Sparked by the fatal police shooting of 23-year-old Sylville Smith, a riot broke out in Milwaukee’s Sherman Park neighborhood in August 2016. As fires raged and shots rang out in his old neighborhood, Derrick Harriell found himself hundreds of miles away in Oxford, Mississippi. His mind and heart were with family and friends back home in Sherman Park.
Harriell, a celebrated poet and assistant professor in English, African American Studies and Creative Writing at the University of Mississippi, would channel those emotions about a year later. That’s when editor Tim Hennessy asked Harriell to write something for 2019’s Milwaukee Noir anthology, part of a popular “city noir” series on Akashic Books, featuring crime fiction stories set in different Milwaukee neighborhoods.
The violence and pain of those three days in Sherman Park are the backdrop for Harriell’s Edgar Award-winning short story, “There’s a Riot Goin’ On.”
Harriell tapped into the longing, disconnection, and anger he felt during those days in 2016, to tell the story of Terrell, a college student living in Sherman Park. He learns about “an unexplored world that could only be found through the violence that occurs when a riot reaches the point of no return.”
“There should be two and a half cigarettes left. Terrell knows because he counted. He counted after writing something on Facebook and then smoking half a cigarette.
On this morning, the room wasn’t spinning, and birds even sang outside the large window beside his bed. He’d forgotten birds sang around, in this hood, and closed his eyes to momentarily listen.” – Excerpt from “There’s A Riot Goin’ On”
In Terrell, Harriell tried to create a character that he said you don’t see very often in literature: a Black male who is neither “thug” nor “classroom savant” but somewhere in between, trying to figure out his identity.
“I’m kind of drawn to the idea of Black empowerment and social justice, and I don’t know how to negotiate that space,” Harriell said. “I still like to hang out, but I like to read W.E.B. Du Bois, too, right? So that’s what I was trying to convey: a guy, a young man in Terrell, who’s trying to figure out where he belongs socially, politically, culturally.”
The author of three books of poetry, Harriell had not published a short story before “There’s a Riot Goin’ On.” Yet in April 2020, the Mystery Writers of America presented Harriell with its Robert L. Fish Memorial Award for best first short story by an American Author at its annual Edgar Awards, named in honor of Edgar Allan Poe.
Harriell attributes his success since leaving Milwaukee to his experiences living in the city and the people he met. He has fond memories of growing up in Milwaukee.
“Barbecues! And I remember hot summers and hanging out at the lake and a lot of family gatherings and music,” Harriell said. “And hole in the walls. I remember the bars when I first [turned] 19.”
It was as an undergraduate at University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee — where he would earn his Ph.D. in 2012 — that Harriell discovered his love for poetry, going to readings at the Eighth Note Coffeehouse on campus. He said he went begrudgingly at first.
“I’ll never forget, I remember like it was yesterday. Just seeing these amazing voices stand up to the mic and recite, perform these amazing poems that had high, high social justice commentary and political commentary,” Harriell said.
After connecting deeply with the poets and their message, Harriell gave poetry a shot. At first, he was “terrible and terrified,” his hand shaking as his stepped up to the mic.
“[I was] Just kind of mimicking and imitating their voices. I still had a lot to do to figure out — what I wanted to give to the conversation and how I wanted to give to the conversation vocally,” Harriell remembered. “But I sucked. I was garbage. I was trash. I just kept showing up every week and kept getting better.”
The Story’s Ongoing Relevance
Though written about an event from 2016, Harriell’s “There’s a Riot Goin’ On” retains its relevance in 2020, which has seen more police shootings, more protests, more riots. Harriell said he wrote the story around 2017 and — in some ways — he had forgotten the short story. That’s until the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis made him remember. The police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha made it fresh yet again.
Harriell said you can even look back to the 1967 Milwaukee riot to see parallels to the current situation.
“Protesting and civil unrest is not a new action,” Harriell said. “It’s the same action, it’s the same exercise, working toward the same goals — which is sad, which is traumatic, which is awful. I hope one day I won’t have to write these stories.”
“Terrell remembered leaving the riots last night moments after a shot rang out. People ran in all directions.
As he hurried home with a plastic water bottle containing a half-empty beer, he thought of his father’s face that night. How blood decorated the frozen snow on the car’s hood. It was the first time he saw his father bleed. It was the first time he’d seen his father at someone else’s mercy.
Terrell remembered waiting in a cold seat until another squad car arrived, praying they’d let him go. That night, he rode shotgun in a police car and waited at the station for his mama.” – Excerpt from “There’s A Riot Goin’ On”
MUSIC: “Poet” by Sly and the Family Stone