A gunshot shatters a Milwaukee home, and a mother doubts her vote will stop the next one
MILWAUKEE — When the bullet bore through her bedroom window, Stacey Hodges Harmon rolled off her bed and onto the ground, calling out in anguish for her youngest son, William, who had disappeared into the hall seconds before.
“I just lost it,” Harmon said. “I was screaming, crying, because I thought that he had gotten shot.”
She found her 5-year-old curled up under a table in the front room of her apartment, silent, terrified, but physically unhurt. She called the police while she and William were still lying on the floor on that day this past summer.
Two and a half weeks later, with the bullet hole still in the window, back-to-back mass shootings in Texas and Ohio shocked the nation, dominating front pages and spurring urgent calls, especially from Democratic presidential candidates, for Congress to end its years of inaction on gun control.
But that chorus felt removed and remote from Harmon’s fear of everyday violence in her neighborhood on the north side of Milwaukee, the kind that has taught her four children to distinguish between fireworks and gunshots but rarely draws such wide attention.
“It shouldn’t just spike a conversation when it’s a mass shooting,” Harmon, 36, said. “That just makes it seem like the single shootings don’t matter.”
Harmon has lived all her life in Milwaukee, a city that Democrats have deemed so important to their chances of reclaiming the White House in 2020 that they will hold their convention here next year. But it is also a place with a knot of problems that has left voters like Harmon feeling deeply doubtful about the will in either party to help them.
“A lot of these politics, and things that they discuss, don’t pertain to me. I honestly think that’s why a lot of people don’t vote,” Harmon said. “I vote every year, but I do feel like that — why am I doing this? Why am I standing in this long-ass line when I know nothing’s going to change to help me?”
In 2016, Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in Wisconsin by less than 1 percent of the vote. Democrats are desperate to change that next year, and they hope African-American voters, who have long been a powerful force in the party, can help them offset the loss of white working-class voters to Republicans.
Harmon considers herself an independent and voted for Clinton in 2016, but she feels like politics are more about “who can win the argument” than improving people’s lives. She could not remember anyone ever coming to her door to canvass until one day this summer, when a woman with a local group called Black Leaders Organizing for Communities, or BLOC, appeared at her house.
Politicians are trying “to extract every black vote they can,” said Angela Lang, the director of BLOC, which is trying to build relationships with voters in the city well ahead of next year’s elections and urges candidates to spend more time listening to black voters. “People need to engage us — like the broader Milwaukee community, but specifically black voters and voters of color.”
Turnout by black voters in Wisconsin dropped 19 percentage points from 2012 to 2016, according to an analysis by the Democratic think tank Center for American Progress. Overall, voter turnout in the state dropped 3 percentage points. In Milwaukee County, the state’s largest with close to a million people, 53,227 fewer voters cast ballots in 2016 than four years earlier, according to the state’s elections commission.
Some of the drop may be due to a stricter voter ID law, signed into law by former Republican governor Scott Walker, that researchers at the University of Wisconsin found deterred about 17,000 eligible voters in Milwaukee County and Dane County, which contains Madison. And activists here warn the party has been too quick to take Milwaukee’s black voters for granted.
“When are they going to wake up and realize that you cannot consistently have pockets of poverty,” said Fred Royal, head of the local NAACP chapter, “and not have addressed the needs within those [communities] if you want the black support?”
Trump tried to get black voters to turn on Democrats in 2016, famously asking, “What the hell do you have to lose?” They largely rejected him. Since he became president, black voters have helped power major electoral victories for Democrats — including in Wisconsin’s 2018 governor’s race — and activists such as Lang want to make sure candidates are engaged on the issues they care about.
Milwaukee is the most racially segregated metropolitan area in the country, according to a 2018 study by the Brookings Institution, cut up by rivers and highways. While cranes and shiny new buildings rise in the downtown Third Ward, gun violence and poverty stubbornly plague other areas.
Harmon is not living in poverty, but sometimes, she says, it feels like it.
