Two days prior to Sylville Smith’s death, Thaddeus Ashford, his cousin, said that he saw Smith for the last time.
He said Smith was in a car with four tinted windows, so at first, he didn’t know who was in the vehicle. Smith was also wearing shades, as seen on many of his pictures posted onto his social networking page.
After pulling alongside the truck that Ashford was getting into, Smith rolled the window down and said, “Cuz, what you on?”
Ashford said that Smith would always check up on him. That day, Ashford was headed to the gun store to purchase a new gun.
The last words he received from his cousin were, “You gotta be careful out here because you know “they ain’t playin’ out here
“Caring, funny and a go-getter,” are three things that come to mind when Smith’s brother, Sedan Smith thinks of him. In addition, “Smooth, player and a family guy” are things that come to mind when Ashford thinks of him.
Ashford said that Smith was like everybody’s son. “If that was your mama, that was Sylville’s mama,” he said.
Dominique Heaggan-Brown, the officer who shot and killed 23-year-old Sylville Smith, was recently charged with reckless homicide in Smith’s death. Although Smith was, in fact, armed, the body cam footage revealed that Smith was shot twice; however, the second shot was discharged after Smith had thrown the gun over a fence into a yard. Smith was not checked for a second gun. Heaggan-Brown is facing up to 60 years in prison if he is convicted. The officer was also charged with sexual assault for an unrelated incident.
Sedan said that not only was Smith his younger brother, but he was also everybody’s brother. “Bro was so smooth that if you were hating on bro, you was just hating on him,” Sedan said. “He was the type to turn any situation into a laughing matter, and you’ll be able to laugh about it with him.”
However, Ashford and Sedan said that the media has inaccurately portrayed Smith, especially after airing pictures of Smith with guns aimed at the camera.
Ashford said that the media portrayed what they wanted to portray so they can rule out something and portray the killing as a rightful act.
“They want to justify him as a criminal because if you justify somebody as a criminal, then you can justify any action that you want to put across that man or woman as a rightful act, so no, they did not portray him right,” he said.
“They painted a picture of my brother with all type of guns. It’s cool because he had those guns,” Sedan said. “But that’s my little brother. [For all they know], I could’ve had a job as a security officer, and he could have snuck in my room and took those pictures.”
Sedan than compared Sylville having pictures of himself with guns to a white child who may have had the same gun or worse. “Little Timmy goes to his daddy’s gun shack in the house and has Molly to take the picture with the big assault rifle and a confederate flag behind him, and he’s “an outstanding American citizen.”
Sedan said that his brother was “minding his business in his car with the gun, just him.”
While Sedan and Ashford said that Smith was licensed to carry, Milwaukee Information Officer Timothy Gauerke said that to his knowledge, there’s no record of Smith having his CCW.
“If they can bring up documentation to say that he had 13 priors (charges), then they should have documentation to pull up and see that he had his CCW’s,” Ashford said. “But If they [the police] don’t want to have to show you something, they don’t have to.”
Gauerke said that in each of the three officer-involved shootings in Milwaukee, the suspect who was shot, did something and “there’s a specific context in those shootings.”
However, Gauerke said that the media has constructed that the shootings are unjustified.
“When comparing data narrative to Milwaukee, context is key,” he said. Gauerke said that officers are legally justified to defend themselves. However, they do not shoot to kill. They shoot to protect the any third party.
“They [police officers] shoot to stop the action of whatever that person is doing,” Gauerke said. “Shooting in the arm [for example], won’t stop the threat.”
Ashford said that in regards to Sylville having a gun in the car, “You gotta understand, he’s been robbed and shot before.“ Therefore, he felt the need to protect himself.
“We go get guns to protect ourselves. We don’t do this to rob or do none of that because we know that these guns are in our names,” Ashford said.
In addition, Sedan and Ashford said that Sylville was not a felon. They said that while the media brought up Sylville’s past charges, they failed to air the fact that the charges were dismissed and/or thrown out.
Community Activist Alan Schultz said that he did not know Smith personally, but he learned of his death via social media and the news.
