Bernell Trammell death: Milwaukee shooting victim’s memory stays alive

He ‘gave freedom to everyone’s voice’: A week after shooting death of Bernell Trammell, friends keep his legacy alive

Sophie Carson
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Published 12:00 AM EDT Aug 1, 2020

Bernell Trammell spent his life starting conversations.

He loved hearing what passing strangers had to say. Trammell eagerly sought out discussion — on sidewalks, homemade signs in hand, and through submissions to his publication, eXpressions Journal.

“Everybody has a voice. Everybody’s voice has power,” longtime friend Pia Lombardi recalled Trammell saying.

When he was shot and killed last week outside his Riverwest office, Trammell’s own voice was silenced, Lombardi said.

But at a vigil for him Friday, his memory and message remained vibrant. Friends recalled his good nature and willingness to chat, and neighbors said the city lost an irreplaceable local character.

“Milwaukee, the east side, Riverwest — we’re going to miss him. Because he was very vocal,” said neighborhood resident Alicia Williams. 

Because Trammell was outspoken about religion and politics — and supported President Donald Trump — some suspect he was targeted for his beliefs. Prominent conservatives have called for a federal investigation into his death, and the suspicion of a political motivation made national news and gained traction on social media.

Lombardi said she even received an invitation to appear on commentator Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show.

Milwaukee police have not released any information about possible motives for the killing.

Trammell also carried signs supporting the Black Lives Matter Movement and state Sen. Lena Taylor, a Democrat.

Those who knew Trammell said they don’t know why he was killed and can’t understand why anyone would shoot him. More than a week after his death, they don’t have any answers. Police have asked the public’s help in looking for a suspect in the shooting and have offered a cash reward for tips. 

Malcolm Hunt, a chaplain for the Milwaukee Police Department, speaks and prays for his friend Bernell Trammell during a memorial vigil.
Rick Wood / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Nate Fox of Milwaukee called Trammell a “gentle beast” who was genuinely interested in hearing different perspectives.

About 15 years ago, Fox used to see Trammell around Riverwest, dressed in a leather jacket and leather chaps.

“He didn’t look like a very approachable guy,” Fox laughed. “But if you would actually have a conversation with him you would see that he’s genuine, that he would hear you out.”

Fox, an atheist at the time, started going to Trammell with questions about religion. He didn’t know many Christians, and Trammell never judged him, he said.

Eventually Fox converted to Christianity. He credits Trammell for those early eye-opening conversations that challenged his stereotypes on what people of faith looked and acted like.

Trammell “gave freedom to everyone’s voice,” said Clayton Hotelling, a Milwaukee pastor and social worker. “It didn’t matter where you were from.”

In the 1990s Hotelling used to read eXpressions Journal and even submitted his artwork to the publication a few times. He appreciated that Trammell gave a platform to opinions of all kinds without judgment — the willingness to hear someone out has been lost in today’s political discourse, he said.

Hotelling was driving with a friend on the east side two days before Trammell’s death and saw him on the sidewalk holding a Trump sign. Hotelling honked his horn, and Trammell gave them a thumbs-up.

“It touched our heart because that was the last time we saw him,” Hotelling said.

Bernell Trammell of Milwaukee takes a photo with his cellphone while with son, Bernell Trammell Jr., 7, at a control burn at Alice Bertschy Kadish Park in Milwaukee on May 7, 2013. Trammell was fatally shot outside his office in Riverwest on July 23, 2020.
Mike De Sisti / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Patricia Holland also saw Trammell shortly before his death — she estimates about 30 minutes prior.

Holland maintains church gardens in Riverwest and headed last Thursday to Trammell’s shop to plant some flowers in his new flower beds. She left him laughing, promising to water the plants that evening.

Then from her home Holland heard what she thought were firecrackers. She followed police cars to the scene and saw paramedics performing CPR. But she knew Trammell hadn’t made it.

“A whole chill came over me,” she said.

Trammell deserves for his killer to be found, Holland said. Somebody in the neighborhood knows something, she said, pointing to the surrounding apartments and homes.

And Trammell deserves for his legacy to live on. Lombardi, who lived with Trammell in the 1990s in the apartment above his office, plans to buy the building on East Wright Street. 

She wants to continue publishing eXpressions Journal. Trammell’s voice may have been silenced, but he’d want Milwaukee to keep talking.

Contact Sophie Carson at (414) 223-5512 or scarson@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter at @SCarson_News.

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