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Louis Theroux: Dark States - Murder in Milwaukee: Gun crime and the erosion of social values.

by Amy Farnworth. Published Tue 24 Oct 2017 18:24, last updated: 25/10/17

The streets of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, are vicious: plagued with staggering levels of gun crime, it is renowned for being the worst city in the US for violent criminal activity.

In the last few years, Milwaukee has seen homicide levels sky-rocket, and distrust of the police is ever growing. With the rate of incarceration among the highest in the nation, the use of guns is pervasive, and for the police, and the inhabitants of the fifth largest city in the Mid-West, terrain is not always friendly.

In the final episode of Louis Theroux’s Dark States, the documentary maker cashes in on his faux-naïf style of interviewing in order to provide the viewer with a despairing insight into gun crime in the US; the tensions in a society that appears to have lost all its moral values; and the seemingly fraught relations between the police and a predominantly black community.

As in the previous two episodes in this series, where the viewer was presented with graphic images from the outset, in Murder in Milwaukee, Louis Theroux sticks with a pattern that works. Within the first ten minutes we’re subjected to a shoot-out and images of a dead body lying in the street – the atmosphere is tense; the police are at the scene in seconds but the murderer has already fled.

The victim is Antonio Ewing, a 31 year-old black man who has been shot in the face. Cut to scenes of his distraught mother wailing on the sidewalk, and clips of his cousin speaking fervently yet calmly to Louis, and we get a picture of what life in the bleakest part of Milwaukee is all about: incidents like this, while upsetting, are part of everyday life.

Ewing had previously spent time in prison for drug related crimes but since his release had made attempts to turn his life around. When Louis speaks to his friends they make bold statements about the need to carry guns, one friend explaining that even though people might not be involved in violence they still carry or own weapons for self-defence and protection.

In an attempt to grasp a feel for why crimes like this are happening on a regular basis, Louis introduces us to Shawnda Payne, a Community Activist, who became a mother at the age of 13 and committed murder at the age of 15. Now a reformed character, Shawnda leads an anti-violence group called Unity in the Community.

With an impressive arsenal of weapons ranging from hand guns to rifles, some of which she even sleeps with, it appears Shawnda’s message of ‘non-violence’ is somewhat contradictory. But as Louis chats with the former felon, we hear a gunshot coming from somewhere in the neighbourhood. It is broad daylight, and Shawnda explains she houses the guns in order to protect her family. It appears, startlingly, that gun crime has no time.

The viewer is also introduced to Sedan Smith, the brother of Sylville Smith, who was shot and killed by a black police officer.

With the majority of homicides and violence from gun crime affecting the black community, and with tensions fraught between police and civilians, Louis asks Sedan an ever important question – if his brother was killed by a black officer, then how does this reflect on the idea that there is a race war between the two sides.

Sedan is quick to offer an answer, explaining that it’s not a race war but more an issue of the police against black people: “It’s not white on black. It’s blue on black.”

As the episode further unfolds it soon becomes apparent though that there are deeper issues than just those related to the police. In Murder in Milwaukee, Louis touches on a couple of very interesting points, and it’s these that perhaps provide a breakthrough in understanding why gun related crime is so prevalent.

Firstly, there’s a lack of male-role models in a lot of young men’s lives; leaving them to hang around on street corners committing crimes, with no idea of how to get themselves out of the situations they are in and no one to turn to for advice.

Secondly, the police have discovered that in more and more cases, the rise in deaths is due to petty arguments, often over issues fuelled by social media and a readiness to use guns to deal with any kind of conflict.

Shawnda tells Louis that she thinks the rise in homicide is because people’s moral and social values have decayed. Whereas before, crime could be blamed on gangs, now, it seems that the rules of engagement have changed; people are too self-absorbed, and they should be looking out for each other instead of just looking out for themselves. She ends by saying that the police are not necessarily a part of the problem, but they’re not part of the solution either.

Speaking to one police officer, Louis managed to gauge some more insight on the reasons behind the rise in gun related homicide. The officer says that there’s no sense of consequence for gun crime anymore; and more importantly, there’s a very big problem with values, lack of quality education and a real scarcity of decent jobs.

The desperate plight of those caught up in a war that is looking more likely to continue and escalate rather than cease, is harrowing. Louis pulls the viewer in and leaves them reeling in anger, with so many unanswered questions and opinions that no doubt, will be taken to the social media forums.

If America’s gun related crime is so bad, bad enough that the innocents in society are thrust into the woes of violence because they feel it better to protect themselves with firearms than to go without; if the value placed upon life has been lost, then shouldn’t the laws surrounding the use and ownership of guns be reviewed? Shouldn’t the government be tackling education, social values and morals as a whole?
These are questions many will be shouting; as they have done for years.

With his ability to come across as seemingly innocent and his penchant for asking open questions which lead interviewees down a ‘reveal-all’ path, in Murder in Milwaukee, Louis Theroux has perhaps painted the greyest picture in his whole Dark States series.

He says: “I’d come to see the police as being in an almost impossible position, working in an area suffering from decades of neglect. There were lightning rods for failings far outside their ability to fix.

“I reflected on how many of those living and dying here have been set up to fail. “The killings over often trivial matters could scarcely be more senseless.”

Purple Revolver rating: 4/5


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"It's not a good start is it? Do you think the erosion of family values and the decrease in decent family living could be to blame?" Amy Farnworth, England around 11 months, 4 weeks ago

"Guy had 4 children with 4 different mothers" Rizzo, USA around 12 months ago

"..with the black population, but we would love to know more in order to be able to understand. Could you explain any of your experiences? " Amy Farnworth, England around 12 months ago

"Hi Rizzo, thanks for your comment, I think you're right; I don't think the world outside the US understands or believes the issues..." Amy Farnworth, England around 12 months ago

"He found a group of people that have no values, no morals, no skills, no education, no desire, no pride, no family structure. " Rizzo , USA around 12 months ago

"I think the world outside of the united states does not believe the issues with the black population. " Rizzo, USA around 12 months ago