Madison on the march for Black lives

March 25, 2015

Nicole Colson and Katie Zaman report on the waves of protests and anti-racist organizing in Madison since the police murder of unarmed teenager Tony Robinson.

MADISON IS marching for justice--justice for Tony Robinson and for all the victims of racism and police brutality.

In the weeks since the unarmed, 19-year-old Robinson was shot five times and killed by white officer Matt Kenny in the stairwell at a friend's apartment, thousands have taken to the streets and taken over the state Capitol building to show that Tony's life matters--and that the ultimate cause of his death was the racism of a system that holds Black lives to be less valuable.

Though the protests first came together within hours after Robinson's death, they haven't simply been an outpouring of spontaneous anger. They are the result of the concerted efforts of anti-racist activists who have been organizing for weeks and months and years to challenge widespread, systemic racism in Dane County, where Madison is located.

City and state officials want the demonstrators to "be patient" and "wait until all the facts are in." But the student walkouts, the miles-long marches through the city and the Capitol sit-ins are sending a message that the facts are plain as day--and we're determined to challenge the racism of the system that caused his death.

Madison marches to demand for justice for Tony Robinson
Madison marches to demand for justice for Tony Robinson

THE STORY of Tony Robinson's killing is depressingly familiar, with pieces that mirror the many more stories of young African American men and women killed by police.

The victims are routinely portrayed as "out of control" and "aggressive thugs" who were "no angels." Their family lives, school records and criminal histories are dissected in the media, and their deaths are chalked up to their own actions that gave police no choice but to "defend themselves."

From Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, to Eric Garner in New York City, to Tamir Rice in Cleveland, the pattern of racist justification and victim-blaming accompanies each new death, with families left to wonder why their sons and daughters are dead and why lethal force was the only option.

Tony Robinson was killed on March 6 at a friend's apartment. Robinson's friend had called police seeking help for the 19-year-old, who had reportedly been jumping in and out of traffic. Instead of helping Tony, however, Officer Kenny killed him--claiming he was forced to fire five times on the unarmed young man after Robinson assaulted him.

News reports made much of the fact that Robinson was 6-feet, 5-inches tall and had a criminal record. Officer Kenny, meanwhile, was lauded as a decorated veteran of the police force.

Immediately, activists and Robinson's family organized vigils and protests to "stand and say this is wrong," as Tony's grandmother Sharon Irwin told the crowd just hours after the teen's death.

As Robinson's uncle, Turin Carter, explained to CBS News, Tony's family is fighting for justice because "[t]his is not an isolated event. It's a systematic issue, as it pertains to the procedures that the police force are using against unarmed teens, and more specifically--because of the disproportionate numbers--Black unarmed teens."

This isn't even the first time Officer Kenny has killed someone in the line of duty. In 2007, Kenny shot and killed a man named Ronald Brandon who was holding a pellet gun on his porch and had called 911. Brandon's death was later ruled a "suicide by cop," and Kenny was given a commendation for his actions in killing the distraught man.

Turin Carter told CBS that the family doesn't want to "paint Tony as a saint or someone who has never done anything wrong." But he added that his nephew was "the face of America."

"[I]t's heartbreaking to know that all these children are dying, and they shouldn't be," Robinson's mother, Andrea Irwin, told CBS News. "They're not even allowing them to live their lives or start their lives. This is--what it seems to me is an epidemic, the slaughtering of children. "

IN THE weeks since Robinson's death, the protests against this epidemic of police violence and the system that produces it have escalated, spearheaded by activists like those in Madison's Young, Gifted and Black (YGB) Coalition, and joined by hundreds of high school and college students.

On Monday, March 9, nearly 2,000 students walked out of middle and high school classrooms in Madison and descended on the state Capitol building. In a scene reminiscent of the 2011 protests against Gov. Scott Walker's anti-union legislation, young activists flooded all three floors of the rotunda and called for justice for Tony Robinson. Hundreds more who couldn't fit inside the building rallied outside.

The student walkout was called by young organizers, mostly youth of color, over the weekend following Tony's murder. Groups from schools as far as six miles away converged, while adults, including some teachers and school district administrators, formed a protective circle around them.

Led in part by Madison's YGB Coalition--which formed after the murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson to highlight racism in the criminal justice system in Dane County and fight for racial justice--students held signs against police brutality and chanted "Hands up, don't shoot" as they rallied inside the Capitol. "I wanted to come down to help create a better society," Verona High School senior Elijah Linderud told a reporter.

Later, protesters left the Capitol and marched down State Street to the City County Building. There, representatives of YGB, along with Tony Robinson's sister, asked to speak directly to Madison Police Chief Mike Koval--but were told he was "unavailable."

When Madison Mayor Paul Soglin came out to briefly address the students and urge them to focus on the "big picture" of racism in society at large, the students jeered, demanding that Soglin change his focus. Some were upset that Soglin couldn't even get Tony's name right--the mayor called him "Anthony," when his given name was Antonio.

Two day later, protesters were back again at the Capitol. A statewide day of previously called by WI Jobs Now for March 11 to oppose anti-union "right-to-work" legislation became another opportunity to speak out for justice for Tony Robinson. High school students again walked out of their classes to lead the march. This time, school officials and local Black leaders had urged everyone to stay in school--but the students decided the fight against racism and police brutality was more important.

