Kenosha Mayor Points to Outsiders as Agitators, Vows to Rebuild and Reunite His City

kenosha strong mural wisconsin 2020
A message is painted on the boarded up door to a business in the city's business district on August 27, 2020 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Activists have been marching in Kenosha protesting the shooting of Jacob Blake who was shot seven times in the back in front of his three children by a police officer. Scott Olson/Getty

After several nights of violence following yet another police shooting of a Black man, Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian is hopeful his city has turned a corner, but acknowledges there is still a long road ahead to recovery.

"You have to earn trust, people don't just give it to you," Antaramian told Newsweek in an exclusive interview on Friday morning. "We will have to earn that trust back. It's not going to happen overnight."

The Wisconsin town has been the epicenter of the national debate on police brutality and racial injustice following the shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black father, on August 23. Blake was shot seven times in the back while getting into an SUV with his three sons.

Hundreds of protesters gathered in the city as news of the shooting spread on Sunday night. The demonstration turned chaotic as businesses were burned and looted, prompting the city to request law enforcement backup from the National Guard. The violence reached a boiling point on Tuesday night when two people were fatally shot and a third severely injured. Kyle Rittenhouse, a white teenager from neighboring Illinois, was arrested in connection with the shootings and charged with homicide.

The atmosphere has shifted with consecutive nights of peaceful protests. Law enforcement officials described the situation as "much calmer" during a news conference on Thursday afternoon.

Kenosha officials, Antaramian included, are adamant that most of the chaos was brought into the city from outside groups. But when asked who those people were, where they came from or what causes they supported, the mayor couldn't say.

"I wish I could tell you," Antaramian said. "I do not know."

Although the mayor couldn't identify them, he said that he and his fellow Kenosha officials have evidence that outsiders had been coming to the city to cause trouble.

"What I do know is that we have intercepted cars at different times with individuals coming from the west coast, east coast, Illinois, Wisconsin—just all over the place," he told Newsweek. "And they seem to be the ones who created most of the havoc, not the people in the city of Kenosha themselves."

Others have blamed the city and the state for poor management of the situation. Residents have criticized officials for not doing enough to tame the violence, while some peaceful protesters have accused police of attacking them and not the armed militias or vigilantes who are prowling the streets.

Many have called for Police Chief David Miskinis and Sheriff David Beth to resign. The American Civil Liberties Union said if they don't step down, they'll put the pressure on the mayor and the governor to demand their removal.

Antaramian voiced his support for both law enforcement officers.

"I would only say that both men have been, in general, very good and supportive to the community in getting things done," the mayor said. "I would not be in favor of removing them."

When asked about what police reforms the city is considering, the mayor said there will be multiple committees formed to tackle systemic racism within the police force and within the community as a whole. He told Newsweek that at the very least, he anticipated that the installment of body cameras—which Kenosha police officers do not currently have—will be happening "within the next year."

Antaramian said that the committees will be made up of people with law enforcement backgrounds, members of the clergy and young people in the community.

"We will be reviewing everything that we do," the mayor said.

mayor john antaramian Kenosha presser
City of Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian responds to a reporter at a news conference on August 26, 2020 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Kenosha's mayor, National Guard Sargent, county executive, police chief, and other local officials held a news conference to discuss the recent civil unrest surrounding the police shooting of Jacob Blake. Brandon Bell/Getty

The probe into the Blake shooting is now in the hands of the Wisconsin Department of Justice's Division of Criminal Investigation. The U.S. Department of Justice also confirmed that it has opened a civil rights investigation into the Blake shooting.

On Friday, the Wisconsin DOJ released new details identifying the officers involved and revealing that they tried twice to use a taser on Blake while attempting to arrest him. According to the statement, officers from the Kenosha Police Department were dispatched to a residence Sunday, after a female caller reported that her boyfriend was there and "was not supposed to be on the premises."

Antaramian said he has not yet spoken to the Blake family, but would be calling Blake's mother soon. He said he intended to thank her for urging an end to the violence.

The mayor added that he's committed to getting the people of his city talking about the issues that this incident has raised.

"We have to start healing," he said. "We need to have open dialogue that sometimes will be uncomfortable for people, but we need to start doing it."

While safety remains Antaramian's top priority, he's "rather hopeful" after seeing relative peace return to his city over the past few days, and he hopes to be able to move on to the efforts to rebuild his community.

Antaramian said he will be asking for financial assistance from the state and federal governments for help for the businesses that have been destroyed. The committees on tackling systemic racism will branch out from law enforcement to look at education and employment opportunities for minorities.

The mayor also emphasized looking to the future by bolstering youth programs.

"We're slowly losing a generation," Artaramian told Newsweek, "and that's all of our faults."