“A person who doesn’t really have that much help, who wants to do better, who wants to do all these things, is still stuck.”Stacey Hodges Harmon
She has worked as a certified nursing assistant since 2003, with stints at Walmart and a US Bank call center, too. She counts every penny so she can make rent and buy school supplies for the kids. She would like to go back to school to qualify for a better-paying job, but if she gave up her income to do so, she fears her family might end up in a homeless shelter.
“A person who doesn’t really have that much help, who wants to do better, who wants to do all these things, is still stuck,” Harmon said.
Harmon was surprised to find Kenya Riley, the BLOC organizer, standing on her doorstep in August as she pulled up to the curb in her gold sedan with her four children in the car. When Riley explained who she was and asked a simple question — “What issues do you have? — Harmon’s story came tumbling out.
She had moved in 2011 to her second-floor apartment in a blue house on the corner with peeling white trim. That afternoon, some of the neighbors were rocking their babies or socializing on their porches, but Harmon said she tries to limit her time outside. Gunshots have interrupted a conversation on the lawn with her sister, who lived downstairs, and erupted down the street when she was pulling up to the house with her children in the family car, she said.
“I’m still messed up, because I can’t believe how close we came to one of our last days.”Stacey Hodges Harmon
But the shooting on July 16 was the first time Harmon really stopped feeling safe inside. She was off work that day, and her three older children were with their father, leaving her at home with William, a rambunctious kindergartner with his hair pulled back in locks and a wide, contagious smile.
The two were watching television on her bed with William perched at the very end, in front of the window. She told him they needed to get up and get ready for the day, and he dragged his feet — “Well, I don’t know why I should,” he said — before he took a few steps away from the bed and out of her sight.
“Then I heard what sounded like firecrackers,” Harmon said. “I flipped myself onto the floor, and I was yelling for William — ‘William, William, stay down, get down, get down, William, because it was just shots.’ ”
When the police came, Harmon said, they found the bullet buried in her closet. Officers left Harmon with a single green sheet of paper, explaining her rights as a crime victim.
“I’m still messed up, because I can’t believe how close we came to one of our last days,” Harmon said, a couple of days after Riley’s visit, as the gentle chaos of a big family’s evening routine on the second day of school unfolded around her.
The light through the curtains cast a pinkish glow into the living room, where Harmon hung a picture of dancers and another of a woman playing piano that belonged to her late mother. Another wall was covered in family photos. William snacked on strawberries, a banana, an apple, and yogurt before turning his attention to the pears in the fridge. Harmon’s oldest child, her daughter, Jade, 11, lay on the floor in a wreath of colored pencils, drawing doughnut-shaped cartoons, steadfastly ignoring the “splats” as Camrin, 8, gleefully pumped his armpit over his fist to make fart noises. Quinones, 10, watched parody music videos on YouTube and put off his homework until Harmon nudged him to get to work.
Through it all, the door to the back bedroom — Harmon’s room — was shut tight, so no one could see the hole that was still in the window, or the tear in the curtain, or the splinters in the closet door that it ripped right through.
“I haven’t slept in my bed since then,” Harmon said. “Every time I go in there, I’m looking at that window, and I’m just like — please, let me just get my clothes and go out.”
Harmon, who was still wearing teal scrubs from her shift that day, cried as she thought about how her landlord had never come by to fix the window — just as she had ignored her concerns about the flaky paint on the ceiling, right above the stove, the leaks in the ceiling of her children’s bedroom, and the rickety balcony on the front of the house.
For more than two months after the shooting, Harmon would curl up on a recliner in the living room to sleep. She wakes around 4 a.m., rouses the children at 5, and gets to work by 6:30.
But at the end of September, Harmon received good news. After weeks of applying for new apartments, she had been approved for a three-bedroom in a suburb just north of the city. Now Jade could have her own room, and the family could use the entire apartment, starting fresh in a home without the pain of the shooting.
“I’m more relieved,” Harmon said, as she drove to her children’s new school to drop off paperwork. “It was time.”