No Justice for Tony Robinson: An Update from Madison

by Allen Ruff

May 15, 2015

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.

Comments
  • Allen Ruff says:

    I’ve learned that while he was known as “Tony,” Robinson’s first name actually was Terrell and not “Anthony”.

  • Prescient Storm says:

    What has hampered YGB in this town is the kid glove treatment they have received by the workshop activist community. Instead of solidarity and principled critique, we see would-be progressives climbing all over themselves to validate the black experience with endless testimonials to personal privilege. As a consequence, the black community is seen to be a community of victims. When combined with corporate AND “liberal” media projections of the group as well-meaning, but needlessly loud, youthful and inexperienced activists, we are now seeing a return to “leadership” by the usual empty suspects: clergy, charities and foundations. To regain the momentum YGB needs to be challenged to deepen the struggle and not fall prey to trying to please the academic academics and the workshop activists which grow like weeds on the political landscape of madison. As a parent whose children fit the disparity profile of Dane County presented above, my children are finding inspiration from the fighting example of YGB, but we all need to raise our games or face another frittered away,fizzle.