On Friday, March 6th, a Madison, Wisconsin police officer, Matthew Kenny, shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, Tony Robinson. In a heartening response, hundreds responded to this event within an hour, with conversations and public protests of police violence. Many immediately recognized the similarity of this event to that in Ferguson, Missouri this past August, in which police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown. The story of Tony Robinson's murder, as the latest in what feels like a country-wide epidemic, made national news by the next morning -- coincidentally the 50th anniversary of the United States’ “Bloody Sunday,” the historic Civil Rights march from Selma to Montgomery in support of the Voting Rights Act, in which state troopers brutally beat peaceful protesters.
Tony Robinson was murdered. But some people, almost all of them white, have complained about using that word, “murder.” It is the appropriate word if you believe that Tony Robinson did not deserve to die. It is appropriate if you allow that black people are human beings. It is appropriate insomuch as the killing of an unarmed person is immoral even when perpetrated by state power. To withhold applying the term murder in this case is a significant step towards justifying the killing. To deny that Tony Robinson was murdered (an active, immoral act) rather than simply killed (an inevitable event that just happened, or that he deserved) is to deny the humanity of this black teenager and ultimately to refuse to mourn his death. We now know that white police officers are seldom charged with or convicted of any crime much less murder when they kill unarmed black people. Even when there is video footage of the killing. Even when these people are children -- like the twelve year-old Tamir Rice. We now consider victims of lynching as having been murdered even though killers went unpunished and for decades lynching was not treated as a chargeable crime. Similarly, most people can now acknowledge that enslaved African Americans killed by slaveholders were murdered, even though their killings were perfectly legal at the time. To deny this murder as murder is not only to condone it, but also to misplace the murder of Tony Robinson outside the context of America's history of violence against black people, particularly as perpetrated by those invested with authority.
How we talk and write about events like these matters. Not only this event, but the responses to it have thrown Madison’s (and the nation’s) racism into stark relief. In many discussions and media reports about Tony Robinson’s death, writers have given agency only to Robinson, the victim of this police shooting. Phrases like “an unarmed black teenager was shot and killed” and “a police-involved shooting occurred” remove the shooter from the position of actor, and thereby from his position of relative power. If we instead acknowledge the fact that “a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager,” we must acknowledge the unequal power relations involved in this encounter. If we change the discourse from “a black teenager got (himself) shot by a cop” to “a white police officer shot a black teenager,” we might be less likely to charge the victims of these killings with the sole responsibility for what happened. While it remains necessary to repeat and remember the names of black people who were killed by the police, we must also remember that their deaths were not things they simply brought upon themselves or things that just happened to them, independent of an active agent who has the power to kill.
This is Madison Mutual Drift’s first response to Matthew Kenny’s killing of Tony Robinson. We mourn this teenager along with our local community. Madison’s Young Gifted and Black Coalition has offered a path for political organizing around these and related events, and we stand in support of their leadership. There is much work to be done. In addition to the necessity of local political action, how we frame conversations about police violence is important to our collective responses to it. We offer the following points as necessary to the current conversation among Madison’s white progressive community.
Vigil for Tony Robinson, 48 hours after he was murdered.
1. We do not need to “wait for the details” to know that black youth do not deserve to die. We do not need full investigations before expressing skepticism about the police version of events, or indeed issuing calls for a truly independent investigation, prosecution of the shooter, and an abolition of current policing practices. Through a horribly growing list of dispersed but similar incidents over the past year and a half we have seen the clear pattern of police or other security workers–almost all white–gunning down unarmed young black people, essentially with complete impunity. In each case the call for details, for getting the story right, has been used to temper immediate outrage, to slant opinion in favor of the shooter, and to cast doubt on the possibility of police wrongdoing. Far from a presumed non-judgement, insisting that we “wait until all the facts are in” is a form of pre-judgement, one that places faith in there having been a good reason for the killing. Of the many problems with this response the most obvious is that there can be no objective ascertaining of the facts simply for the reason that one of the parties to the conflict has been permanently silenced–and what is more, silenced by the actions of the other. This is the sine qua non of an unfair and unequal narrative and nothing can change that–as we have seen in other cases not even with the supposedly neutral documentation of video evidence. While specific demands may be made based on emergent information, we have all the details needed for mobilization and action.
