Institutionalized racism talks, then walks July 12, 2012

By Patricia Obletz, Editor

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Police Chief Edward Flynn painted a stark, living portrait of institutional racism at the so-called community forum in Milwaukee at the Rufus King High School auditorium on Thursday, July 12, 2012, scheduled to begin at 5:30pm. After the Board of Fire and Police Commissioners adjourned their meeting, they took a break before turning the meeting over to the mayor, the police chief and the audience of about 100 people. Since a community forum includes a dialogue between the audience and the speakers, we the audience expected to talk to the major and police chief about the way the police handled the May 31, 2012, Darius Simmons murder case: Patricia Larry watched her next door neighbor gun down her son, but as soon as the police arrived, she was taken from Darius’ side and held as a key witness in a squad car for two hours.

It was hard to hear the mayor, since he stood at the podium with his back turned to the audience, speaking to the Commissioners, not to us. The mayor said something about being a father, he could imagine how Patricia Larry, mother of Darius Simmons, was feeling after watching her son die; he expressed his condolences.

The police chief and another policeman bypassed the podium and walked onto the stage and took seats at a table right-angled to the one at which the Commissioners sat facing us. Flynn looked occasionally at the Commissioners, but not at the audience, as he spun his story of how and why the cops handled the murder of Darius Simmons the way they did.

Flynn said that compassion had to step aside for police work.

Flynn said that searching Patricia Larry’s house immediately was necessary because, had Darius stolen Spooner’s guns, no one would have had time to remove them. The cops found nothing, but did they need nearly two hours to reach this conclusion?

After reporting to the Commissioners, as if our meeting to hear and be heard didn’t exist, the mayor and the chief claimed previous commitments and walked out. Walking out like that was the epitome of arrogance and disdain for the community waiting to start a dialogue with them.

The mayor and the chief owe members of the community a chance to be heard.

The mayor and the chief now owe members of the community an actual meeting to open the dialogue that had been promised but never delivered on July 12, 2012.

We in the audience had patiently waited, putting up with the stagnate hot air unmoved by even one fan while the Board of Fire and Police Commissioners ran their meeting overtime, pushing the start of the special meeting to follow closer to 6:30pm than to 5:30pm. We waited quietly in unpleasant conditions because we wanted to understand how a murderer could be treated with more respect and consideration than the murder victim’s mother.

John Henry Spooner is the 75-year-old white man who, on May 31, 2012, shot dead Darius Simmons, a 13-year-old African American, literally the boy next door. Young Darius had stayed home from school because he was sick, but he managed to help his mother by bringing the garbage cans back to the house from the curb. It was about 10 in the morning when Spooner showed up, accused Darius of stealing guns from him, and then, he killed Darius, who had seen the gun and had put his hands up in the air. Spooner shot the boy in his chest, which didn’t kill him right away. Spooner’s second shot missed Darius, who had turned and tried to outrun the next bullet. He didn’t get too far before falling to the sidewalk, his body beginning to die.

Spooner obviously had assumed that, because Darius Simmons was black, and he and his family had moved into the house next door a mere month ago, Darius Simmons was the only person who could be guilty of stealing from him. This is racial profiling at its worst. Had Spooner investigated his suspicions, he would have discovered that, in fact, Darius was at school at the same time that Spooner claims he was burglarized.

The cops arrested Spooner for intentional homicide at the crime scene, but they handcuffed his hands in front of him; they dignified him by not forcing his hands behind his back. The cops showed respect and consideration for this murderer’s feelings.


But the cops had no problem imprisoning Darius Simmons’ mother, Patricia Larry, for nearly two hours in an unmarked police car parked a few feet away from where her son was lying on the sidewalk, keeping her from being with him. Anywhere near TWO hours was, at the least, insensitive, at worst, racist, but whatever else this action may be, it was definitely UNREASONABLE.

The police chief declared that Thursday evening, July 12, 2012, that Patricia Larry was not held for more than 20 or 30 minutes. Who do you believe? The people at the murder scene back on May 31, or this new time span?

The question to the community is this: How long should a horrified, grief-stricken mother be held for questioning while her son lies on the sidewalk a few feet away from her? The police could have still been the first people she talked to if they had let her be with her son until the ambulance arrived, and then taken her to the hospital to be with him. Flynn insisted that Patricia Larry’s eye-witness account of this tragic killing had to be told to the cops first if her testimony in court six months down the line was to hold weight against Spooner.

Why were respect and consideration given to Spooner, but not to the mother of Spooner’s victim? Because Patricia Larry and her son Darius Simmons were Black?

This same disrespect and insensitivity were coldly apparent at the July 12 hearing when the mayor and his police chief walked out. Identifying problems and opening honest communication between residents of all ages, professions, religions and skin colors, and the mayor and chief of police are the keys to a positive future for Milwaukee.

The young people that evening passionately expressed their anger at being ignored by the mayor and chief, and left, taking half the audience with them. Their words were angry and bitter, because this time, they thought they actually would be heard by the mayor and his chief. As they said, they objected to being treated like “second class citizens.”

If you weren’t at the Rufus King HS auditorium July 12, 2012, but caught the local news, you missed eloquent pleas for healing and peace, and the voice of deep-rooted senses of fresh betrayal.

Naked institutionalized racism was on display the night of July 12, 2012, with no attempt to hide it. This attitude of white privilege cannot prevail. You, me, all of us are needed to help ensure that it doesn’t.

Editor’s Note:

This column initially misstated that Ms. Larry didn’t know if her son was alive or dead when being held as a key witness by the police. She knew he died when she reached him on the sidewalk, before the cops arrived.

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Last edited by patricia obletz. Based on work by Tyler Schuster.  Page last modified on March 25, 2014

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