1967 Clifford McKissick murder shows how little things have changed

June 4, 2020

By William Scott Gooden

By the end of the day on Tuesday, May 26, 2020, many people in this city and all over the country knew the name of George Floyd. The 44-year-old was arrested by police outside a shop in Minneapolis, Minnesota. One of the officers, Derek Chauvin, leaned on his neck for nine minutes, later resulting in Floyd’s death. But do you know or remember the killing of Clifford McKissick in 1967?

Sparked by brawls with police, a racist threat and gunfire, a riot broke out on Milwaukee’s north side on July 30, 1967. The National Guard was brought in to quell the violence that continued over four days with burning, looting and sniper fire.

By the time it was over, 100 people had been hurt, more than 1,700 had been arrested and four people, including Police Officer Brian Moschea, were dead.

On the third day, an 18-year-old African American college student, Clifford McKissick, was shot in the neck as he was running into his house. He died on the floor of his family’s home.

Police officers involved in the incident said they saw McKissick and other young people lighting gasoline- filled bottles and throwing them into a paint store. The officers said the teen ignored their order to halt.

McKissick was a graduate of Rufus King High School, sophomore at the Wisconsin State College–Whitewater (now the University of Wisconsin- Whitewater), and worked a summer job as a counselor for the Milwaukee Boys’ Club. His death was one of the greatest tragedies of the disturbance. The police claimed that McKissick and three other youths had tried to set fire to a building with Molotov cocktails, and that it was while fleeing from the scene that police shot McKissick. McKissick’s family and several neighbors claimed, however, that he had been sitting on the front porch when all of a sudden everyone heard gunshots. Everyone, including McKissick, ran.

But his family said there was no imminent danger to anyone since Mc Kissick was running into the house. His death was followed by protests. About 500 people attended his funeral, at which local civil rights activist Father James Groppi spoke.

McKissick’s family filed a lawsuit alleging the officer who shot him used excessive force. The attorney for the city used what is known as a Demurrer lawsuit (what would be known today as a motion to dismiss), an assertion by the defendant that although the facts alleged by the plaintiff in the complaint may be true, they do not entitle the plaintiff to prevail. Essentially, the defense stated that since McKissick did not cooperate with the officers’ orders, McKissick was responsible for his own death. The court would rule in the officer’s favor.

However, that was not the final word on the incident.

On October 30, 1975, eleven years after Clifford McKissick’s death, the law firm of Eisenberg & Kletzke S.C., who had earlier represented the family in the original lawsuit, argued on appeal before the Wisconsin Supreme Court. One of the lawyers who had spoken during the hearing was Michael F. Hupy, who would later go on to be a senior partner of Hupy and Abraham, S.C. Mr. Hupy, who had only graduated from law school about 4 years prior, found the facts in the case shocking and appalling; Hupy stated, “Clifford McKissick was an 18 year old young man needlessly killed by the police in his own house. When Clifford’s mother went to her door to call for help from the police officers, they shot at her.

“The police then went into the house, refused to aid her in calling for help for her son, made her march into the kitchen with her hands up and questioned her at length in the presence of her dying son.”

Despite some of these facts, the state high court sent the case back to the lower court, where it was eventually dismissed in 1981.

Flash forward to 2020 and the George Floyd and McKissick cases have very unsettling similarities. Both men were unarmed; both were confronted by three or more police officers; both clearly involved the use of excessive force; and that use of excessive force resulted in both men’s deaths. When asked about the similarities of the cases, Hupy stated, “The clearest similarity is the ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ attitude of the police officers involved, and their blatant racism in regards to handling the victims.”

When asked why so little has changed with respect to these killings, Hupy said, “The public wants to believe and trust the police officers as they are supposed to protect us. And since most of these cases have very little evidence other than the word of the officers involved (as the victim is often dead and unable to speak for themselves) we tend to believe them. Also, fellow officers who have witnessed the killings or have information on them rarely break their silence.”

One of the things that has changed in the last few years is that bystanders are no longer just watching these events unfold; they are pulling out their cameras on their phones and filming the event in progress. Thanks to this we now have a clearer picture of these incidents and the intent and attitude of the individuals involved. It is because of this evidence that many are calling for change in police force policies across the country. In essence, 8 minutes of cellphone footage can speak volume and trigger change. No pun intended…