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CNN  — 

It took less than five minutes from a 911 call being placed reporting a domestic disturbance to a White officer firing seven times into Jacob Blake’s back in front of the 29-year-old Black man’s three young sons.

Those five minutes on August 23 set off chaos in Kenosha, Wisconsin: Protests and looting spread through the lakeside city’s streets, leaving burnt and boarded-up buildings across a swath of downtown. Two days later, the encounter sparked another tragedy, when a 17-year-old who claimed to be defending a business shot three other people during a confrontation, killing two. And Blake’s shooting reverberated nationally, with NBA, MLS and MLB stars refusing to play in an unprecedented protest.

Like other cell phone videos of police officers shooting or killing Black men, the 22-second clip of Officer Rusten Sheskey firing into Blake’s back, filmed through the screen window of a neighbor’s apartment across the street, ricocheted around the internet.  

But authorities’ refusal for days to confirm even the most basic details about Blake’s shooting created a vacuum of information – and even now, more than a week and a half after Blake was shot, the exact circumstances that led to his encounter with police are unclear. Officials said Sheskey and two other officers on the scene tried to tase Blake, who had an open warrant after being charged with sexual assault a month earlier, and that a knife was recovered in his car. The local police union has claimed that Blake was carrying the knife and that he struggled with officers, putting one in a headlock before the cell phone video starts. 

But family and lawyers for Blake, who was left paralyzed from the waist down, say he was unarmed and was attending a birthday party for one of his kids. “They shot my son seven times. Seven times. Like he didn’t matter,” Jacob Blake Sr., Blake’s father, told reporters. “But my son matters. He’s a human being, and he matters.”

Jacob Blake's father speaks during the press conference in front of the Kenosha County Courthouse on August 25.

Confusion also spread about the shooting during the protests, with critics asking how the White teenager armed with a military-style rifle, Kyle Rittenhouse, could have walked by police after gunning down two people – even as right-wing commentators called him a hero who was just defending himself. 

The two shootings, taking place in a swing county of one of the 2020 election’s most crucial battleground states, swiftly filtered into political talking points. 

President Donald Trump and his Democratic rival Joe Biden both visited Kenosha the week after Blake’s shooting. While touring burned-out buildings and meeting with law enforcement officials Tuesday, Trump declared that unrest the city had faced was “not acts of peaceful protests but really domestic terror.” He refused to condemn Rittenhouse, and didn’t mention Blake’s name.

Former Vice President Biden met with Blake’s family on Thursday and spoke on the phone with Blake, who he said “talked about how nothing was going to defeat him, how whether he walked again or not, he was not going to give up.”

Racial inequalities have long festered in Kenosha

Few residents of Kenosha ever expected their hometown to join the list of American cities whose names have become buzzwords for police violence and unrest.  

A city of about 100,000 people midway between Chicago and Milwaukee, Kenosha was once an automaking powerhouse, with factories that built the first American cars to feature steering wheels and seat belts. But the city’s massive Chrysler auto plant shut down in 1988, taking thousands of jobs and leaving behind a field of debris, and the county’s largest employer is now a sprawling Amazon distribution center near the interstate.

This Aug. 28 aerial photo shows damage to businesses in Kenosha.

The Blake shooting has highlighted deep-seated racial inequities that have long festered below the surface of Kenosha’s sleepy Midwestern charm. A third of Black people in Kenosha County live in poverty, about 40% of adult Black men are unemployed, and Black people face an incarceration rate 12 times that of White people, according to an analysis by Marc Levine, the director of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Center for Economic Development.

The economic and criminal justice disparities between Black and White people in southeastern Wisconsin are “among the widest” in the United States, he said.

Blake moved to Kenosha several years ago for a fresh start, his family said, after growing up in North Carolina and Evanston, a Chicago suburb. He shared a name with his grandfather, Jacob Blake, who was a minister and influential civil rights leader in Evanston. The elder Blake had led protest marches for fair housing laws, and a housing project there is named for him. 

Friends and family say Blake, a father of six, volunteered with seniors and veteran groups and helped feed homeless people at a local mosque. He played football and basketball in high school, and was a natural joker, “the one in the family who will make everyone have belly laughs,” his mother Julia Jackson told CBS News.

Two years older than Blake, Rusten Sheskey was following in the footsteps of his own grandfather, who served as a longtime Kenosha police officer.

Sheskey has spent seven years on the Kenosha force, which he joined after working as an officer at the local UW-Parkside campus. As a police officer, he pedaled around the city as part of the bike patrol and walked the shopping mall beat during the holidays. He’d occasionally bring a squad car home from work and turn on the siren for neighborhood kids, one neighbor recalled.

“You’re dealing with people on perhaps the worst day of their lives and you can try and help them as much as you can and make that day a little better,” he told the Kenosha News in a profile published last year. 

Police and city officials have not responded to public records requests for Sheskey’s history with the department, including any previous uses of force or disciplinary issues. According to a city memo, Sheskey received a one-day suspension in 2017 for a violation regarding “safe operation of department vehicles.”

Like Sheskey, almost 90% of Kenosha’s 207 police officers are White, according to the Kenosha News, while only 3% are Black – in a city that’s about 65% White and 10% Black. 

Fatal police shootings have been relatively rare in the small department, with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel tallying five over the past 17 years, only one of which killed a Black person. (The department did not respond to a CNN public records request for a full list of previous police shootings.) 

One of those killed was Michael Bell, an unarmed 21-year-old who officers shot in his driveway in 2004. His father, Michael Bell, Sr., won a $1.75 million settlement from the city, part of which he used for an advocacy campaign that in 2014 led to a new Wisconsin law requiring police shootings to be investigated by independent agencies.

Other efforts to push for police reform in Kenosha have fallen short. In 2017, the city council unanimously approved a measure calling for police to wear body cameras, but the purchase of cameras was delayed until 2022 due to a budget shortage – leaving investigators lacking a crucial record of what transpired between Blake and the officers.  

What we know about the shooting

In late May, Kenosha police were called to a low-slung apartment building not far from the former Chrysler plant. According to court documents, a woman told officers that Blake had broken into her house and sexually assaulted her before leaving with her car and debit card, and that he had previously assaulted her “around twice a year” over the past eight years. She did not respond to requests for comment from CNN.

In this screengrab taken from video, police follow Jacob Blake as he walks to the driver's side door of an SUV on August 23. He was shot moments later.

Blake was charged with third degree sexual assault and domestic abuse in July, and a judge approved a warrant for his arrest. 

A month later, on Sunday, August 23, police were sent to the same address after receiving another 911 call from a woman who said Blake had taken her keys and was not supposed to be on the premises. A dispatche