Madison and Atlanta’s mayors respond to Wisconsin’s troubling case of murdered black woman

This week, several high-profile experts weighed in on a story in Waukesha, Wis., where authorities have charged a young black man with first-degree intentional homicide and hiding a corpse, in what has been described as an “unprovoked” assault.

Waukesha County Sheriff’s officials told media outlets that 34-year-old Darrell Earl Brooks Jr. set fire to a 16-year-old girl in December 2016 in the basement of her Waukesha apartment, wrapped her body in a blanket and duct tape, then dumped it into a furnace duct at a nearby home. The victim’s body was identified as Mollie Tibbetts, a University of Iowa student who was last seen jogging in Poweshiek County, Iowa, in July 2016. Her body was found in April, 40 miles away.

It was not immediately clear why Brooks attacked Tibbetts. He said he ran into Tibbetts while hunting for deer, authorities said. But his alleged actions, and the involvement of other teenagers, have reignited what supporters of Waukesha County’s mayor have said is a deserved public reckoning of racism that plagues rural communities that vote conservative.

“The fact that it’s happening in a small Wisconsin town where people vote for republicans, who believe in slavery, who consider whites superior, that’s the context of all of this,” the Rev. Bob Dunn, a longtime county resident and pastor at Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, told NPR.

Still, for now, it appears Waukesha County residents have largely stood behind their mayor, Shawn Reilly, who said Tuesday that the incident is “not reflective of what our communities are like and our values.”

This response is met with varying degrees of disapproval by some urban communities. Mayor Annise Parker, who served as Atlanta’s mayor from May 2007 to February 2013, said she knew what it was like for her constituents to be subjected to such alleged attacks and she could only imagine the level of distress and anger they might feel in this case.

“I see her family in such pain,” Parker said of Tibbetts’s father. “I’m very angry about it, and I want answers. I want to understand why. It’s like this insidious, persistent, cancer, that’s eating away at our country.”

The process of confronting one’s most profound prejudices is a difficult task, Parks said. We almost never confront our own experiences with racism, he said, but it is necessary because without dealing with the ugliness of our past we may not be able to understand the effects of today’s behavior.

“It’s important to not try to make change in the world through the easy process of blaming others,” he said. “I see this as a hard-learned process, and I see the justice system working its way through these cases.”

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