James E. Causey came home Saturday afternoon from errands, sat down on his couch and turned the TV on to watch the Olympics. When the news cut in of an officer shooting an armed man to death in Milwaukee, Causey knew right where it happened.
Everything was happening less than a mile from where the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel columnist has lived for most of his life.
“And I said, ‘this is gonna be bad.'”
He devoted his latest column to the unrest that’s hit so close to where he lives. Causey, one of two Black reporters at the Journal-Sentinel, first started at the paper as an intern when he was in high school. He’s spent his career there, editing and covering business and sports. Now, as a twice-weekly columnist, he uses his voice for people who often don’t have one. On Sunday, that included an area he’s watched change during his lifetime.
Why did this happen? That’s the question many are asking in the aftermath of the fury that erupted in the Sherman Park area Saturday night.
As a person who lives less than one mile from where the BP gas station was torched to the ground late Saturday, I can tell you that the neighborhood — once the place in Milwaukee for upwardly mobile, middle-class African Americans — has been balancing on the tipping point for years.
“I’m not just a journalist, I’m a resident, I’m a part of the community,” Causey said. “This is who I am. It’s not really hard for me to advocate for things that I see because this is part of who I am.”
In his column, Causey pointed out the issues that have been building for years — the loss of family-sustaining jobs, poverty, high-rates of incarceration, failing schools. But he also offered ideas for solutions. It’s something he often tries to cover, Causey said — not just stories with problems, but stories with small successes and solutions.
Moving from reporter to columnist, it took him a while to find that voice, he said.
“And then I just started to tell stories about who I am.”
Does he feel pressure in the work he does?
Yes, Causey said. From everywhere. Every week, he gets a mix of about three letters, voicemails and emails calling him the n-word, he said. It’s not something he thinks his co-workers have to deal with. He feels pressure to use his voice to cover the struggles in Milwaukee neighborhoods, but also to tell the good stories that get ignored. Causey, who became a columnist after a 2007-2008 Nieman fellowship, knows he won’t make everyone happy. His words might not make anyone happy.
“So you can’t really think too much about it. You just have to stick to your core principles,” he said. “I don’t write things to try to satisfy people. I write things to advocate for bigger things to happen in society.”
On Saturday, within minutes of hearing news of the shooting, Causey could hear sirens at home. They grew louder as more police came to nearby Sherman Park. He got into his car and headed there.
Causey began collecting what he’d write about Sunday. He went back briefly that night as the protests turned violent and warned a woman with a child to go home. He went back Sunday as people cleaned up and gathered to march for peace.
Seeing it all just hurt. It hurt to see older people who didn’t understand why this was happening. It hurt to see younger people who felt like it was necessary. And it hurt to see the divisions between them.
On Sunday morning, George Stanley, the Journal-Sentinel’s editor and vice-president, texted him.
“James, If you’re at church today and the pastor talks about last night’s violence, could you shift into reporter mode and catch the main points?”
Causey texted back:
“I’m writing a column now George. Not from church but from living near where this occurred.”
— James E. Causey (@jecausey) August 15, 2016