Protests erupted Oct. 7 in Milwaukee after District Attorney John Chisholm announced that he would not pursue charges against Wauwatosa police officer Joseph Mensah, who shot and killed 17-year-old Alvin Cole on Feb. 2.
Cole had been shopping for a Valentines Day present for his girlfriend at Mayfair Mall in the Milwaukee suburb of Wauwatosa. After leaving without making a purchase, Cole was confronted by Mensah for allegedly shoplifting. This allegation has yet to be proven and, even if true, certainly doesn’t warrant capital punishment. As Mensah attempted to detain Cole, Cole ran away from his grasp and tried to escape.
Police claim that Cole had a gun and fired it at the officer but this is disputed by Cole’s family and witnesses on the scene. It is widely believed that the gun was planted at the scene, as in the dashcam video of the shooting, only five shots can be heard, those fired by Mensah into Cole’s back. The only evidence of Cole possessing and firing a weapon comes from the police themselves.
For his part, Mensah is familiar with these processes, as Cole was his third victim since 2015, when he killed unarmed Antonio Gonzales during a mental health crisis. More recently, Mensah killed Jay Anderson in 2016, while he was asleep in his car. In both these cases, Mensah was cleared of any wrongdoing and allowed to return to work as a Wauwatosa police officer. With three killings in five years, Mensah is the definition of a killer cop. The only consequences for Mensah have come from the people as organizers from several groups have maintained a movement throughout the summer and into the fall demanding “Justice for Thee Three,” referring to Gonzales, Anderson and Cole.
When a crowd of more than 200 arrived at the Milwaukee County Public Safety Building to hear Chisholm’s announcement, the expectation was that Mensah would be cleared.
“I already knew Mensah was going be let off the hook because the day before, businesses in Wauwatosa was already getting boarded up with Wauwatosa officials saying they were expecting unrest, and Governor Tony Evers made the decision to send the National Guard to Wauwatosa,” said Christiaan Cocroft, a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation. “The capitalist state will never charge one of its own, and racist district attorneys like John Chisholm will find all types of excuses to not press charges. It’s just another example of why Black people can never get true justice under this racist capitalist system.”
Unsurprisingly, when the family of Cole emerged after their meeting with Chisholm, they announced that no charges would be pressed against Mensah. This was even though the DA could find no justification for the killing of Alvin Cole, and had revealed that the Wauwatosa Police Department had actually manufactured evidence, mainly by planting a gun on Cole’s body.
“The question everyone is asking right now is, if the shooting was not justified, why are charges not being brought against Mensah?” said Kimberley Motley, the Cole family’s attorney. The Cole family called unequivocally for the immediate firing of Mensah, as well as Wauwatosa police chief Weber, who was found to be complicit in the manufacturing of evidence. “They can be fired today,” said Motley, “both of them, so we need to make that happen.”
The crowd exploded in anger after the decision was announced and organizers took to the streets, chanting “Fire Joseph Mensah” and “Fire Chief Weber,” expressing rage over the rigged nature of the legal system that always favors police officers. “We are taking this to ‘Tosa [Wauwatosa],” shouted activist Sedan Smith, brother of Sylville Smith, who was killed by Milwaukee police in 2016, “and no police or national guard can stop us!”
The protesters took to the streets and marched through Milwaukee’s predominantly African American neighborhood toward Mayfair Mall in the predominantly white suburb of Wauwatosa. Despite police and National Guard interference, by the time the marchers reached Wauwatosa more than 300 people and 50 cars were in the street.
However the police and National Guard had set up roadblocks including Humvees, armored personnel carriers and National Guard sporting rifles with live ammunition. When the crowd tried to once again bypass the line of armed agents of the state, massive amounts of tear gas and dozens of rubber bullets were fired into the crowd, causing several severe injuries. Protestors retreated choking.
“This is America, where everything is stolen and nothing is free,” stated Dee, a protester. When asked why he thought Mensah had been let off the hook: “They are robbing us of justice.”
Authorities had anticipated the announcement and set up roadblocks and barricades around the Milwaukee County Safety Building, while the Wauwatosa police department has set up a riot fence around its police headquarters. In suburban Greenfield, where Mensah lives, police set up roadblocks around Mensah’s neighborhood and put a curfew in place. While they claim these actions were in the interest of public safety, it was clear that they were taking drastic measures to limit people’s ability to protest and were willing to meet any backlash against police wrongdoing with harsh repression.