KENOSHA, Wis. (CN) — A Wisconsin prosecutor announced Tuesday that none of the officers involved in the police shooting of a Black man in Kenosha last August will face criminal charges, prompting the community to brace for another round of protests.
Activists, policymakers and ordinary citizens alike awaited Kenosha County District Attorney Michael Graveley’s decision for months since protests erupted after Kenosha Police Officer Rusten Sheskey shot Jacob Blake in the back seven times on Aug. 23, 2020.
Blake, then 29, was getting into an SUV with his three kids in the backseat as Sheskey and two other officers, Rebecca Meronek and Vincent Arenas, responded to reports of a domestic dispute at the time he was shot, as captured by widely circulated cellphone video of the incident.
Kenosha police union officials have maintained that Blake resisted arrest and was armed with a knife, although investigators have said only that a knife was on the floor of the vehicle, not that Blake threatened officers with it.
While acknowledging that the shooting and subsequent unrest was a tragedy for Blake, his family and the Kenosha community, and taking care to note that he felt “completely inadequate for this moment,” Graveley explained at a press conference Tuesday that he did not believe “the privilege of self-defense could be defeated beyond a reasonable doubt” when it comes to the officers’ actions.
The Wisconsin Department of Justice’s Division of Criminal Investigation headed the probe into the police shooting. By early October the investigation file was handed over to retired Madison Police Chief Noble Wray, an investigative consultant brought in by Attorney General Josh Kaul to review the file and provide Graveley with analysis to inform his charging decision.
Several nights of protests followed Blake’s shooting. Some turned violent and destructive, resulting in more than two dozen businesses and multiple vehicles being torched and prompting Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers, a Democrat, to declare a state of emergency and mobilize National Guard troops in the two days after Blake was shot. Solidarity protests sprouted up nationwide, buttressed by worldwide headlines and gestures of support from noteworthy figures like NBA star LeBron James and then-Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, the latest global outcry during a summer of reckoning over racial injustice and unchecked police brutality sparked by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on Memorial Day.
Demonstrators in Kenosha clashed both with law enforcement and self-styled right-wing militias, some activated by calls on social media to travel to Kenosha to protect private property and restore order.
On the third night of demonstrations, three protesters were shot and two were killed with an assault-style rifle. The following day, prosecutors charged Kyle Rittenhouse of Antioch, Illinois, with first-degree murder for his role in the shootings as video circulated of him running from a group of protesters before falling to the ground and shooting an AR-15 into the crowd.
Rittenhouse, who is white, was 17 at the time of the shootings. He pleaded not guilty to five felony charges and one misdemeanor charge during his arraignment on Tuesday. Jury selection for his trial is scheduled for March 29.
Rattled by the summer’s chaos, the southeastern Wisconsin city of 100,000 began bracing for further protests shortly after the new year arrived as Graveley’s decision loomed. Local news reported on Monday that Kenosha business owners were boarding up storefronts, bracing for possible vandalism. Roads began closing, and that same night the Kenosha City Council voted to enact an emergency declaration called for by Mayor John Antaramian ahead of potential unrest. Evers mobilized 500 National Guard troops at the request of local authorities.
As tensions increased over Graveley’s impending decision, Blake’s father led a march through Kenosha on Monday evening, calling on people to “make noise” and be “heard around the world.” Blake’s family questioned why the National Guard was being mobilized as if violence was inevitable, noting at the time that the precautions suggested Sheskey and the other officers would not be charged.
Activists like Tanya McLean, executive director of the community organization Leaders of Kenosha and a friend of the Blake family, nonetheless joined calls for nonviolence as Monday’s march kicked off, according to Associated Press reports.
“No matter what the decision is, we are seeking nonviolence,” she said. “We want everybody to come out, make as much noise as you want, but we don’t want any destruction of property or businesses. We are for nonviolence. Anything else is not acceptable for this community.”