Justice denied in Madison

May 14, 2015

Katie Zaman, Tina Treviño-Murphy and Alan Maass report on the protests in Madison after the announcement that another police murder would go unpunished.

HUNDREDS OF people took to the streets in Madison, Wisconsin, with more protests to come, after the district attorney announced he wouldn't pursue charges against the police officer who shot and killed 19-year-old Tony Robinson in March.

"I'm heartbroken," Andrea Irwin, Tony's mother, told CNN, speaking for thousands in Madison and many more people around the country. "I'm angry, and I'm more than upset."

The unarmed teen was killed on March 6 by Madison police officer Matt Kenny, who pursued Robinson into his friend's apartment and shot him seven times in a stairwell. People have been in the streets demanding justice for Tony ever since that evening.

The recently formed Young, Black and Gifted (YGB) coalition, the local incarnation of the national Black Lives Matter movement, has been the driving force in the organizing, which has included marches, direct actions, high school student walkouts, teach-ins and debates. Several times, the youth-led movement has shut down major thoroughfares like East Washington Avenue and John Nolen Drive.

Marching against the decision not to charge a Madison police officer for killing Tony Robinson
Marching against the decision not to charge a Madison police officer for killing Tony Robinson

There were more protests after Tuesday's announcement by Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne. Sweating profusely, Ozanne--who in August became the first Black district attorney in the history of the state--spent the better part of an hour explaining why he would allow Kenny to go scot-free for killing an unarmed teenager.

Ozanne devoted most of that time to smearing the victim, describing reports that Robinson had been running in and out of traffic before he was killed, a toxicology report that revealed some legal and illegal substances in his system, and Robinson's past encounters with law enforcement--as if his previous record had some bearing on why he was shot seven times.

The prosecutor noted that Kenny had shot and killed another man in 2007, but pointed out that he had received a commendation for his action in that instance.

Robinson's family and supporters had anticipated the non-indictment, but reacted angrily. Andrea Irwin charged that Ozanne's conclusions were inaccurate and slanted to favor the police. The authorities wanted "to make it look like it was justifiable homicide, and it wasn't," she said. "They have done a smear campaign against my child and against me since all this began, releasing things about my son that they knew were not true.

On Wednesday, the Robinson's family attorney said at a press conference that an independent investigation uncovered evidence that Kenny disobeyed an order to wait for backup before entering the house where he killed Robinson.

Responding to the media's speculation about the response to the DA's announcement, Irwin said, "They keep asking if we'll be nonviolent. The only ones being violent are the police."

YGB ORGANIZERS said they would wait until the morning after the non-indictment to protest, out of respect for Robinson's family. But a spontaneous demonstration began immediately after Ozanne's announcement at the intersection near the house where Robinson was shot. Around 100 people marched that night, stopping traffic along the way, before returning to the scene of the Robinson's death.

The next morning, people living in the Willy Street neighborhood awoke to the sounds of helicopters circling the area. Starting at 9 a.m. a crowd began to gather around the home where Robinson was killed, with protesters sharing speeches and songs. The crowd was small at first, but grew steadily, swelling to 500 or more at its peak.

Actions to protest another non-indictment for police murder were spread throughout the day, and the crowd followed YGB's carefully organized plan. After the early speakout, demonstrators slowly marched to the Dane County Courthouse, blocking an arterial street that connects the highway to downtown Madison en route. Rumors that National Guard soldiers were stationed blocks away faded as the hours passed, and the police presence remained confined to a handful of visible officers, who largely redirected traffic.

When the rally reached the Courthouse, YGB staged a community tribunal--allowing the people of Madison to have a say, if only symbolically, in what kind of accountability they wanted to see. The diverse crowd was asked to decide on the question: "Did Matt Kenney murder Tony Robinson, and should they press charges against him"? The street echoed with the resounding and unanimous shout: "YES."

