‘The Blood Is At the Doorstep’: Demanding Justice for Dontre Hamilton
One family’s journey for justice following a fatal shooting by Milwaukee police
Dontre Hamilton was a son, a brother, a father. On April 30th, 2014, he was shot 14 times and killed by a Milwaukee police officer. The 31-year old was sleeping in Red Arrow Park when Officer Christopher Manney approached him and attempted to pat him down. Dontre, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, resisted. A struggle ensued. Dontre allegedly grabbed the officer’s baton. In response, Manney fired his weapon 14 times, emptying his full clip and killing Dontre.
It was 3:30 in the afternoon. City Hall is right across the street.
More than eight hours later, in the back of a patrol car, Dontre’s mother, Maria was finally notified of her son’s passing.
A new documentary by Erik Ljung captures the aftermath of the shooting and the dawning of Dontre’s family as activists—as it happened. And it’s clear from the start of The Blood Is at the Doorstep, the resilience of the Hamilton family is the beating heart of the film. Even through grief, Maria Hamilton and her remaining sons, Nate Hamilton and Dameion Perkins, are clear-eyed in their fight for justice and the restoring of Dontre’s name—not as the mentally deranged threat to the community perpetuated in the police narrative of the incident, but as their beloved family member.
Filmed over the span of three years, The Blood Is at the Doorstep bears witness to the glacial pace at which (mostly insufficient) justice is meted out for the family. Officer Manney was ultimately fired—but not for shooting Dontre 14 times. Rather, it was the “out of policy” pat down that cost him his shield—and not, mind you, his pension. (He will still receive 75% of that.)
But the Hamiltons have steadily progressed on their journey to justice. They organize. They lobby. As a result they have emerged as leaders in Milwaukee—a city that has long struggled with racial inequality at all levels of the criminal justice system. They are unrelenting and determined in their call for greater transparency and accountability from the police department.
Last week, the Milwaukee City Council approved a $2.3 million settlement to be awarded to Dontre’s 12-year old son.
“We still want justice,” the family said following the announcement. “And receiving a settlement is not justice.”
Ahead of The Blood Is at the Doorstep’s New York premiere at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival this weekend, Nate Hamilton sat down with MASS APPEAL to share his family’s trajectory as activists and how they learned to love Dontre even more through his death.
In the film, you say that Dontre has “awakened you.” That this fight keeps you breathing. Would you describe yourself as being apolitical before April 30, 2014?
I think it was more like no political. I would look at stuff, but think, ‘Oh well, I’m just going to continue with my life.’ It’s not going to bother me down the line who’s the president or who’s the next local alderman or who’s making decisions. You don’t really think outside that box. As a black man, I’m too worried about putting food on the table every day to concern myself with CNN. I didn’t think I had the time or the capacity to think about all that because living life, to me, has been a struggle day-to-day, trying to get away from just paycheck to paycheck.
Dontre’s death has opened up my capacity to see the bigger picture of what’s going on. Not just be like this robot in life that’s going to allow things to just happen to me, or just accept things or think that we as a community should just accept things. Too many people are profiled in a way, like, “Hey, this is where you belong, this is how your life is going to go. You’re lucky you’ve made it past 25 as a black man and you’re not in prison, so be blessed with that.” We do not have to settle for that.
Dontre’s death made me look at everything. I thought my eyes were open before, but now they really are. Open to things happening, not just to my family, but you start seeing it happening all over the place. You start paying attention to social media. I started to see all these things that were happening, all these police killings. And there were thousands of them. Whether it was video or you read an article on it, it made me see that there were so many families that were out there, hurting.
It’s the first impulse of police—and often the media—to criminalize the victims of police violence.
