White US police officer cleared of charges in Wisconsin shooting of Jacob Blake

KENOSHA, Wisconsin (REUTERS) – Prosecutors on Tuesday (Jan 5) cleared a white police officer in the Aug 23 shooting of Black man Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, an incident that touched off deadly street protests and inflamed racial tensions in the United States.

Kenosha County District Attorney Michael Graveley found police officer Rusten Sheskey acted in self-defence while shooting Blake seven times at close range, saying Blake was armed with a knife and had resisted arrest, withstanding multiple Taser shots.

The decision against prosecuting Sheskey or the two other officers on the scene could incite more demonstrations, which have frequently broken out in the United States in recent years after police have been cleared of wrongdoing in shootings of African Americans.

Central Kenosha was empty of shoppers and pedestrians as the announcement was made, as most storefronts were boarded up in recent days in anticipation of more unrest.

“People are definitely on edge still,” said life-long Kenoshian Jon Zamora, 30, as he boarded up a storefront in Kenosha, a city of 100,000 people between Milwaukee and Chicago.

The knife was not easily visible on the video of the shooting that went viral on social media. Nor did the video show previous attempts to detain Blake, who was wanted on a felony arrest warrant, as police were told before arriving on the scene, Graveley said.

Blake refused police commands to drop the knife, which Graveley said gave Sheskey the right to self-defence.

“It is absolutely incontrovertible that Jacob Blake was armed with a knife during this encounter,” Graveley said, adding that Blake admitted several times to investigators he had the knife.

The prosecutor called the incident a tragedy for all those involved.

Blake, who was shot in the presence of three young sons, was paralysed from the waist down.

“We are immensely disappointed and feel this decision failed not only Jacob and his family but the community that protested and demanded justice,” Blake’s lawyer, Ben Crump, said on Twitter.

“Our work is not done and hope is not lost. We must broaden the fight for justice on behalf of Jacob Blake and the countless other Black victims of racial injustice and police brutality,”said Crump, who has represented other African Americans in high-profile civil rights cases.

The shooting took place while passions were still inflamed over the May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man, after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck. Thousands took the streets in “Black Lives Matter” anti-racism protests in the United States and around the world following Floyd’s death despite the coronavirus pandemic.

The Sheskey shooting of Blake attracted a mix of civil rights demonstrators, anarchists and right-wing militias to Kenosha.

At the height of those protests, teenager Kyle Rittenhouse opened fire with a Smith & Wesson M&P 15 rifle, killing two men and wounding another. Rittenhouse, now 18, was charged with first-degree reckless homicide and five other criminal counts.

Earlier on Tuesday, Rittenhouse pleaded not guilty to all counts in an appearance by video in Kenosha County Circuit Court.

As the charging decision against Sheskey neared, the city of Kenosha announced it was making preparations for demonstrations.

Responding to the request of local officials, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers authorised the Wisconsin National Guard to support local law enforcement in anticipation of unrest.

Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian and Police Chief Daniel Miskinis said in a statement on Sunday that officials would impose curfews, designate an area for demonstrations, section off areas with fencing and close streets.