Kenosha mayor listening sessions
One of many murals popping up in Kenosha since the shooting of Jacob Blake. (Photo by Pat A. Robinson)

Mayor says Kenosha can’t “pretend like this is going to go away” on its own.

Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian on Monday announced community listening sessions on racism, said city police will have body cameras next year, and put the onus on himself to lead the city as it works to improve the quality of life for Black residents.

“It’s gonna be my responsibility to make sure we’ve changed,” said Antaramian, who is white, during a Monday press conference. “With support of the council, we will do that. With support of the people, we will do that.”

The press conference was the first major step toward reform announced in the city after a local police officer shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back at point-blank range on Aug. 23. Blake is Black, the officer is white. Kenosha, whose racial disparities are among the worst in the nation, has been under the microscope since Blake’s shooting set off more than a week of unrest that resulted in a militia member fatally shooting two protesters and $50 million dollars worth of damage primarily concentrated in the predominantly Black Uptown neighborhood.

With the protests dying down, community activists and officials are now looking forward to making changes for Black residents in the southeastern Wisconsin city of 100,000.

Kicking that effort off will be four two-hour community listening sessions.

The Rev. Roy Peeples, pastor of Turning Point Life Church in Kenosha, said the listening sessions will help the city move forward with “reconciliation, rebuilding, and bringing hope to the people in our community.”

“We can’t do this if we don’t start with the foundation of just listening,” Peeples said.

The listening sessions will be held at local churches and the Kenosha Public Museum beginning on Sept. 20 and occurring every Sunday through Oct. 11. 

“We will start with the listening sessions, because we can make no change without listening,” Antaramian said.

Terrance Warthen, a member of two Kenosha County committees and the Kenosha Unity Commission, and a founding member of Our Wisconsin Revolution, attended the press conference but did not speak to reporters. Warthen, a 45-year-old Black Kenoshan, told UpNorthNews in a text that the listening sessions are “necessary.”

“The communities impacted most directly by property damage, as well as the rest of the community need to have these difficult conversations,” Warthen wrote. “I believe the listening sessions can and need to work.”

Antaramian said he intends to work with Black community leaders in the long-term. One of his deepest regrets during his first stint as mayor from 1992-2008, he said, was disbanding a standing committee that saw an NAACP representative work closely with city leaders on racial issues.

“I refuse to make that mistake a second time,” said Antaramian, who was elected mayor again in 2016. “I’m getting too old to make too many mistakes here. We didn’t do it then. We should have kept that community going and, when you ask me for my mistakes, that is the one I always think of as the biggest mistake I made.”

The mayor also said he will make sure the city’s 2021 budget includes money for body cameras for the Kenosha Police Department. That comes after three years of foot-dragging. City officials first endorsed body cams in 2017, but police never got the vital equipment because the city never actually freed up money for the cameras and digital storage for the footage.

The city’s holdup in buying body cameras meant there is no body camera footage of the Blake shooting, only footage from police dashboard cameras and cell phone videos from witnesses.

Antaramian’s announcement comes two weeks after Kenosha County Executive Jim Kreuser said he will include money for body cameras for the Sheriff’s Department in the county’s 2021 budget. Kenosha County deputies, like City of Kenosha police officers, do not currently have cameras.

“We need to keep it moving for the future, because this isn’t just going to be one issue and done,” Antaramian said. “We as a community need to move forward. We are not going to be like other communities and pretend like this is going to go away. It isn’t.”