The events in Sherman Park didn't surprise Simon Mustaffa; he lives with the tension and violence every day.

Simon Mustaffa, 18 years old, just marked a one-year anniversary in his life.

It was the night of July 29, 2015, when his father burst into his bedroom, fell to the floor and started crying.

“I had never seen my dad cry,” Mustaffa said.

His brother, two years older, had been shot to death while in his car on the South Side of Milwaukee. Montravin had been at a girl’s house and went to the store for her mother. Two guys saw him in the store and saw him put money in his pocket.

“They followed him out and shot him in the chin,” Mustaffa said. “Then they ran away. Didn’t even take any money. Just shot him dead. They were caught just a block later.”

Mustaffa wears a tattoo of his brother on the inside of his right arm, a reminder that he can never forget what happened to Montravin.

Mustaffa wears a tattoo of his brother on the inside of his right arm, a reminder that he can never forget what happened to Montravin.
Mustaffa wears a tattoo of his brother on the inside of his right arm, a reminder that he can never forget what happened to Montravin.

I met with Mustaffa on Monday night. We drove to his house so he could change clothes, but he wanted me to drive faster along the streets of the ghetto.

“If you cruise along slow, people are suspicious of you.” By you, he meant a white guy.

I suggested we talk on the porch of his home, but he didn’t want to do that. It wouldn’t be good for him to be seen talking to a white man while sitting on his porch. On our way to a Riverwest restaurant, a black guy wearing a white shirt and tie pulled up next to us.

“You ain’t be clowning around,” he said through the window to Mustaffa. “Not with all this going on.”

“It was because of all this stuff going on,” Mustaffa said when we settled down. “He said that because of the trouble in Sherman Park.”

Mustaffa graduated from Riverside High School this year, and he’s going to UWM next year on a full ride. He is a thoughtful young man who works at a Family Dollar store and is interested in using music to help make the world a better place.

His view: The conditions that gave birth to the Sherman Park riots are vastly different than those perceived by most white people. For him, the violence is not all that surprising. He said, for example, that guns are a way of life in the ghetto. And make no mistake about it, he uses the word ghetto, and he knows what it means.

“You have to carry a gun,” he said. “To protect yourself. I’m the last person in the world who would ever want to shoot someone. But there are kids out there, young kids, younger than 16, who are carrying. There’s a feeling it’s kill or be killed.”

Mustaffa is a young man who has a thirst for and respect for history. He understands the strands of racism that have resulted in Milwaukee being the most segregated city in the country.

“Life is difficult,” he said. “White people knew how to create ghettos, with roads and highways. And there is a lot of tension about it. It’s like a bucket of water overflowing and falling on something dry. People are going to get wet.”

He’s not afraid of or disturbed by the violence, even though his brother was a victim of it.

“You have to understand what it’s like,” he said. “These are not our businesses. They’ve been ripping us off forever. Selling cigarettes and liquor to underage kids. Walking around with badges and guns on their hip. I was in a store and saw a guy pull a gun on a five-year old kid because of some candy. Because of some candy.

“This is an uprising of people who don’t have power or knowledge.”

There is something of a philosopher about this 18-year old who wouldn’t have his picture taken in front of his house because he doesn’t want anyone to know where he lives. He thinks about race and about the relationship between his community and the police.

“Historically, from the time of slaves, the men were to be physically strong and mentally weak,” he said. “The women were the smart ones. And you look around the neighborhood now. The women are there, with the children. The men are hanging out with the guns and the drugs.

“And the police come, and their boss says they need to make a quota of tickets or arrests or something. So they come in and start trying to meet that quota. Then they come around saying, ‘Hey, I want to be your friend’ and they give you a card or something and tell you to call them. Doesn’t happen.”

Mustaffa is pretty clear about what he thinks.

“I think the Sherman Park was both positive and negative,” he said. “It’s a negative, sure, because you don’t want to burn buildings down. But people have to understand: Throughout history, for black people to make change, it starts with violence. Look at the Black Panthers. I’m not saying we need the Black Panthers, but violence should be expected. It’s always been like that.”

Personally, Mustaffa is working on a music project that he calls “Above It All.”

“It’s a project, but it’s also my lifestyle and my philosophy of life,” he said. “Above it all.”