Has Kenosha become better since the Aug. 23, 2020, shooting of Jacob Blake and the Kyle Rittenhouse shootings two nights later? It depends who you ask.
If you were outside the Kenosha County Courthouse on Tuesday afternoon, as the jury in the Rittenhouse case deliberated inside, you’d find crowds of demonstrators, some chanting in support of Black Lives Matter, others opposing it; a man waving a “Let’s Go Brandon” flag (code for a vulgar anti-President Joe Biden phrase); and Justin Blake — uncle of Jacob Blake — waving a Pan-African flag. Shouting matches occurred off and on, but reporters didn’t see any violence as of 4 p.m. Tuesday.
Mark McCloskey, the Missouri U.S. Senate candidate who with his wife pointed guns at BLM demonstrators as they marched in front of their house last year, walked through the crowd — getting ridiculed by some, snapping selfies with others — and smiled as local, national and independent journalists gave attention to the controversial figure.
If you went two blocks south or north or east or west, it was a different story.
The line at the Downtown Subway restaurant on 56th Street was long at about noon as people, many of them regional reporters and photographers, grabbed lunch. A couple customers chatted while others got their food and scampered out. A man at a table who tried making conversation with everybody who walked in asked where it might be legal for him to play guitar.
A Kenosha County court employee chatted with a reporter who stopped in for lunch and said she can’t wait for the trial to be over. The court employee said she was looking forward to the protesting being over, to being able to walk out of work and not be met with boisterous protesters.
Cars moved north and south along Sheridan Road undeterred Tuesday afternoon. Few buildings had boards up. The two Car Source locations on Sheridan Road, the fulcrum of so much hostility in the last 15 months, had their lots full of used cars but appeared closed for the day. One house along 11th Avenue, one block west of the courthouse, had a sheet strung across its front porch with the words “Kids live here!!!” painted on it — a common sight during the August 2020 riots as property owners and parents hoped to deter arsonists.
Business as usual
Around Downtown, coffee shops remained open. Barber shops gave haircuts. Buses continued on their routes. The streetcar chimed its bell as it approached intersections. If it weren’t for the echoing chants from megaphones blocks away, it would have seemed like a “normal” Tuesday afternoon in Kenosha. Only a couple buildings had boards over the windows, and those tended to be vacant storefronts anyway.
At Scoops, the ice cream shop on Eighth Avenue, a man got coffee on his birthday. Two retirees — Jane Bekos and Penny Seymoure — treated themselves with double scoops of ice cream.
“It’s very slow this time of year,” Rio Becerra, the only employee at the counter, told someone who called in wanting to plan a birthday party in a couple weeks.
Last year, Becerra said, at Scoops, “We weren’t affected too much by rioting.”
This week, even with the internationally watched trial a couple blocks away, “It’s pretty chill even though all that stuff is going on,” Becerra said. “I’m not too worried about it. What happens will happen. I’m not really worried about anything.”
A retired Carthage College professor originally from California who now lives in Kenosha, Seymoure said she participated in a couple marches last year. Bekos did not.
Bekos said she thinks Kenosha is on the path to becoming better, because there is a growing “awareness of things that have to change. ... I think there’s attempts to work hard to make things better.”
Seymoure wasn’t so sure. She noted that there have been promises for 15 months now that Uptown would be revived, but that hasn’t happened yet. The neighborhood is still largely scorched and boarded up and not what it once was. The barbershop Seymoure used to get her haircut at in Uptown never reopened, she said.
“One of the things I’ve noticed is we’re building a lot of new apartments, but we’re not rebuilding Uptown. That’s still destroyed,” she said.
“A year later, they haven’t started building. … When are you going to get it done?” she wondered aloud. “What I’m really concerned about is we don’t seem to be making progress on the systemic racism we have here.”
Kaitlyn Knodel, who works at Squeeze Juice Bar on 57th Street, said Rittenhouse should go to prison and “we should throw away the key,” but she doesn’t expect the jury to convict him of anything. She supports the Black Lives Matter movement and, if Rittenhouse walks away without legal repercussions, it will only give more energy to the movement — since the changes she believes BLM is fighting for still haven’t come.
“I don’t feel like it’s going to get back to normal right away,” Knodel said. In Kenosha, “nothing has changed with the principles of Black Lives Matter.”
At Duck Duck Goose Children’s Shop on Sixth Avenue, owner Jennifer Wagner came to a similar conclusion as Becerra. No matter the Rittenhouse trial outcome, she expects no riots.
“I’m optimistic,” Wagner said. “It’s all fine. Nothing is going to happen. Don’t worry about it.”
She said she told Kenosha Police officers the same thing when they stopped by Tuesday morning, as the cops informed business owners they could call for help if anything sketchy was witnessed.
“I feel like if we give off bad energy, we’re going to get bad energy back,” Wagner said.
Kevin Johnson, who works at Canna Vita, a CBD store in the same building as Knodel, doesn’t think the “bad energy” of 2020 will be back. He blamed people from outside of Kenosha for starting fires, smashing windows and causing harm. Even with the attention of the Rittenhouse trial, he doesn’t think they’ll be back.
One thing Johnson does hope to come back is civility between others. He noted how many people stopped talking to others of different political slants.
There is data to back up Johnson’s conclusion. According to a 2020 report from YouGov: “Nearly a quarter of Democrats (24%) say they are not friends with anyone who holds very different political views from them, a 14-point rise from when YouGov asked the same question in September 2016. Independents show an 8-point increase (12% to 20%) in not being friends with those who have opposing political views, while Republicans have not changed significantly (10% to 12%) in the last four years. None of the political parties have grown more likely to share camaraderie with those who do not hold similar opinions.”
“This stuff doesn’t affect me. There’s people who don’t talk to people anymore, man,” Johnson said. “I’m not going to fight in the streets for what I believe …
“Last year was ridiculous,” he added, referring to the protests that often turned violent. Looking out the window in the direction of the courthouse, he concluded, “Anything is better than that.”
On one of the few Downtown buildings with boards over its windows, painted in large colorful lettering on wood panels were phrases like “Justice 4 Jacob” and “Love endures.” On the same wall in small black letters, as if they’d been written as an afterthought with a Sharpie, were the words, “This too shall pass.”
The painted words “Kids Live Here” are hung in front of an 11th Avenue home Tuesday. Such signs were prevalent as property owners tried to deter arsonists during the August 2020 riots that followed the police shooting of Jacob Blake.
Jennifer Wagner, owner of Duck Duck Goose Children's Shop on Sixth Avenue in Kenosha, speaks candidly with a reporter from Telemundo Chicago on Tuesday afternoon. Wagner says she isn't worried about any protests or rioting related to the Kyle Rittenhouse trial.