No Justice for Tony Robinson: An Update from Madison
On Tuesday, May 12th, Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne announced that the state would not prosecute Matt Kenny, the white Madison police officer who shot and killed 19-year old Tony Robinson on March 6th. Speaking at a packed press conference, the prosecutor stated that Kenny had executed “the lawful use of deadly force” and would not face criminal charges for firing seven close-range rounds into the unarmed African-American youth. Narrating the chain of events that led to what climaxed in but a few seconds of deadly fire, the DA stated that Kenny was justified in using deadly force after the teen, under the influence of hallucinogenic mushrooms, assaulted the officer in a narrow apartment stairway on the city’s East Side.
Coming on the heels of a number of police killings of unarmed Black youth--among them that of Michael Brown at Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York, Dontre Hamilton in Milwaukee--the Madison shooting drew national attention and raised serious concerns regarding whether justice would be served in a city known for its liberal and progressive politics and tolerant “most livable city” environment. Few anticipated a different ruling while many across the city wondered what the popular response might be, especially with the preceding reactions to police killings in Baltimore, Ferguson and elsewhere. The response in the days since Ozone’s announcement have nevertheless remained peaceful.
A May 12th protest following the district attorney decision not to charge the officer in fatal shooting of Tony Robinson.
There had been large scale demonstration and protests immediately after Robinson was killed. Upwards of 2,000 protestors, largely from area high schools, filled the state capitol rotunda and marched through Madison’s downtown streets two days after the shooting. While smaller in number, demonstrations and community mobilizations continued, organized primarily by the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition (YGB), the local expression of the national “Black Lives Matter” movement. Street protests, all of them peaceful, such as one going from the State Department of Corrections to Governor Scott Walker’s mansion and a more recent traffic blocking rally in front of the city’s East High School demanding not just “Justice for Tony,” but a set of broader demands focusing on institutional and structural racism in the “liberal city”.
YGB had already become a presence in Madison well prior to the Robinson killing. Formed in solidarity following the death of Michael Brown, the mass protests and the militarized police response at Ferguson last summer, the Madison group, primarily lead by a core of Black women, began organizing around a list of specific demands regarding a host of well-documented racial disparities in Madison and Dane County. Most pointedly, YGB had already been focusing on police practices of law in the Black community and disproportionate numbers of Black people, especially young males stopped, arrested, charged and warehoused in the overcrowded county jail or juvenile detention. Key to their campaign, the YGB has taken the lead in opposition to funding for a proposed multi-million dollar expansion of the jail while demanding the release of some 350 Black prisoners currently locked up for “crimes of poverty”.
Blacks make up just 6% of the general population in Dane County, WI, but almost 50% of jail inmates. As YGB has argued, because of the Black poverty rate, many people sit in pre-trial detention- while they are still presumed innocent- merely because they cannot pay bail of $1,000 or less. Because anyone with bail as low as $1,000 does not represent a public safety threat, those human beings are in jail because they are Black and poor. As YGB organizer M. Adams put it at the Dane County Court House on May 13th, ”If people like Matt Kenny, people who are murderers, don't go to jail, the people should not go to jail for being poor.”
The YGB coalition has also put forward truly radical demands for actual community control of police as distinct from the kinds of community- relations “soft policing” currently in use. Police, they argue, should live in the communities they serve and be subject to community priorities and oversight. Exploring “the seeming paradox between reputation and reality,” the 2013 “Race to Equity Report” by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families asked how it was that, “a place as prosperous, resourceful and progressive as Dane County [could] also be home to some of the most profound, pervasive and persistent racial disparities in the country?”
The Report noted that the local jobless rate in 2011 was 25.2% for Blacks and 4.8% for whites, while the national unemployment rate for Blacks was about twice that of whites. The poverty disparity was worse: 54% of black Dane County residents lived below the poverty line in 2011, compared to 8.7% of whites. Nearly three-quarters of black children in 2011 were poor compared to 5.5% of white children. The Report indicated that black kids in Dane County are 13 times more likely to grow up in poverty than their white counterparts; were 15 times more likely to be placed in foster care, and 15 times more likely to be sent to the state’s secure detention program. It found that black youth were 6 times more likely to be arrested than white youth and that Black adults were arrested at a rate more than 8 times that of white adults. Local critics, concerned with the increasing militarization of policing, have noted that Madison Police have shot and killed nine city residents in the last decade. The majority have been people of color.
YGB has inaugurated a petition campaign calling upon the United Nations and the Organization of American States, rather than the US Justice Department, to investigate the killing of Robinson and the broader, related issues of racial disparities in Madison. The coalition has also pointed out as “most alarming,” “the excessive policing of Black youth in the area, which fuels racially motivated incarceration in jails and prison. Black youth are 10% of the youth in Dane county, but almost 80% of all imprisoned adolescents. In addition, Black people are just 4.8% of adults in the County, but 44% of new jail inmates, the greatest racial incarceration disparity in the entire country.
With recent outpourings of rage and violence elsewhere as a back drop, Madison awaited DA Ozanne’s ruling on whether to charge officer Kenny. Some anticipated the worst while numbers of “community leaders” and clergy volunteered to mediate between police and anticipated protests. In what some have since viewed as a “scare tactic,” a sort of preemptive psyop, the Madison police department released a statement hours before Ozanne’s announcement that it had information from “reliable sources” alleging that some unidentified group was preparing to “shoot police officers” following the DA’s ruling.
Honoring family requests that protests remain peaceful, several hundred people gathered following Ozanne’s announcement nearby where Robinson was killed. At their own press conference, the family’s attorney, opening the way for a civil suit, stated that there clearly were inconsistencies and questions left unanswered as to what actually occurred on March 6th. The following day, on Wednesday, May 13th, several hundred protesters, again organized by Young, Gifted and Black, marched from the site of Tony Robinson’s killing to downtown Madison, where they rallied for a “people’s trial” outside the County Court House, and then occupied a block in front of the nearby County Jail. The day concluded with the arrest of 28 protesters for acts of non-violent civil disobedience. YGB has vowed to continue organizing in opposition to the institutional racism, while deepening its analysis of power in the corporate liberal town.
Allen Ruff is a member of Solidarity in Madison, Wisconsin. He is an independent historian with a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin - Madison.