Always. Our first and foremost job was to reestablish who Dontre really was. Dontre wasn’t this person that they wanted to say he was. They said he didn’t have family. He didn’t have loved ones. He was out there by himself, mental health [issues] had stripped him of all dignity. The police said, in their statement, that people like this, their families want nothing to do with them. “These people” are in “our city.” This is their city too. The police was not looking at anyone as a human. They’re looking at people as a threat to society. I want to make sure that we are all able to live in this city and be respected by the police, and get the courtesy as a family that we deserve. It made me say, “I’m going to get out here, and I’m going to do everything I possibly can to change the image they painted of Dontre.” And in doing that, I started reading. I started looking at the policies currently in place. I started going to Fire and Police Commission meetings here in Milwaukee, and started to really educate myself.
I still don’t even consider myself an activist. I fell into that realm of promoting and advocating, so it was like I kind of turned into an activist. I looked at myself as a leader. Because of what my father instilled in me. I think that was always a part of me. And I think activism and leadership are one and the same. I try to create an atmosphere that people can relate to, that can inspire love and change through love and respect. Because if I can change the heart of a politician or just give him a clear understanding of what it would be like to be me, then that’s a start.
That was my job: to give people the truth. To be bold with it. Be as blunt as possible. But to also represent my family with the utmost respect and not cause what we were doing to hinder the investigation or to change the storyline to, “This family is ridiculously irate. They’re uncontrollable.” We wanted to keep it right where it needed to be.
The narrative was Dontre. The narrative was the injustice that was done on Dontre and we didn’t want to overshadow that with our anger, with our stupidity, or our emotions. It involved a lot of meditating. It was a lot of collective thinking on behalf of me and my family and the community. Saying, “Let’s put our best foot forward. Let’s make sure that they don’t have the opportunity to make us the villain.” They’re the villain. We’re going to continue to maintain that.
That was my outlook and my approach on becoming awake. The organization I started, we’re The Coalition for Justice. People ask: What do you do? We say: We awaken people. Awaken them to the issue.
It’s half the battle.
Awaken, strategize and mobilize has been basically my outlook on how we get to a place of real mobilization of a community, of a group of people that says, “We want change, and we want it in a massive way.” Whether it’s through the power of our vote or whether it’s through our voices and knocking on doors, politician’s doors, telling them we don’t want their representation no more.
I think our job as a people is to make those people that lie to us, that said they had our back, that said they were going to politic for the people, and have deceived us, it’s our job to make them uncomfortable and remove them through being uncomfortable. Whether it’s sitting outside their door on the street, walking up and down the street. Just making them know that we don’t like the way that they’re doing business on our behalf. We’re trying to change the way that they’re funding this city. The way that they’re funding black and brown neighborhoods, the way that they’re funding the police department. Are they getting the accurate funding? Is it going towards more weapons or is it going towards more collective training and comprehensive thinking when it comes to dealing with all different types of people?
How do you juggle the responsibilities of daily life, of paying bills and keeping your family fed with the demands of your advocacy work?
It comes down to trust. I have to find trust in my friendships that have been forged over these past three years, and trust in the other leaders that also represent this community. I don’t take it and say, “What I’ve done is one of a kind. I’m the only person that can lead this community.” I think there’s so many other people that can do the same. And what we want to do, me personally and within the Coalition for Justice, is build leadership. So, if I need to take a break, then you have people that are willing to take the handles, and say, “I’ll be the speaker for the day”, or “I’ll be the person who leads this march” or “I’ll be the person who talks to the mayor today.” I think it makes the city know it’s not just me. Nate may bring a strength and a power, but it’s so many other people. If we take him out of the equation, then we got 10, 15 other people ready to step up.
It’s not life if you’re not helping anyone. If I’m not making it better for my children, then that’s not life. It’s having people that’s also willing to say, “I’m sacrificing my time for the well-being of my children, for the well-being of my community.” And how many other people feel that way? Who else is willing to do that? Because if you are, then we can work together and unify and collectively share leadership. We don’t have to own it. We can share it.
Since Dontre’s murder, what are some of the changes that have been made in Milwaukee as a direct result of continued community pressure?
