KENOSHA ⏤ While the word saw Kenosha as a warzone, many young activists used art to beautify the areas that had been destroyed by riots in August 2020.
'Kenosha is a warzone'
That is the perception that has been presented in many reports, comments and opinion pieces written since riots claimed Downtown and Uptown businesses on the nights of Aug. 23 and Aug. 24.
The unrest became fatal not long after Kenosha Police Department Officer Rusten Sheksey shot Jacob Blake seven times on Aug. 23, skyrocketing tensions locally.
These local tensions, on Aug. 25, contributed to Kyle Rittenhouse, 17, of Antioch, Ill., gunning down local residents Anthony Huber and Joseph Rosenbaum near the Downtown area during the third night of unrest in the city following the Blake shooting.
In the wake of all of it, how do you bring hope, bring life back into a city that has recently seen needless violence and been touched by senseless death?
For local teenagers, shop owners and many in the community, the answer was simple: Give it color again.
Community members quickly filled up the wooden boards protecting businesses with artwork throughout the first week of unrest following the Blake shooting. Many messages and murals painted on Uptown and Downtown businesses carried messages of hope.
Other messages echoed chants of local activists ⏤ “Black Lives Matter”, “No Justice, No Peace” ⏤ marrying the concepts of activism and art.
And the youth of Kenosha have not missed the opportunity to use their creativity to send a message and raise their voice.
Murals at Diver Dan’s
On Sept. 3, outside Diver Dan’s Scuba and Aquatic Center, 3927 30th Ave. in Kenosha, teenagers of color could be seen in clusters with paint brushes in hand, using their creativity to add something positive into the local community near the scene where Blake was shot.
Yet, instead of using the common chants heard around the city during protests, “George Floyd,” “Say His Name”, “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” the mural painted by Marciara Fuller and Malika Robinson, both 15 and of Kenosha, focused not only on the present, but on the futures of people of color.
Their mural consisted of angel wings with the words “Black Lives & Futures Matter” split above and beneath them. The teens feel, in times when a white officer shoots a Black person, the public focuses more on preserving the officer’s future, while also digging up the victim’s past, Robinson said.
So, they’ll be like, ‘Oh, we can’t arrest the police because they need a future,’” she said. “Whereas, the Black people, they could just kill them on sight and they don’t care about their future; they just focus on their past. … That’s why we’re trying to focus on (Black people’s) futures. Because their futures matter.”
Fuller added that it’s not even the shootings themselves that are unjust, but also that the very court systems stifle Black futures based on how sentences are handed down.
“When Black people are arrested, and they go to court, their sentences are different from other people, people that are not of color,” Fuller said. “… Compared to a white person their sentence might be 10 times worse.”
Hopes for future diversity displayed in art
For Robinson, in looking to the future, she hopes that Kenosha becomes “a lot more diverse where, you know, you could like walk into a business just like, ‘Hey,’ and they won’t say anything about you; they just see you as a person.”
“And really just us all coming together as humans, and helping this earth,” she said. “Because this earth … can be gone like that. If we come together being positive, the earth will be much healthier; we’ll all be much healthier.”
Fuller states true police reform and training is something she hopes for.
“I feel like they shouldn’t be able to just come out of high school, take a few classes and become a police officer,” she said. “I feel like they should go through some serious training and know how to react when they feel like they may be threatened or their lives may be in jeopardy.
“They shouldn’t, maybe if they see a person of color, I feel like they shouldn’t just draw their guns out and shoot because they’re fearful of their lives, not even knowing if that person is armed or not. I feel like they need to look more into that,” Fuller said.
She also hopes to simply see other people giving each other a chance.
“For our future, I would hope that we have less people that are stereotypic about people of color. … I feel like they need to give people a chance and see that they’re actually trying to make change in their life and like see that they’re actually trying to do something to change.”
On same side, different visions of unity
Jarvee Jones, 17, of Kenosha, and a friend spent much of their time Sept. 2 painting a unifying piece of art, or so they thought.
“Basically, we made it from the big fist with Black Lives Matter because it showed that, you know, we are one. We even put Emmett Till’s name up there with all of them because that’s when it first started back. And then we had a lot of other names to symbolize that we are all together in this. No matter how old it is, no matter how new,” Jones said.
The teens also put seven red hands on the mural symbolizing the seven shots fired into Jacob Blake.
“It was really supposed to be something that people could look at and feel like, you know, it’s like empathizing,” Jones said.
Diver Dan’s Scuba and Aquatic Center owner Dan Vaccaro disagreed.
Vaccaro found the original mural’s effect to not be one of empathy and unity, but rather offense.
Vaccarro stated that the names of Black victims have become political in the recent unrest in the nation. Therefore, he had the mural changed.
He also noted that the blood symbolism made him uncomfortable. He explained this was due the fact that kids, specifically neighborhood kids, come into the shop.
“So I said, well, instead of doing that, let’s quote Martin Luther King,” Vaccaro said. “One that I always liked was, ‘We must come together as brothers, or we will perish as fools,’ and to put that out there, instead. That way, you’re still representing the power of coming together as a people and we need to have that, but yet, not bringing up the political side of it.
“ … Is it a thing that you’re only saying it’s Black people being shot; it’s white people being shot too. The Bell incident is a perfect incident (of that). And I said, well, no, you can’t just put Black people up there; you have to put all the white people up there, too, and say that it’s just a problem, period. That it’s just a problem that we need to correct.”
Vaccaro further stated that “we have a problem here; we need to solve it, let’s solve it. Because if we don’t, then we’re both a bunch of fools. And that’s what he was saying, that we need to work together, solve the problems together and do that.”
“And when we’re talking about the positive things I’d like to see here, is that,” he said.
A mural idea of his own
In fact, Vaccaro had his own idea for the mural. His idea focused on not only the present, but also a future vision of unity.
“We’re going to use hands, all different colors and have hands in the bottom of all different colors rising up … and I gave a thing, have a highway coming here (on one side), have a highway coming here (on the other side), put the police on one side; black and whites over here, coming together and showing this is the way it is now, we need to get to here in the future where it’s all one, showing the hands, and that’s what we want.”
Vaccaro also made it clear that he doesn’t buy into the notion of “All Lives Matter.”
“Black lives do matter. And (someone) was in here this morning and he brought in religion. And there’s the example of this flock of sheep, they went after the one. The others are fine. How can you say all of them matter because this is part of all of it,” he said.
The scene, art now
On the evening of Sept. 17, the sun highlighted the teens’ finished murals in light and shadow as the day wound down.
To solve the mystery of what Jones and his friend chose, they did go with a Martin Luther King Jr. quote.
“There comes a time when silence is betrayal,” their mural now states.
And though they didn’t go with the Martin Luther King Jr. quote Vaccaro had directly pitched, Jones was right.
It still looks good.