2. Our love affair with the police ends now. We like to believe that the police department in our city is different, that it is untainted by the racism that runs rampant among police in places like Ferguson. Here, we think, police do not send racist emails and they support "progressive" causes like gay marriage; our Madison cops bring cake to newlywed lesbian and gay couples. And yet, an officer of the law (who happens to be pictured in the viral photo we wrote about in June 2014), someone whose job it is to protect and serve, shot and killed a young man who was just 19 years old and unarmed, making the myth of the enlightened police untenable. Having individuals who share our progressive values working as police officers does not prevent them from killing young black people. If anything, it paints an inherently regressive institution, historically racist in its operations and orientation, as something other than what it is and makes us forget that it cannot be reformed by individuals, however good their intentions and admirable their values. Even punishing the criminal cop in order to absolve the larger force by expelling the “bad apple” runs the risk of exposing the entire edifice as unreformable–what, after all, differentiates this one officer from all the others but for an act of violence wrong by degree but not kind (they all carry service revolvers)? The killing of Tony Robinson exposes the continuum that runs from Ferguson to Madison–the one milieu documented as racist and regressive and the other lauded as progressive and civilized–as a single reality, featuring perhaps differently routinized violence aimed at black citizens but always accepting it. We need a new attitude toward the police and the state.
3. Holding people accountable is not the same as demonizing them. Feeling grief and anger in the wake of a spectacularly violent and senseless death does not preclude forgiveness. There is a time for anger, and there is a time for forgiveness. Yet we must not forget that grief is political, that one aspect of racism is that it trains us to grieve some lives and not others. This is part of what the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter addresses. Those who are uncomfortable with this sentiment and argue that we should instead state only that All Lives Matter deny the global history of devaluing black lives, in particular, that this hashtag directly addresses. To suggest that the statement Black Lives Matter somehow takes away from the value of other lives is akin to buying into the white supremacist myth that rights given to nonwhite people somehow diminishes white rights. In this case, too, some white people seem to think that they themselves have something to lose by acknowledging the value of black lives or by holding white people accountable when they take them. Many people seem too willing to forgive those who perpetrate violence against African American people but equally unwilling to mourn the African American people killed by those in relative positions of power or to acknowledge the inevitable anger that this continued violence generates among communities of color. Our carceral state is unforgiving even of nonviolent crime when people of color are convicted. In Wisconsin, we incarcerate a higher percentage of our African American community than any other state. But people are willing to forgive a seemingly infinite number of white male police officers when they kill unarmed black people. This disparity in who we hold accountable and when is a product of structural racism.
4. Better policing is not the solution. Police exist to maintain order but our society’s social fabric is unraveling. Communities of color are hardest hit by austerity policies, many of them suffering permanent economic crisis. Structural inequalities divide us and make violence or the threat of violence the shadow under which we live our lives (a condition relished by the gun industry). The police are the solution we have inherited, the most readily available tool with which we deal with the social consequences of poverty. For most of us, our inability to imagine a world without police or prisons shows that we have come to see inequality and the violence created by it as natural. This failure of imagination is related to our–and here we speak particularly of white liberals and progressives in Madison–failure to recognize racism in Madison. The equivocating response to the police killing of Tony Robinson is the clearest signal yet that progressive thought begs for renewal and reinvention. This cannot happen when every time the racial dimensions of inequality in Madison are made plainly visible, the discussion gets stuck on the basics of what racism is, or if there even is such a thing. If after the proof provided by the Race to Equity Report, in courageous open letters, at community forums, in the dismal enrollment statistics for African American students at UW, through firsthand witnessing of racist aggression, subtle and overt, and now in the death of Tony Robinson, the conversations stay at the level of questioning whether racism exists in Madison, we will never reach our potential as a city. This is why the #FergusontoMadison social movement organizers and participants have earned and deserve our support and involvement. They are the ones doing the hard work of putting forth a vision of the future that goes beyond policing, that wishes and plans for a reweaving of the social fabric instead of solving problems by calling in ever more muscle.
5. Ignorance is the currency of white supremacy. Every one of us, especially those of us who are white, need to educate ourselves about racism and its history–this is our responsibility. The burden of education cannot be placed solely on people of color. If you need guidance in your self-education about racism, contact Groundwork or the YWCA and sign up for an anti-racist training program. If we actually understood the nature of racism and its history in the United States, how our lives are constricted by structures built around or reinforcing racial divides, the relationship between Tony Robinson's death and racism would not be up for debate, and the racism of a police department that arrests eight black people for every white one would not be in question. The political and cultural work that is needed to overcome the extreme disparities that plague our city cannot even begin until we share a basic understanding of racism. Getting there will involve a lot of learning and unlearning. Get started here:
Groundwork (a Madison-based mostly white anti-racist organization)
YWCA (a national women’s rights and anti-racist organization with a large presence in Madison)
SURJ (a national mostly white anti-racist organization)
Ferguson’s Literary History (a bibliography of relevant works of literature)
Race to Equity Report (documents extreme racial disparities in Dane County)