Since Dontre passed, we’ve worked on Crisis Intervention Training. [Through 40 hours of specialized training, all Milwaukee officers will learn to better identify mental illness and to practice de-escalation.] We felt like that was significant in the way that police officers did and are trained to their job. Just to have an actual better understanding of mental health.
Police body cameras have also been introduced. They’re working on making sure all officers have body cameras. We’re still working on how that footage is being used after the fact. We still have to push forward on more accountability and more transparency with how body cam footage is used and who has access to it and when.
It’s our community pressure on each entity that deals with law enforcement that will make it better.
When we demand transparency, accountability and justice, why is it often translated as being anti-police?
Always. I think anytime you want the police department to be better, it’s like you’re against them. I have to clarify for people: if a doctor works on my body, I want to make sure he has a full education before he operates on me. He’s dealing with my life. And officers are doing the same. It might be in a different capacity, but they have the ability to give life and take life. So, if someone’s going to be in that field, then they should be more than willing to take on the task of educating themselves fully before taking on that responsibility. But, being anti-police is like anybody who says the police is wrong.
If you stand up and say, “This officer is wrong, he shouldn’t have done this, he shouldn’t have done that” then you’re anti-police. And it’s like then you hate police officers. I still have good relationships with police officers even though one shot and killed my brother. I can’t hold everyone with that attitude saying, “You’re just like Christopher Manney.” That would be wrong on my behalf, and that wouldn’t be a good leader.
Within my family or within this community, just pointing at people saying, “You’re a bad person because you got on a uniform, you’re a bad person because of whatever you are” it doesn’t work. I think we have to constantly promote our love for people being the best they possibly can, and wanting that.
When everyone tries to establish this anti-police agenda, I think we just combat it and say, “No, we understand that these police officers represent this community, that they’re in this community and space, so we want to get to know these police officers. We want them to engage with us in positive ways.” It’s not likely that an officer will come into my neighborhood and ask me, “Hey, how’s your day going? Is there anything I can do to make you feel safer?” I don’t have that type of interaction with police officers.
What has it been like for your family regarding the policies of the current administration and the DOJ, particularly their going after plans to minimize civil rights efforts in federal agencies?
From my point of view, they’re not going to constantly want to pay millions of dollars out to families. They’re not going to constantly want the media to rip them apart when it comes to constitutional rights. They just don’t want that. So what happens, even if they try to reduce civil rights, it’s our job as a community and as a nation to stand up and say, “No. We don’t agree with that.”
We need to put pressure on them to bring it back, and bring it back the way we want it to be brought back. They like they say: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But, it was broke. It’s been broke. And we, as a community don’t want to fix it – we want to create a whole new thing. It’s our job as a community now to create something new to push forward on and get involved and say, “This is the right policy, this is the right law.” To get lawmakers and politicians behind that. And in order to get behind that, they have to feel that the people are the ones with the true power. And unifying voters is one of the big keys.
What does justice for Dontre, and for your family, look like?
It looks like no one else having to go through this. That’s justice to me. We have to make sure that we, as a family, continue to engage and make sure that justice for other families is warranted and is granted. I think that will make us be able to sleep better at night knowing that we do everything we possibly can to make sure another family don’t have to get talked to in the back of a squad car like my mother did. Don’t have to wait eight months for a decision to come down, and don’t have to see an officer get disability after claiming post traumatic stress disorder after shooting someone 14 times and killing them.
And with the documentary, we hope that it empowers people to say, “We’re not going to accept heartache and pain for the rest of our lives.” We’re going to learn to love Dontre even through his death. And to know that we did everything we possibly could for him through fighting for justice.
The Blood Is at the Doorstep screens this Friday, June 9th at 7 pm at IFC Center and on Saturday, June 10th at Film Society Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater at 8:45 PM. Both screenings will be followed by a Q&A with Maria and Nate Hamilton, Dameion Perkins, and director Erik Ljung.