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Kenosha is still reeling from killings as Kyle Rittenhouse's trial begins

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Jury selection begins tomorrow in the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse. He's charged with killing two people and injuring a third during unrest in Kenosha, Wis., in August of 2020. Protesters had taken to the streets after a white police officer shot a Black resident, leaving him paralyzed. As Maayan Silver of member station WUWM reports, the trial is bringing renewed attention to Kenosha's racial divisions.

MAAYAN SILVER: For several weeks last summer, Kenosha was a racial tinderbox as outrage bubbled up over police shooting Jacob Blake multiple times in the back following a 911 call. Amid fires and looting came calls from right-wing militias on social media to protect Kenosha businesses. Kyle Rittenhouse took notice, and on Monday, the 18-year-old goes on trial, accused of arming himself with a semiautomatic rifle, crossing state lines from Illinois and killing two protesters, Anthony Huber and Joseph Rosenbaum, and injuring a third. Meanwhile, Kenoshans are still reeling from the events.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You all want them with or without sauce?

SILVER: Shawnelle Gross is an assistant pastor at the Blessing Center, a church in Kenosha, helping out at a street-side barbecue fundraiser.

SHAWNELLE GROSS: This situation happened along a political campaigning time for both presidential candidates at the time.

SILVER: In fact, both Joe Biden and Donald Trump made appearances in Kenosha, situated about halfway between Milwaukee and Chicago, during the unrest.

GROSS: And we still stuck with it. They're moved on with it. They're going on to bigger and other things in their lives, but here we are, stuck in Kenosha having to deal with the same tragedy, you know?

SILVER: Throughout the city's downtown and in the neighborhood of Uptown, where many Black and Hispanic Kenoshan's live, buildings are still charred and boarded up, and economic recovery is slow-moving. Outside of Uptown Pantry, a small, quick-mart, Arletha Pledger says she struggles with the aftermath of the unrest.

ARLETHA PLEDGER: It's like, man, like, it's very sad and heartbreaking because we can't even go to stores that we used to go to.

SILVER: There's a long history of racial inequity and uneven policing in Kenosha. Pastor Lawrence Kirby hopes the national spotlight on the trial can raise awareness.

LAWRENCE KIRBY: People who may not have paid attention to these types of issues begin to pay attention, maybe for the first time.

SILVER: That includes people in power. Kirby, a former fire and police commissioner, notes that after years of delay, the city finally approved officer body cams following the Blake shooting. But some here are concerned the attention is misplaced and that it mischaracterizes Kenosha. Susan Goss, who lives close to Uptown, blames the tension not on locals, but on outside agitators.

SUSAN GOSS: As soon as the people from out of state left, we were pretty much back to normal. If you went down the street in uptown or downtown, you saw people of all races painting windows, working together. This is Kenosha. We got a bum rap.

SILVER: But Kendra Patlak says there clearly is a divide in this 80% white city. On a pleasant day at the city's harbor market, she says residents of overwhelmingly white Kenosha County aren't embracing many of the issues this trial will raise.

KENDRA PATLAK: Occasionally, you'll see, like, a car in a parking lot with a BLM bumper sticker, but it's kind of more of like a privately held belief, and it's - I don't think it's socially acceptable to talk about just because the police lives matter is huge.

SILVER: Whether Kenoshan's think it's time to put the conversation behind them or continue to highlight injustices is in part reflected along political, racial and economic lines. Tanya McClean is an activist with Leaders of Kenosha, a group that seeks to empower minorities.

TANYA MCCLEAN: There are a lot of people that would love to see all of this stuff behind us, and we just move on and more of the same, but we're not interested in that because if things do not change, if policies do not change, if cultures do not change, we'll definitely have another Jacob Blake situation.

SILVER: No matter what the outcome of the Rittenhouse trial is, activists say there's much more work ahead. For NPR News, I'm Maayan Silver in Milwaukee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.