By CARL SACK
MADISON, Wis.—On March 6, police officer Matthew Kenney shot and killed 19-year-old Tony Terrell Robinson. The case has galvanized the Black community here and shaken Madison’s self-image as a socially aware, progressive city.
Robinson, a recent high school graduate with plans to attend business school, was identified by police as a Black male who was jumping in and out of traffic on Williamson Street, in the Marquette Neighborhood of Madison, Wisconsin. Officer Matthew Kenney responded to the call. The cops say that Kenney went looking for Robinson at his house, and after hearing a disturbance inside, broke into the house, had an altercation with Robinson, and shot Robinson five times, killing him. Robinson was unarmed.
After taking Robinson’s body to the hospital, the police did not let his mother, Andrea Irwin, see his body—on the basis that it was “evidence.” Meanwhile, the police picked up and detained two of Robinson’s teenage roommates, Javier and Anthony, holding them for four hours. They were denied access to an attorney despite their requests for one and the fact that an attorney was requesting to see them. It was Javier who had called 911 seeking help for Robinson because the latter was reacting badly to hallucinogens he had taken.
The killing rippled through the community, sparking weeks of protests, and has further exposed the deep racial divide in Madison. Although Madison has a population of a quarter-million, it is a tight-knit community where neighbors know each other and community networks run deep, especially among the city’s youth. Robinson attended four high schools in the county and was known and loved by many. On the night Robinson was killed, dozens gathered at the scene, and then marched to the City-County building, where his roommates were being detained. The following two weeks saw three marches of over a thousand, including a citywide high school walkout.
The events have been led by Madison’s Young, Gifted, and Black (YGB) Coalition, which formed in solidarity with protests in Ferguson and has been mobilizing protests against a proposal for a new county jail. They have received support from Milwaukee’s Coalition for Justice, which was organized to demand charges be brought against the Milwaukee cop who shot and killed Dontre Hamilton, a mentally ill man who had been sleeping in a park, in March 2014.
One march of over 3000—mostly young people—was jointly organized by YGB, the Coalition for Justice, and Wisconsin Jobs Now, a statewide organization funded by SEIU to organize fast food workers and push for a higher minimum wage.
Popular chants among protesters included, “Who can we trust? Not the police!” and “Indict, convict, send those killer cops to jail! The whole damn system is guilty as hell!” as well as chanting Tony Robinson’s name.
While African Americans have been the target of racially biased policing, Madison cops have killed unarmed whites as well. Robinson’s family has received support from the family of Paulie Heenan, an unarmed white man who was shot dead in the street by cops as his neighbors looked on. The MPD conducted the only investigation into the shooting and, unsurprisingly, the officers involved were cleared of any wrongdoing.
Robinson’s shooting puts the lie to the theory that police violence is the result of “a few bad apples” on the force. Kenny, the cop who shot Robinson, was a poster-child for Madison’s liberal façade. When a court struck down the state’s ban on gay marriage last year, a photo of Kenny carrying a wedding cake into the county building where clerks were marrying gay couples was published in the Wisconsin State Journal. As it turns out, even liberal cops can be killers. They work for an institution that exists to protect the interests of the ruling rich by using racism to divide the working class and violence to subdue it.
Nor is racist police violence just a fact of life in ghettoized urban areas with high densities of poor blacks like New York, Oakland, or Ferguson, Missouri. People of color are oppressed everywhere in the U.S., but the systemic racism that denies them jobs, fair housing, and personal freedom is often worse where their numbers are small compared to the white population.
African Americans make up about seven percent of the population of Dane County, where Madison is located, yet are arrested at a rate of 11-to-1 compared with whites, three times the arrest rate disparity of Ferguson. Almost half of those held in the county jail are Black.
A 2013 ‘Race to Equity’ report found that while the quality of life for Madison’s overall population is better than the national average, economic prospects for the Black population are far more dismal than even the average for Blacks nationally. Only 8.7% of whites here live in poverty, compared to 54% of Blacks and a whopping 75% of Black children. Only half of Black high school students here graduate on time, compared to 85% of their white peers, only half as many Black students take college entrance exams as whites, and Black students are 15 times more likely to be suspended from school than whites. Wisconsin is the worst state in the nation, and Madison the worst city in the nation, to grow up Black.
The YGB Coalition has sought to mobilize action around clear demands for an end to racist state violence and Black poverty. They are calling for a policy of immediately firing any cop who kills an unarmed civilian and a community-appointed police review board. In January, the group sent an open letter to the city’s police chief, Michael Koval, demanding the release of 350 Black people from the county jail, an end to the barbaric practice of solitary confinement in the jail, an immediate 50 percent drop in the number of arrests of Black people and poor people, and a plan to minimize police contacts in Black neighborhoods.
“The relationship that we desire to have with the police is simple: no interaction,” the letter states. “Our ultimate goal is to be able to hold our own communities accountable and to expel what we consider an occupying force in our neighborhoods.”
Koval responded by ridiculing the group’s demands on his blog. Since Robinson’s death, the city’s top cop has waged a defensive smear campaign against protesters while mouthing apologies for the shooting. In one letter to the County Board chair, Koval claimed that protesters the night of the shooting were chanting “kill the cops” and “we have guns too,” a bald-faced lie.
In blog posts and interviews with local and national news media, Koval has painted a picture of a police department with progressive values under siege by protesters threatening violence. The chief has even bullied local elected officials, threatening to arrest the leftist county board member who let protesters into the county building the night of the shooting, and sending a harsh letter to the city council demanding that officials “must be more public and more intentional about support for the MPD and our employees.”
Koval’s rhetoric has fed into a false media comparison of Madison and Ferguson. YGB and their allies have rightly seen Koval’s PR campaign as the kindler, gentler form of pacification, in contrast to the militaristic responses of cops in places like Ferguson. As bloggers for Madison Mutual Drift, a local left politics blog, write, “Attempting to juxtapose police responses in the wake of these murders—one responding with brute force and the other with intelligent control—simply demonstrates the wide range of tools used to enforce white supremacy and police repression.”
Although protesters here haven’t broken windows or set fire to any businesses, Madison’s police state is every bit as oppressive to Blacks as Ferguson’s, if not more so.
The shooting is being investigated by the state’s Department of Criminal Investigation under a new state law, pushed for by Heenan’s family, requiring outside investigations of police killings. Irwin, Robinson’s mother, has said she trusts the investigation to be fair, but YGB has urged people not to put any faith in the agency, which is run by the Justice Department of reactionary State Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen and made up of—you guessed it—cops. The capitalist state will protect its enforcers, and the prospects of justice for Tony are slim.
A revolutionary socialist government would disarm and disband every police force and replace them with workers’ protection committees from within and directly accountable to the local community. A society not built for the profits of a tiny minority at the expense of the vast majority would eradicate crimes of poverty and could enact novel, humane solutions to rehabilitate those who exhibit unstable or antisocial behaviors. Jails and prisons would cease to exist but for a few museums, the dark relicts of a barbaric past.
But we can’t wait for a revolution to demand justice. Jailing killer cops—i.e., accountability through equal treatment under the law—is a necessary first step in eradicating state violence against people of color. The YGB Coalition is exactly right to call for the removal of police—an occupying force—from Black neighborhoods and for an elected citizens’ review board with the power to hire, fire, and prosecute cops. We must continue to rebuild the mass movements for civil rights and Black power until we can finish the unfinished business of liberating all oppressed nationalities in the U.S.
Photo: Protesters in Madison, Wis. By Carl Sack / Socialist Action