Many large cities across the country saw dramatic spikes in homicides this summer, and Milwaukee has experienced among the most dramatic year-to-year spikes in violence.
But if you visit some Milwaukee neighborhoods, you’re likely to find people who have been working for decades to keep their community safe.
Seventy-six-year-old Martha Freeman cares for seven of her great-grandchildren. She’s also the adoptive mom of many others in the Garden Homes neighborhood on the city’s north side, where she’s widely known as Mama Freeman.
Her front porch has been a refuge for neighborhood kids for decades. She’s retired now after serving as a corrections officer in Milwaukee County for 20 years.
Maybe that’s why she doesn’t shy away from a conflict.
Local leaders like Alderman Ashanti Hamilton recognize Freeman’s credibility in her neighborhood and marvel at her ability to interrupt violence.
“Nobody’s gonna come and talk to the guys on the corner doing their business over there, right? Nobody wants to go talk to them about what they need to do in order to improve their lives,” Hamilton says.
But Martha Freeman will. Looking around Garden Homes, you’ll see several boarded-up houses on each block, men walking around in the middle of a work day and makeshift vigils comprised of teddy bears and candles.
When Mama Freeman greets her neighbors, they feel like they’re a part of a family.
“It was women like her that guided me,” says Shawn Moore, a Garden Homes resident.
He’s had a number of run-ins with the law. He’s robbed drug dealers, he’s served long prison terms for car theft and counterfeiting checks. He’s dodged bullets.
“Well, he really honestly thinks he belongs to me. I didn’t give birth to him but he’s, he’s just been there since he was a little boy,” Freeman says.
Moore says that when he was 21, he asked his mother if she had insurance on him. “And, if so, was it paid up? ‘Cause I wasn’t going to live to be 24,” he says.
Moore was one of the neighborhood kids whom Freeman nurtured. He says she taught him to care for his community.
“I learned from her how to love,” he says.
As they make their way toward Atkinson Avenue, Moore waves over a young man walking by. Moore calls Mike Thomas his nephew. They met in jail. Moore asks Thomas what he needs to improve his life.
“I don’t like expressing myself; I like bottling all my emotion up, you know what I’m saying? ‘Cause nobody don’t care. My struggle is my struggle,” Thomas says.
Moore reminds him that it’s their struggle. Eventually, Thomas agrees.
This is what interruption looks like. Freeman is gifted at getting to know people and what’s on their minds.
“It’s just the fun of it all,” Freeman says. “When you get to know them, then you can pull the ear. You can say, ‘Hey, give me that gun.'”
Moore had just gotten home last Wednesday when she was confronted with that very situation. Her house faces Garden Homes Park, and she says she saw a young man holding a gun to the head of another young man.
“So I just started to walk toward him saying, ‘Give me the gun, give me the gun.’ And finally I got up close enough to him and he handed it to me. And we ended up sitting in my living room till about 3 in the morning talking and trying to work out the situation between them,” Moore says.
On a 20-minute walk with Moore and Freeman, the block seems to light up. Everyone here feels like an old friend, and for Freeman, most of them are.
Every few feet men come over to greet her, and if they don’t come to her, she goes to them.
“What’s the matter with you? Hey! Don’t act like you don’t hear me. What you so mad about? Can I help? Anything I can do to help?” Freeman says.
She tries to bring them back into the fold, telling them that this is their home and reminding them they’re part of her family.