Those at the protest included the family of Dontre Hamilton, a Black man who was shot 14 times by Milwaukee police officer Christopher Manney last year. Manney was never prosecuted, claiming he fired on Dontre in self-defense. Dontre's brother addressed the crowd in Madison, saying, "We don't need to fix the system. We need to destroy the system and rebuild a new system."

The march began in a park and moved to the Department of Corrections to discuss mass incarceration. Later, protesters marched to a Burger King and then to the governor's lakefront mansion, before taking over the busy East Washington Avenue during rush hour--making their presence known in the predominantly white neighborhood of Maple Bluff, where Governor Walker lives with his family.

TONY ROBINSON'S death and the subsequent activism surrounding it has brought more attention to the long-term work of the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition, including its efforts to fight structural racism, especially as expressed in the criminal injustice system. One of the demands of YGB has been that the county not build a new jail, and instead release people incarcerated for crimes of poverty. After repeated protest, the proposal for a new jail has been amended to fund renovations to current jail facilities.

On March 12, M Adams of YGB and Nino Rodriguez of Madison Organizing in Strength, Equality and Solidarity, debated Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney and University of Wisconsin Professor Dr. Doug Kramer about the proposed renovations. The debate, attended by over 200 people, was a clear and resounding victory for those standing against the criminal injustice system.

Mahoney said he wants to provide a safe and humane environment for those arrested and required to serve time in Dane County. He said that the current facilities are inadequate and pointed out that there are no facilities for people who, for their own safety or the safety of others, need to be held separately from the rest of the population--so they end up in solitary confinement, a form of torture in itself. Adams also mentioned a malfunctioning electronic locks system that has broken repeatedly, resulting in people being locked in cells for several hours.

Adams, however, rejected the framework of these arguments and put the debate in the context of the murder of Tony Robinson, while raising issues about institutionalized racism, including poverty, educational disparities and mass incarceration. "We need human rights solutions to bring us out of those human rights [issues], and jail is not a solution," Adams said. "[With] the inhumane building of the jail, the sheriff is proposing renovation. I am proposing release."

Adams reiterated the statistics that show Madison to be one of the most racist cities in the country: While Blacks make up just 5 percent of the population of Dane County, they account for nearly half of those in jail. These are people who are in jail because they are homeless, poor or dealing with domestic violence issues.

As an example, Adams cited a young woman, a queer youth, who had been locked out of her home. She was taking food from a grocery store in order to survive. When she was caught, her license was suspended, locking her out of steady employment. Adams asked, "Where in her story does a new lock create safety for her?" As she went on to say:

We have a moral and ethical responsibility to fight for provide adequate resources to those who struggle with mental be a great Madison not just for white people. We have a moral and ethical responsibility to build the people, not the jail.

FOR A number of young activists in Madison, "building the people" means building an uncompromising fight to hold those responsible for Tony Robinson's death to account.

The passion of these activists was on display at a March 17 meeting of the Madison City Council. There, YGB leader Brandi Grayson directed comments to Police Chief Mike Koval about Robinson's death, saying, "We know the facts, and when they come out, this city will erupt."

Recently, some have tried to downplay the idea that racial disparities were a factor in Tony Robinson's death--as National Public Radio insisted, "Madison is not Ferguson."

In this liberal city, goes the argument, overt racism doesn't exist among city officials, and the city doesn't systematically use its legal fines levied against a primarily Black population as a revenue generator. Likewise, the lack of a heavy-handed response to protesters after Tony Robinson's death supposedly shows that city officials are willing to listen to the frustrations of the community and work toward a solution.

But scratch the surface, and it's clear that the same institutional racism that sparked protests in Ferguson and beyond is a factor here as well. Though it has a reputation as a liberal haven in the Midwest, racial disparities in Madison and Dane County are some of the most pronounced in the country, according to various indicators.

For example, unemployment is 25.2 percent for Blacks compared to just 4.8 percent for whites--and over half of African American residents of Dade County live under the poverty line, compared to less than 10 percent of whites, according to a 2013 study by the group Race to Equity.

At the March 17 City Council meeting, Brandi Grayson said that no one expects Officer Kenny to be indicted for Robinson's killing--though an investigation by the Wisconsin Department of Justice is scheduled to be turned over to the Dane County district attorney this week. But regardless of what the investigation reveals, the anger over Tony's death will continue building.

"What will happen after this non-indictment will mimic Ferguson, and that, my dear, will be on your hands," Grayson said, addressing Chief Koval. "And you can no longer scream that we are not Ferguson, because we are Ferguson. We are the worst city in the nation for Black people, and every one of you should be ashamed of yourself."

Meanwhile, Tony Robinson's mother is carrying on the struggle to make her son's death a catalyst for a change. As Andrea Irwin told CBS News:

My son keeps me going, and I need to make sure that he didn't die for nothing--that he didn't die in vain. My son is my complete and total motivation. Every morning, I wake up, and I say to him, "I'm not going to forget you, I won't let anybody forget you, and we will make some changes. I won't let you have died on that porch for no reason at all."

Further Reading

From the archives