Located a short interstate drive from major metropolitan areas, it’s one of those mid-sized cities boasting a mix of industrial and rural, folksy and modern.
“Here is where big-city business shakes hands with small-town sensibility,” the local economic development agency proclaims on its website. You can imagine the pre-coronavirus high-fives after the marketing staff came up with that one.
We could be talking about St. Joseph, but we’re not. Prior to Aug. 23, when a police officer shot Jacob Blake in the back, Kenosha, Wisconsin, existed within that overlooked tier of cities that aren’t too big, aren’t too coastal and aren’t too warm in the winter. For some of us, the city might be best known as the home of John Candy’s fictional polka band, the Kenosha Kickers, in “Home Alone.”
Kenosha is known for all the wrong reasons now: seven shots, torched cars and Kyle Rittenhouse. The point here isn’t to rehash what went wrong with the traffic stop, with the riots and the polarized finger-pointing that followed. In some sense, it’s depressing because it’s all-too-similar to Ferguson, Missouri, Minneapolis or Portland, Oregon.
But Kenosha seems different because it’s so much like ... us. With 99,000 people, Kenosha’s population is not that much larger than St. Joseph, which is stuck at around 76,000. Like St. Joseph, Kenosha is about 50 to 60 miles from bigger metro areas.
The two cities share similar dynamics for race (Kenosha is 79% white, St. Joseph is 86% white), high school graduates (88% of Kenosha’s population to 87% in St. Joseph), median household income ($53,000 in Kenosha, $47,000 in St. Joseph) and rate of poverty (18% in St. Joseph and 17% in Kenosha). Kenosha had six murders last year. A list of its top employers demonstrates a familiar mix of manufacturing, warehousing, schools and a hospital.
This isn’t to suggest that St. Joseph is some powder keg with a seething brew of racial animosity, waiting to explode. It just reflects how, until Aug. 23, most of Kenosha’s residents probably worried about things like schools and potholes, just like we do now.
It is a mistake to assume that crime is unique to big cities, that urban unrest only happens in traditional Democratic strongholds, that police are not overburdened, that property owners don’t pay an unfair price for rioting and that the resentments of Black people are not legitimate and widespread.
Kenosha shows that it can happen anywhere. As the long, hot summer of urban unrest transitions to a heated election season, it’s important to avoid the blame game and instead figure out ways to keep it from happening here.
More than anything, it’s important to keep talking to one another.