‘Chicago Tonight’ in Your Neighborhood: Kenosha

Kenosha, Wisconsin, just over the Illinois border, became the epicenter of violent unrest this summer after the police shooting of Jacob Blake led to several days of protests. Some of the demonstrations grew violent, destructive, and resulted in murder charges for Illinois resident Kyle Rittenhouse.

A few months later, Kenosha is in the midst of early voting. It’s a hotly contested county – in one of the most hotly contested states – in the presidential election. In 2016, Donald Trump won this normally blue county by about 250 votes, out of a county population of 170,000.

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Early voting this year has been robust according to the county clerk, with about 50% of registered voters having already cast a ballot. The city of Kenosha is offering its municipal building for in-person and drive-through voting, with a steady stream of cars throughout the day. And the political contention in this state is in high gear; the U.S. Supreme Court ruled recently that mail in ballots received after Nov. 3 will not be counted.

But the Kenosha County Democratic Part says they were prepared for this to happen, so they’ve been in constant communication with voters about casting their ballots early – and about the issues that are facing the county and the country.

“We’ve been working the last four years to make sure that we flip our county back to blue,” said Kenosha County Democratic Party Chair Lori Hawkins. “Many of us volunteer lots of hours making sure that we’re reaching every single voter. We’ve had organizers on the ground for over a year in Kenosha County … not just talking to people right before elections, but discussing the issues that are important to them and really making sure that we get to know voters and where their heads are right now.”

Video: Our full interview with Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian.

Kenosha has gotten so much political attention that both President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden made separate visits here earlier this fall. And while President Trump has attacked mail-in voting across the country, Democrats and Republicans here seem to agree that it is a good thing. Kenosha County’s Republican Party chair says she voted absentee, and believes election clerks are well prepared to handle the volume of ballots. She also believes the civil unrest following the shooting of Jacob Blake has pushed the county even further to the red.

“I think our margin is going to be bigger than it was four years ago,” said Erin Decker of the Kenosha County GOP. “I think the uproar we had, the riots in Kenosha really solidified some of our independent voters and a lot of the Democrats that are law and order Democrats, and I think they’re going to vote for Trump this time. I think Kenosha County’s definitely going to go red.”

Signs of that deadly week in August are evident all over town: boarded up businesses, buildings that have burned to the ground, a used car dealership with only charred remains of its cars.

But there are also signs of life again. Downtown restaurant The Buzz Café was teeming with customers Thursday afternoon, saying that the unrest and damage they suffered has not deterred them from running their business.

“We pretty quickly understood that the unrest came from outside sources, that it wasn’t the locals who destroyed their own community,” said Craig Schrader, Buzz Café’s general manager. “We all had to endure that together, but together … we’re confident in reopening and we’re going to do so safely because there was a need to from us wanting to get back to doing our thing and customer demand.”

Video: Our full interview with is Gregory Bennett Jr. of Peace in the Streets.

Because of state court rulings, there are no mask mandates or restaurant closures in Wisconsin. Buzz Café says they have voluntarily chosen to operate at 25% capacity to stay safe. And with staggering numbers of new COVID cases each day, local officials are concerned that residents who have let down their guard are fueling the fall surge.

“I think people made the mistake … when things started slowing down everyone thought we’re through this, it’s not a problem,” said Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian. “We need to be diligent – again, the simple things. Wash hands, wear face masks, those types of things can be helpful, but we still now need to be more aggressive, I think, in how we’re doing things because the numbers are skyrocketing all over the state and the country.”

Antaramian said in addition to fighting the pandemic, local leaders have been working to heal the community after the unrest and violence of the late summer. Among those leaders is Gregory Bennett Jr. of Peace in the Streets. He said true healing means reform and accountability – and that the officer who shot Jacob Blake should be fired.

“Why is it taking so long? Every time. If it was you or I, would it take that long?” Bennett asked. And while he thinks Kyle Rittenhouse’s mother should be held responsible for her son’s actions, he’s happy that Rittenhouse has been charged and hopes he stands trial as an adult.

“I'm happy that something happened, and it happened quick. But if you’re going to try the civilian that way, then you have to try the police officer that way, because the police officer’s actually trained,” he said “There’s rules of engagement that should have been happening. ... It’s all about transparency with accountability.”

Community Reporting Series

“Chicago Tonight” is expanding its community reporting. We’re hitting the streets to speak with your neighbors, local businesses, agencies and leaders about COVID-19, the economy, racial justice, education and more. See where we’ve been and what we’ve learned by using the map below. Or select a community using the drop-down menu. Points in red represent our series COVID-19 Across Chicago; blue marks our series “Chicago Tonight” in Your Neighborhood.

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