Black Lives Matter marches on streets of Madison

  • March 13, 2015

Movement & Mobilization

The murder of Tony Robinson shows once again that violence against people of color is a function — not a quirk — of the US law enforcement system.

The only thing cops are getting trained for
is to shoot first and ask questions later.

– Tony Robinson

That Tony Robinson tweeted these prophetic words only three months before his death at the hands of a Madison, Wisconsin, police officer — one who has already been exonerated of one line-of-duty shooting, no less — makes the young man’s death all the more disturbing.

And so the uncomfortable questions, the ones asked after yet another young man of color was gunned down by police, are starting to be answered. Though Robinson’s case has been compared to the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, but where the circumstances of both murders were similar, the aftermath is significantly different. The reactions to the 19-year-old biracial man’s death prove both communities of color and police departments around the country are adapting to what for law enforcement institutions is the PR nightmare of a “rogue” officer murdering a man of color while on the job.

In the week since Robinson was shot five times by officer Matt Kenny in the apartment where he was living, Wisconsin’s so-called progressive hub erupted in protest. Enraged, but also in shock. Rallies and vigils were staged — and are still being organized — across the city, sometimes directly taking on pro-police counter-demonstrations. On Monday, over 1,500 high school and college students walked out of their classrooms and headed for the capital building, converging inside the center of state government to remind lawmakers: black lives matter.

Seven short months ago, as the nation mourned the death of Michael Brown, 18, at the hands of a police officer, a city peacefully protesting would have been a pleasant alternative to the violent rage that engulfed the small city of Ferguson in the days following the shooting. Madison, though outraged, has reacted to the tragedy admirably.

But in the very same week that Robinson was killed, two other unarmed black men were shot and killed by police: Naeschylus Vinzant in Aurora, Colorado, and Anthony Hill, who was allegedly in the middle of a mental-illness induced episode when he was slain by police in Chamblee, Georgia. Then there was Africa, killed last week by police on Los Angeles’ Skid Row. In Ferguson, where police chief Thomas Jackson has finally abandoned his post after a report revealed a system-level anti-black bias in the city’s policing practices (he’ll be taking $100,000 with him), two police officers have been shot, though whether by protesters or outside elements remains unclear.

What can we learn from this patter—oh wait. There is no pattern. The incidents that have ended the lives of at least three black men in the past week can take place in any city, anywhere in the country, and with any kind of politics. Because beyond the basic “black man/white officer” template, these avoidable police murders have no discernable rhyme or reason; their sole common thread is the basic truth that people in the US in general, and law enforcement in particular, are schooled to see black faces as criminal and more threatening than their white counterparts.

Tony Robinson’s murder is the nail in the coffin of the theory that line-of-duty shootings of black men aren’t unique to nameless backwaters or mega-cities, that they never take place in “polite” society. These deaths are not flukes. The policemen committing these crimes are not outliers. Violence against people of color is a function — not a quirk — of the law enforcement system we live under in the United States.

One of the key lessons to be learned from Robinson’s death is that the notion that a progressive or liberal contingent of white and wealthy people exists in the US that is somehow inoculated from acting on the racism they’ve been socialized from childhood to feel is a myth. Playing at the fairytale that racism and all of its accompanying systemic manifestations don’t exist is no longer an option. Nor can we argue that these social forces have somehow lost their power in the fifty short years since the Civil Rights Movement — a favorite pastime of the kind of liberals who “don’t see color,” have “friends who are black,” and refuse to acknowledge — from the safe confines of a bubble of intellectualism is no longer an option as young black people, not to mention their Latino and Muslim counterparts, drop like flies at the hands of police and vigilantes for all the world to see.

In January, the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition wrote an open letter to Madison police chief Michael Koval, highlighting the city’s high arrest rate among black adults, who in Dane County are eight times more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts. In Madison itself, according to a statement Erica Nelson made to PolitiFact Wisconsin, the figure jumps to nearly eleven. The group also called for action on the part of Madison police to “address structural racism and bias” by changing policing and incarceration practices. That was two months before Robinson’s death.

Coalition member Brandy Grayson told Democracy Now:

If the issue of racial disparities and racial injustices aren’t dealt with, we will soon have a Ferguson on our hand; we said it. We said it. We have numbers that’s three times as worse as Ferguson. We are worse than the whole country, and everyone keeps denying that we have a problem. We have a 19-year-old black boy, dead, shot five times in the chest, unarmed, with no answers.

Officials chose not to heed those early warnings, and today, Madison, like the lefty-haven Bay Area where Oscar Grant was murdered in the first moments of 2009, has had its rude awakening. The anti-black hysteria that has claimed the lives of so many since the first Africans arrived in what would become the United States has, can and will continue to impact white, liberal and progressive communities, whether they care to acknowledge that fact or not. This is no post-racial America. Today, at least, thanks to social media, these killings aren’t as likely to go undetected; we can now exercise our outrage and disgust.

The coalition of diverse individuals who compose the Left in this country — from lukewarm progressives to exuberant anarchists — may not care to learn this lesson, to acknowledge and begin to overcome the racism we’ve all been taught. But after Ferguson and post-Oscar Grant, law enforcement isn’t going to be sitting on its hands, slack-jawed and waiting for the next crisis. They’re learning, quickly.

When Ferguson police shot and killed Michael Brown, the city made a number of decisions that exacerbated the tragedy. Officials refused to name the officer that had committed the shooting, for instance. But in Madison, the city quickly named the officer responsible for the shooting, allowed protests to continue peacefully and several officials made public statements lamenting Robinson’s death, without, of course, taking responsibility. Per a recent Wisconsin law, an independent body will head the investigation into the shooting.

But there’s no tangible benefit as yet to reforming the police. Michael Brown is dead, and so is Tony Robinson. I’m not about to put any money on those reformist tactics yielding lasting results. Because while the Madison police try their best to put on a civil face, a campaign is being waged against Tony Robinson to prove that at 19, he was a hardened criminal. That, though unarmed, he may have — though they’ve not said it — deserved to be shot for running around with his shirt off and allegedly getting into a fight on the night of his death, and for having a criminal record. The character assassination has targeted Robinson’s mental health, as some outlets report that he, like so many young people, struggled with anxiety and depression.

Tony Robinson’s death has been turned into a PR circus, a game of proving a young black man, though he may not have committed a crime on the night he was killed, probably would have in the future — because he’s black, right? — making the officer’s shots at an unarmed teenager justified.

In such a climate, where our streets are devolving into all-out warzones and our governments calmly explain away, then pardon the killings of unarmed people of color by their law enforcement agents, we need a dialogue around more radical alternatives to traditional policing methods, from community-based initiatives to regional policing plans that would reign in vigilante local departments. Because if we’d gotten there after the Civil Rights Movement, after Oscar Grant, after Ferguson, how many lives could have been saved?

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Salinas Duda

Salinas Duda is a Chicago-based writer, editor and researcher.

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