Protests erupt after police killing in Madison

March 9, 2015

Katie Zaman and Tina Treviño-Murphy report from Madison on demonstrations following a police killing with ominous echoes of similar murders around the country.

THE POLICE murder of an unarmed Black youth is shaking Madison, Wisconsin.

Hundreds of people have taken to the streets in protest each day since Friday, when 19-year-old Tony Robinson was shot and killed by white police officer Matt Kenny in the apartment of a friend. More demonstrations are planned for Monday and the days to come, with students in Madison high schools reportedly planning for a walkout.

The mobilizations began immediately after the shooting, led by members of the Young, Gifted and Black (YGB) coalition, formed last fall as part of the emerging Black Lives Matter movement. By 11 p.m., several hundred people were gathered on Williamson Street, outside the building where Robinson was killed.

Robinson had graduated from high school last year in nearby Sun Prairie and was about to begin classes at Madison Area Technical College to study business. His mother, recently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, depended on her oldest son to help her care for his brothers and sister. After his murder, she wasn't allowed to hold her son's body--police kept custody, referring to Tony as "evidence."

Protesters in Madison demand justice for police murder victim Tony Robinson
Protesters in Madison demand justice for police murder victim Tony Robinson (Light Brigading)

Speaking at the impromptu vigil just hours after his death, Robinson's grandmother Sharon Irwin told the crowd:

My grandson...was a beautiful boy, so don't you believe the stories they tell you about what he was and wasn't. He was a gentle, loving caring boy. He might have been big, but he wasn't scary. I love him. Whatever injustice is done today has to be addressed...I want you all to stand together and say: We don't want this anymore...I want my grandson's death to mean something...I am asking you to stand and say this is wrong. Across the world, I'm hoping this happens. It's time.

THE POLICE version of what happened is contradicted by eyewitnesses.

The cops claim that Kenny was responding to a call that Robinson was disrupting traffic and allegedly threatening people. Supposedly, Kenny followed the youth into a building and then forced his way into an apartment after hearing a disturbance. Kenny claims Robinson attacked him, and he opened fire. But the police admit that Robinson was unarmed, and less than half a minute elapsed between Kelly entering the apartment and shots being fired.

Police detained two of Robinson's friends for hours without charges or any notification. YGB sent a lawyer to help the two underage youth, but police refused access, claiming they had refused representation. The police reportedly confiscated their property, including a cell phone, apparently because it could have video or pictures implicating the police.

When the people who had gathered on Williamson Street Friday night learned about the two youth being questioned at the jail, they marched to the City County Building a mile away in downtown Madison. Nearly 100 demonstrators got inside the building and staged a peaceful sit-in to demand the release of the two young men, while a smaller group remained outside. The demonstrators refused to leave until the two were finally released.

At a community meeting the next morning, more than 300 people showed up, packing the main room of the YWCA and filling the foyer and outside. Organizers updated the crowd on upcoming events, and then people took to the streets. Over the course of four hours, more than 300 people marched to the Madison Police Department to the site of Robinson's killing, calling for Officer Kenny to be prosecuted, and an end to police violence and racist mass incarceration.

The protesters on Saturday heard from the mother of Dontre Hamilton, a victim of Milwaukee police who was shot dead in a hail of 14 bullets while he slept on a park bench last April. The cop who killed him wasn't charged. Maria Hamilton traveled to Madison to show her support for Tony Robinson's family:

My heart goes out to Tony's family. My heart goes out to this community...This is the last one of our children that I want to stand in front of a crowd for, and cry for. Our voice has to be heard now. I'm not supposed to be here, holding another mother's hand. We're not running. I'm not going to cry no more. I'm fighting. It's time for the system to be torn down.

The urgency of the protest was captured by one man who called everyone to attention with these words: "Every 28 hours, a Black person is killed by police. We're a few hours away from the next one." And that urgency drove an even bigger mobilization the next day, when close to 700 people gathered for a vigil in front of the home where Robinson was killed.

THIS ISN'T the first time Kenny has killed. He was involved in another fatal shooting in 2007, but was cleared of all charges.

Madison has a reputation as a liberal city--but African Americans experience something very different, as reported in 2013, citing the results of a recent report:

On every indicator, with only two exceptions out of 40 measures, statistics collected in Dane County demonstrated equal or higher racial disparities between whites and Blacks than the national averages...

"The striking result of these disparities is that African American adolescents, while constituting less than 9 percent of the county's youth population, made up almost 80 percent of all the local kids sentenced to the state's juvenile correctional facility in 2011," according to the report.

"While Black men made up only 4.8 percent of the county's total adult male population, they accounted for more than 43 percent of all new adult prison placements during the year [2012]."

This is what Lorien Carter, Tony Robinson's aunt, was referring to when she talked to the vigil crowd on Friday night about "our little bubble of Madison, Wisconsin." Carter referenced studies showing that Madison was among the five most unequal places for African Americans and, at the same time, the three "happiest cities" to live in. "So who is it happy for?" she asked.

The killing of Tony Robinson could tear away the veil that obscures these realities for most residents. It's significant that the shooting occurred in the neighborhood it did--predominantly white and lined with food co-ops, natural medicine stores and ethnic restaurants.

The widespread belief among Madison's liberal population is that police in this city, trained in "community policing" methods, are different from infamously violent cops of the NYPD or LAPD--and, therefore, the killing of an unarmed Black teenager "couldn't happen here."

But racial injustice is being challenged in Madison, and that effort is responsible in large part for the militant response to Tony Robinson's murder.

Since forming after the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, last summer, the Young, Gifted and Black coalition has not only focused attention on the racial disparities in the Dane County criminal justice system, but it has put forward demands to cut off funding for the construction of a new county jail, release 350 Black prisoners incarcerated for crimes of poverty, and end solitary confinement. The YGB's exchange of open letters with Madison Police Chief Michael Koval drew even more attention to the cause of racial justice.

Now, the group faces an urgent new fight. "As members of YGB," said Alix Shabazz, one of the coalition leaders, "we see this as another manifestation of state violence against Black folks, and we will not stop until we get justice."

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