black people.”
Debbie added, “Every Black life matters.”
Debbie loved the theme of the murals she was helping to paint around downtown. “We believe in the end, love always wins,” she said.
Once they had laid down the white primer on the pressboard, Debbie and Korey said they had chosen to paint a Bible verse, John 1:5: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.”
For some Kenosha residents who came downtown, the painting of the murals had a different purpose — it was a way to directly support the Black Lives Matter message, they said, even though they had not felt comfortable protesting because of family obligations or concerns about the coronavirus.
“People have been oppressed here for a really, really long time, and we’ve been protesting and voting and peacefully marching, and now people just don’t know what else to do with their anger,” said Carley Lyons, a Kenosha resident and artist who was painting a flower with an open eye at its center — a way, she hoped, to open people’s eyes to the reality that “racism is engrained in our society.”
“I don’t think setting things on fire is the right thing to do, but I understand why. I understand why the city burned.”
Francisco Arzate, a Kenosha resident who works at a local Checkers, was one of the few people in downtown Kenosha who was planning to paint the phrase “Black Lives Matter” on his square of pressboard.
For him, he said, it was simple. “I have a lot of Black friends, and I value their lives a lot.”
Sabrina, a Black Kenosha resident, was photographing the murals, her dog under her arm. “I love the message — love,” she said. “It makes me want to cry.”
Tom, a Kenosha resident who came to photograph the murals downtown, said he believed strongly in the need for criminal justice reform. Some police officers, he said, had had racial bias built into how they did their jobs for decades.
As for whether he supported the protests, he said, “I do, and I don’t. I support them coming out and doing their protests, and they should be able to do that. There’s a certain point where they should realize it’s over the boundaries.”
Did he support the protesters’ message — that phrase, “Black Lives Matter”?
“I would say yes. I mean, I see both sides of it, where I work. But I do know who the troublemakers are in our community. And now I’m seeing all the good people, who are usually silent, I’m seeing who they are.”
He looked around at the people who had come to Kenosha to paint the city with the word “Love.”
“These are the good people,” he said.
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