M Adams, from the YGB coalition, acted as judge, announcing, "You all have decided that there is state violence against the Black community, and that the Madison Police Department has acted out in violence against the Black community."

Adams restated the three conclusions reached by YGB and Robinson's supporters: First, that Matt Kenney murdered Tony Robinson, and the only reason he wasn't indicted is "because we the people do not have the power to hold the police accountable." Second, Adams said, the investigation into Robinson's death wasn't truly independent, since the Madison Police Department was heavily involved throughout, and "murderers can't investigate themselves for murder."

Finally, said Adams, if people like Kenny who kill unarmed children aren't going to jail, then we as a community should refuse to allow people to go to jail for being poor. "If we can't jail the worst of us," Adams said, "how can we jail the least of us?" This was a reference to the demand made by YGB from soon after its founding following the murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, last summer--that the 350 Black people incarcerated in Dane County for crimes of poverty be released immediately, counteracting that huge disproportion of people of color put behind bars in Madison.

THE CROWD then marched around the corner to the City County building, which houses the local jail. Six people linked arms in lockboxes, one of them with her neck U-locked to a post, effectively blocking the entrance to the jail. YBG announced that the six would remain there for three hours and 50 minutes, in solidarity with the 350 community members whose poverty was deemed more dangerous that Kenney's shooting spree.

Tensions between police and protesters continued to develop throughout the afternoon as rush hour approached. Since the courthouse and jail are in the heart of downtown Madison--and the city is located on a narrow isthmus between two lakes--street blockages have an effect beyond the immediate vicinity.

Police announced that they would be clearing the street for rush-hour traffic. Most protesters left the space, and the group that remained was arrested in turn, including a woman who was eight months pregnant, which the crowd of about 200 watched.

By 4 p.m., there were still close to 200 people at the action, though the numbers continued to drop after the arrests. Aware of the police demand to clear the streets, many youth protesters, mostly high school students of color, resorted to a tactic they had used before--legally crossing within the crosswalk from one side of the street to the other, over and over, dancing and singing all the while.

The officers protecting the crossing became visibly frustrated, eventually claiming that the students had already crossed the street over 400 times and would have to stop, though they didn't take any action against them. After the three hours and 50 minutes, the six protesters released themselves from the lockboxes as promised, and YGB announced that its next action would take place on Friday, May 15, with details to be released closer to the action.

YBG organizer Brandi Grayson ignored the officers trying to intimidate her to shout a final message to demonstrators: "Our liberation is bound up together...We are seeing the validation that Black lives do not matter, so it is our imperative to stand up as a community and fight back."

YGB HAD prepared for this likely outcome of the prosecutor's announcement, engaging the community throughout the previous weeks.

The city of Madison was prepared, too. The new Mayor Paul Soglin warned that protesters who broke the law would be arrested, and the Madison Police Department told CNN that they were ready for whatever might occur, but hoped the community would "come through these challenging days ahead without violence or property damage." It was clear that Madison authorities were more worried about threats to property than solving the problem of endemic racism.

Madison is known as a liberal city, with a long history of tolerance and democratic protest. But in the aftermath of the Baltimore Rebellion, there was also an overriding fear that protests would become violent. Local Black leaders issued statements encouraging nonviolence, while residents discussed reports that National Guard troops had quietly come to town.

Ismael Ozanne, the prosecutor, neatly captured the combined scaremongering and threats of repression in his Tuesday announcement of the non-indictment: "I am concerned that recent violence around our nations is giving some in our communities a justification for fear, hatred and violence. I am reminded that true and lasting change does not come from violence, but from exercising our voices and our votes." Ozanne then went on to quote Martin Luther King.

But it is the people who demanded justice for Tony Robinson and who protested when his killer was let off who are following in the spirit of Martin Luther King by "exercising our voices." Justice has been denied this time--but the struggle will continue to hold police accountable for their violence and to challenge the systematic racism in the criminal justice system.

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