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At the corner of 22nd Avenue and Roosevelt Road in Kenosha, Wis., there used to be a camera shop. Now, it’s a pile of rubble. A few blackened walls are still standing, the windows blown out. The heap of splintered wood and rebar and shattered concrete looms over bystanders. A charred mattress lies flopped on top of it all, and broken glass litters the sidewalk.
I drove into the city early Thursday morning, four days after a Kenosha police officer shot a black man and violent mobs set the city on fire. I saw hardly any windows: Every business had its glass boarded up with sheets of plywood, some with spray-painted pleas such as, “Protect the people in our community,” and “Kids live upstairs.”
Farther east, in the downtown business district, the plywood sheets are painted with bright flowers and hearts. Community organizers have tents set up on sidewalks, ready with check-in clipboards, cleaning supplies, and paint for volunteers. They tell volunteers to paint messages about love, because “Love is the answer.”
Kim got here around 8 a.m. She’s armed with a spray-on spray-paint remover, and she says a lot of people have stopped by to check on her: It looks like she’s doing graffiti instead of scrubbing it off. “I don’t like this cleaner,” she says. “It’s definitely not on the top of my graffiti cleaner list.”
Dale and Michael are priming a sheet of plywood so other artists can come along and turn it into a mural. Michael lives a few miles away; Dale lives just down the street. His cousin texted and asked if he wanted to get out of town for a few days, but he said no. “I feel like if I did, the bad guys win.” “We tough it out with our community,” Michael adds. “This is home. So we gotta be here to wake up and clean it up.”
Different groups of volunteers are milling around, painting, chatting. A barefoot guitarist sings on one street corner. A couple of vendors have set up tents with muffins and smoothies.
I ask Michael what the goal of the artwork is. “Love,” he says, without missing a beat. “We’re spreading love.”
A few blocks over, Pastor Matt Henry lives in what he calls “the hood.” He points out a row of houses: Gangs own all of them. The furniture store on the corner is completely demolished. There aren’t any murals or cleanup crews here. The streets are quiet, but Henry still hasn’t relaxed. He sent his wife to stay with relatives outside the city earlier this week. “Since Sunday, I’ve had maybe nine, 10 hours of sleep.” He spends nights with his police scanner on and his gun by his side, car backed into the driveway in case he needs to get out fast. The first night of riots, he watched buildings burn a block away and listened to cars exploding in the auto lot down the street.
After 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse shot three people Tuesday night, things got quiet in the city. “I think the soul got taken out of it with the shootings,” says Henry. But he also says a lot of Kenosha residents are still frustrated with how state and city leaders have handled the unrest. To him, everything seems to come two or three days too late. “It’s shocking to me that a 17-year-old young man did more in 45 seconds to bring calm to the city than all the forces of our government,” he says.
According to Henry, politicians are using the unrest as a platform for grandstanding, not to achieve meaningful change: “I just don’t have time for the posturing. It’s empty.” He says painting murals or even doing a prayer walk isn’t going to fix anything if everyone just goes right back to the way things were before. Instead, it has to be a generational approach. “I think we have to realize that the ruins are there, metaphorically and now literally. And the only way to repair them is to regenerate households that are then being equipped to live out that Biblical worldview.”
Though discouraged by the political response, Henry is encouraged by ordinary Christians living well and living out the gospel in their communities. Instead of empty phrases, “They actually have something true to offer. And that gives me a lot of hope.”