Justin Blake and Kenosha activist Tanya McLean on why they’re still hopeful for change, even after no charges were filed against the officer who shot Jacob Blake.
When Kenosha County District Attorney Michael Gravely announced last month that he would not charge any police officers involved in the August 2020 shooting of Jacob Blake, activists and protesters against police brutality were dealt a disappointing, yet not unexpected, blow.
But a month later, Jacob Blake’s uncle, Justin Blake, and prolific Kenosha activist Tanya McLean remain more hopeful than ever for local, state, and federal police reform. In an interview with UpNorthNews, the pair discussed what they have been doing in the month since the charging decision and how they view the future under new federal leadership.
“Although it looks sort of [like] gray clouds, it’s actually, the sun is coming out soon,” Justin Blake said.
Justin Blake and his brother, Jacob Blake Sr., the father of Jacob Blake, attended President Joe Biden’s inauguration as personal invited guests of Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. They met with federal lawmakers and are returning in February to further discuss the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would make it easier to prosecute police officers for misconduct, limit qualified immunity, and allow the federal Department of Justice to issue subpoenas to investigate patterns of discrimination in law enforcement agencies.
“We believe we will be getting some very positive results for not just our family, because it isn’t just about Little Jake,” said Justin Blake.
“Biden’s making a lot of good strides, but it’s going to be important that every day he goes into [the Oval] Office, that he remembers us and all the promises that he made to our community,” said McLean, executive director of Leaders of Kenosha (LOK).
Locally, McLean and LOK have been vocal on issues within the city. In January, LOK led a pressure campaign against the Kenosha Police Department’s proposed use of grant money to buy two automated license plate readers, which can scan vehicle plates and create public records of individuals’ movements.
Civil rights groups including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union say the technology can be used to invade privacy or even suppress First Amendment-protected activities. After LOK spoke out against Kenosha’s planned purchase, the police department backed down.
“I’m hopeful because there’s a group of people that are dedicated to seeing that change happen here locally, within Kenosha—city and county,” McLean said. “So as a team, I think some incredible things are gonna happen, whether city officials want it or not.”
Two of the officers involved in the Blake shooting returned to duty last week, while Rusten Sheskey, the officer who shot Blake seven times at point-blank range, remains on administrative leave.
According to Gravely, Sheskey and the two other officers tried to arrest Blake on a warrant, but Blake resisted arrest and wrestled with Sheskey. Blake went to leave in a vehicle while carrying a knife, and Sheskey followed him and grabbed him as he opened the car door. Gravely alleged that Blake twisted with the knife as if to stab Sheskey, and then the officer opened fire.
In the original video of the shooting, it did not appear that the two other officers attempted to grab Blake as he walked to the car door. Justin Blake said the officers are just as accountable for the shooting as Sheskey and that they should not be patrolling Kenosha’s streets anymore.
“You’re telling me three police officers could not have grasped this young man, taken him down, and handcuffed him as opposed to shooting him?” Justin Blake said. “You are terrified of 145—I mean, let’s talk about, for real, you were so terrified from a 145-pound young man—three guys—that you shot him seven times?”
Blake and McLean said they want lawmakers to change legal standards of police use-of-force, improve deescalation training, and end qualified immunity, which gives police broad discretion to use force. The Wisconsin Assembly’s Task Force on Racial Disparities’s subcommittee focused on police reform is set to meet in Kenosha in February to discuss qualified immunity.
Seven Milwaukee Common Council members recently cosigned a letter asking Biden to ban qualified immunity via executive order, and McLean said she wants Kenosha city leaders to do the same.
“We know that the community is ready for change,” Justin Blake said. “You can smell it, and you can almost cut the air.”
And if the elected officials in place aren’t responsive, Justin Blake and McLean said they shouldn’t expect to cruise to reelection.
“If they do not agree with the popular thought that each and every man should be protected by law … we will be shopping around to find people that will run for their office, and back them,” Justin Blake said.