Sedan said that “[Sheriff Clarke] always tries to paint a picture of young, black fathers as “somebody that’s out here with a gun every day that’s threatening and hurting people,” he said. “He [Sylville] had loved ones at the end of the day. He was a person and a human being. To be portrayed as a “thug,” a “criminal” or a “hoodlum,” those are not good terms when you think of my brother name. Those are not terms that he would go by, and that’s not the way we remember his name.”
The Milwaukee Unrest
Smith was shot and killed on August 14, following what was supposed to be a regular traffic stop. However, the traffic stop ended with Smith leading Heaggan-Brown and another officer, both wearing body cameras, on a foot chase and ultimately being killed.
Smith’s death led to two days of riots: the Milwaukee Unrest. Per Captain Raymond Banks, the MPD lost four squad cars.
In addition, nearly 90 fires were reported, including BP Gas Station, Jet Beauty, O’Reilly Auto Parts, Big Jim’s Liquor, BMO Harris Bank, A to Z Wholesale Liquor, PJ’s Supermarket and MJM Liquor Store.
Sedan and Ashford both said that they did not incite anybody into anything, in reference to the unrest.
“The unrest wasn’t our fault. It wasn’t the people involved fault,” said Sedan. “The unrest was actually the boiling point for a lot of people who never had anything.”
“Not only do we [blacks] not have anything, but the police are killing us. We don’t have protection as well as we don’t have money. We live in poverty, and we don’t have protection, so that creates an angry situation at the end of the day, and you can’t describe the type of anger a black person has,” said Smith’s brother, Sedan Smith.
He described the unrest as a psychological reaction to not having anything and going through things every day. However, Sedan said that Smith’s death triggered such a reaction because the incident hit home (the inner city).
“When you really got the streets involved in something like that, ain’t no turning back,” said Ashford. “You gotta understand when his [Sylville] name rung out, a lot of people were like ‘what, who?’ It struck a nerve. It just woke a lot of stuff up, and a lot of people been mad about that area in general, so it’s like an example of them showing, “We tired of this bulls***.”
Schultz said that he believes the unrest resulted from past decades of unresolved issues surrounding things like housing and the lack of accountability of police officers involved in police brutality cases.
“I think decades of what’s been going on in Milwaukee with the neglect to predominately African American community, with regards to education, lack of jobs, over saturation of police forces in the [poverty stricken] neighborhoods and the lack of trust in those police forces” all contributed to the unrest.
Fast Fact: Milwaukee is the second poorest city and the seventh most distressed city in America, according to the 2014 report released by the U.S. government in 2015.
Blacks make up 40 percent of Milwaukee’s population, and black men (living in Milwaukee) have the highest incarceration rate in the nation, according to UW researchers. Per the research, one in eight black men were incarcerated by 30. Two of three of the incarcerated men came six of the city’s most impoverished zip codes (including 53206 and the Sherman Park area – which is the same area Smith was killed).
Nearly one of three blacks in Milwaukee live in extreme poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Milwaukee’s poverty rate, as of Sept. 2015, was 29 percent (nearly doubled the rate of 15.5 percent in 1984, following the Great Recession, as reported by UW-Madison’s Applied Population Lab). Blacks represent the highest poverty rate at 39.9 percent.
In addition, UW-Madison professor Marc Levine said that 90% of students enrolled into high poverty institutions are black.
His legacy will live on
Sedan said that he still struggles every day with the death of his little brother.
“I wake up the same way I did when it happened. I’m more level-headed, and I’m not screaming like I was,” he said. “But I’m hurt behind that every day because I lost a part of me. I lost my little brother.”
Sedan said that It’s even more horrifying when you find out your loved one was killed by the police.
“When we were struck with this lost, it just spreaded,” Ashford said. “People just came out and showed love and support, and they didn’t want us to quit. We were forced in this situation. It was like ‘Ya’ll gotta do this for him, and ya’ll gotta stand up for his life and get him justice.’”
In closing, although Smith’s life was taken, his family is fighting to make his legacy last forever through armed marches, protests, constant live social media broadcasts and frequent meetings with public officials.
The video of Smith’s death has not been released yet.