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 seven times on Aug. 23, 2020, leaving him paralyzed below the waist.
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.
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, or DCI, 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.
Graveley spent 90 minutes on Tuesday walking reporters and others viewing the press conference through DCI’s investigation tactics and attempting to contextualize the events that led to Blake being shot, utilizing video footage of the Aug. 23 incident, freeze frames and a bullet-point slideshow.
The district attorney stressed that, despite mixed information on the matter, it is “absolutely incontrovertible that Jacob Blake was armed with a knife” during the incident on Aug. 23 and that it was his determination based on the evidence that Blake wielded it with “offensive intent” before Sheskey fired.
Graveley also emphasized the importance of the facts that the officers were responding to an active domestic dispute, that Blake was tased at least twice and struggled with Sheskey in resisting arrest, and that police had an open felony arrest warrant against Blake at the time, which text message evidence shows Blake knew about.
The district attorney also attempted to complicate the narrative that Blake was shot in the back by pointing out that the Milwaukee County medical examiner determined that three of Blake’s bullet wounds were to his left side, which may have occurred when Blake turned toward Sheskey wielding a knife as he was being prevented from entering the SUV at the scene.
The prosecutor also claimed that had Blake’s shooting gone to trial, Blake would have withered under “absolutely devastating cross-examination” on the facts that led up to his shooting.
Wray also spoke at Tuesday’s press conference. While he admitted that “like most Americans who saw that back in August, I was emotionally troubled,” the former police chief furthered Graveley’s point that the cellphone footage of the shooting does not tell the whole story and that the officers used every possible intervention option before using deadly force during an incident that lasted a little over one minute.
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.”
Governor Evers released a statement following Graveley’s charging decision calling for further work toward the promises of justice, equity and peace for Black Americans, admitting that “what is just as clear today as it has been is we have failed to deliver on these promises, both as a state and as a country.”
Evers also seemed to take a dig at the GOP-controlled Wisconsin Legislature for failing to take seriously his call this summer for a special session on police reform. Republican lawmakers relented on that call in light of the events surrounding Blake’s shooting, but quicky began and ended the special session without debate days later.