Minutes into a meeting of the Community Equity Commission about a decision to remove basketball rims from a local park in Savage following two shootings in a six-week span, Cyril Mukalel asked the same question I had about this choice.
"What's the end result? What's the plan you have in mind?" Mukalel said at Thursday's meeting. "Because if you have the decision-making process through the entire summer, the basketball [hoops] will be off."
Casey Casella, an assistant city administrator in Savage, had just announced that the city would take June and July to weigh the next steps after the removal of the hoops at River Bend Park, where two teens were critically injured in a shooting in May, only weeks after a fight led to another shooting in April. City officials said they they believe the area will be safer if people stop gathering at the park.
But a June-July evaluation would strip the great kids in that area, one of the most diverse pockets in the city, of their opportunity to enjoy that basketball court this summer.
If someone would have taken my rims and courts during my youth in the summer months in Milwaukee, I would have been left with idle time that would not have helped my growth and development. Each summer, I searched for pickup games. It did not matter if the game happened in someone's driveway, a local school, a church, a park or a YMCA. If they were hooping, I would be there.
In eighth grade, I played in a league at a Milwaukee park, where numerous shootings and homicides had unfolded that summer. I do not remember feeling unsafe. I just remember the rush of competing with my friends and cousins, and the crowds around us as the community came together.
That's why I believe Savage officials made the wrong decision and unfairly punished young folks who are not attached to violence, while making every kid on that playground the boogeyman, when they took the rims.
"This cannot take until the end of July," Victoria Schultz, a member of the city's equity commission, said during Thursday's meeting. "Things are going to keep happening. If this happens at a skating rink, are we going to be here again closing the skating rink? Are we going to close the golf course? … These children are going to suffer. I've seen the kids who do play [at River Bend Park]. If you will have the trust of the BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of color community], we have to make sure we are sincerely doing this."
More than anything, those young basketball players deserve safety. I don't live in Savage. But if a shooting had happened at a park where my kids loved to play basketball, I would have been concerned. I also would not want a handful of individuals to have the power to erase opportunities for everyone else. That's not an appropriate message or a fair result as summer approaches. It's also not Savage's consistent response.
Just three miles from River Bend Park, River William Smith — a 21-year-old resident of Savage — was arrested in a Cub Foods parking lot in December by federal agents and accused of unlawful possession of a machine gun. Per a U.S. attorney investigation, assisted by Savage police, Smith had a "pro mass shooting" stance and planned to engage in a violent clash with police. He'd purchased a variety of firearms and even grenades. Smith, who pleaded guilty to various charges in federal court in May, was ready for mass destruction.
I did not see, however, any listening sessions in Savage about places in the area where Smith might have gathered with others in the city. Did Savage shut down his favorite restaurant? The gas station where he might have lingered at night? What about a local bar where he spent his weekends? No. Because he was treated as an individual — albeit a dangerous individual.
City officials do not shut down baseball diamonds and hockey rinks. Basketball rims, however, are an easy target, often in places where some of the kids look like me — with a subtle ambition to stop kids who look like me from frequenting those public venues.
I hope Savage officials return the rims. A summer without basketball might not seem detrimental. For me, however, it would have been problematic.
Some days in those sultry summers in Milwaukee, I only had my basketball and a rim.
If Savage's goal is to build a generation of young people who will make good choices for their lives and futures, the city should give them a chance to enjoy their basketball court this summer as it works to create solutions with legitimate and thorough community engagement.
But let's be clear here: Savage took the basketball hoops after violent incidents involving young people in a local park, but it did not hold meetings when another young man, 3 miles down the road, planned to attack police officers and citizens with machine guns and grenades.
That's why I can't trust the city's sincerity in this decision.
Savage took a shot here. But the city didn't even hit the rim.