One group on Milwaukee's near north side is taking action to reduce crime, improve safety and meet other needs in their community.
Nasheka and Jerome Bryant are the husband and wife team at the heart of the Freedom Fighters organization.
The organization is made up of civilians who work independently from police. They patrol, respond to calls and mediate to resolve conflicts, often in hopes that police don't need to be called to the scene.
The Freedom Fighters also work to provide other services that support residents and improve the community itself.
On a brisk March afternoon, the Bryants and three volunteers did a foot patrol, starting at 39th and Center near a corner grocery store.
The route was simple: Center St. to Locust, and back around. While some of the five carried guns, one held a red, black and green Pan-African flag.
There’s a reason the Freedom Fighters chose this starting spot. It was the site of a recent fatal shooting.
“There was teenager that got killed right on the corner where we begin our patrols, Emani," Nasheka explained. "His vigil was held there and there’s a memorial there for him.”
The Center St. route, in memory of Emani, has become a regular one for the organization.
Nasheka says in addition to doing regular patrols, the Freedom Fighters respond to calls for help from community members who reach out to the volunteers during conflicts or after shootings.
Throughout the patrols, drivers honk, showing their support. In response, the Freedom Fighters wave and smile, sometimes raising a fist in a Black Power salute.
Schlonda Holifield, who lives near First and North, says the Freedom Fighters have helped her in the past. She contacted the group by Facebook one night, when a man tried to break into her home. She says it was about 6:00 p.m. or 7:00 p.m.
“We had called the police and it took them doggone 'til about almost 12:00, 1:00 in the morning before they decided to come," she says. "The Freedom Fighters came right away.”
Holifield says the group patrolled her neighborhood and stuck around to make sure the man didn't return.
The Freedom Fighters say they intervene through a combination of patrols, one-on-one meetings, and group sit-downs.
Jerome Curry, who lives in the Lindsey Heights neighborhood, says the Freedom Fighters helped him when his family had a conflict with a neighbor and her acquaintances. He says the conflict was turning violent. So he called the Freedom Fighters to help resolve the issue. Curry says initially he contacted police, but that aggravated the woman and her friends. He says he liked the tactics the Freedom Fighters used.
“They’re down to earth people. They’re street people," he says. "They come from where we grew up at, in the hood and everything. So they know how to understand that if we don’t stick together sometimes bad things happen.”
Curry says it was a different experience than what he’s had with the police, because the Freedom Fighters "don’t intimidate us as much as the police. The police come with their guns drawn. And I think the cops, they escalate the situation sometimes without coming and hearing both sides of the story.”
Back on the patrol, Nasheka said that defusing conflicts is only part of what the group does.
“We have cleanups scheduled. We do feeds. Give out hygiene items. We actually have a youth division called the 'Future Fighters.' Hopefully, we can get that launched this summer. Mediations. Helping people find housing and shelter after being homeless. It depends on what they need, honestly, we’re here to help."
During their patrol, the group stopped several times to check on people along the route -- a woman with health concerns, a family with a deaf child. The Freedom Fighters say they’re paying attention to an area of the city where the residents may feel abandoned.
“These people are so used to hearing negative, seeing negative and being treated negatively, that when someone comes around and there’s actually some positivity, they love it,” says Nasheka.
The Freedom Fighters say that their positive approach is an alternative to what some residents find to be stressful police-citizen encounters. “Like the anxiety happens, the worrying about family members," she recounts, "like when my husband leaves, I worry, like ‘Please don’t let him get pulled over.’ It shouldn’t be that way, especially for people who took that job and swore to that badge that you are here to protect and serve us.”
As for those officers, Jerome Bryant, chief of the Freedom Fighters and Nasheka’s husband, has a bit of advice: “Well, for one, stop acting like they’re ‘keeping us in check.’ Like, you work for us, you work for the community."
The organization issued an official statement in January after Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn announced his retirement, and the Fire and Police Commission announced the search for an interim chief. The statement encouraged a collaborative reform initiative.
For its part, the Milwaukee Police Department says it takes no official positions on the work of the group. MPD spokeswoman Sheronda Grant says, “The Milwaukee Police Department does not have enough information to provide an opinion or statement about the Freedom Fighters.”
As for the Freedom Fighters, they say their efforts are a labor of love. “Our tagline is 'liberation through love'," Nasheka explains, "because you have to have a love for the people to do this. And that’s how I would think elected officials and officers think. You have to love people to do your job.”