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
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.