For those who remember the 2011 protests against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s initial attack on collective bargaining, this Monday may have seemed like a blast from the past. While the state faces a fresh round of anti-union measures, it was the Black Lives Matter movement that brought thousands of high school and college students to the state Capitol in Madison early this week.
Tony Robinson, an unarmed 19-year-old, was shot five times and killed last Friday by police officer Matt Kenny following an altercation. A 12-year veteran of the force, Kenny was exonerated in 2007 for the shooting of another unarmed black man. The 48-year-old victim in that case allegedly pointed what was later found to be a pellet gun at two of Kenny’s fellow officers. Aside from Kenny’s past, protesters and even the mainstream media are drawing clear connections to the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., this summer, as well as the Justice Department report released last week that found significant racial bias and profit-incentives for arrest in that department’s day-to-day operations.
In Madison, African Americans make up just 7 percent of the population, but a disproportionate percentage of the city’s arrests. The disparity, as reported by the Huffington Post, extends to the city’s economy; a 2011 study found that black Dane County residents had a 20 percent higher unemployment rate than their white counterparts. Fifty-eight percent of African American children live in poverty, compared to just 5 percent of white children in the county.
Around 2,000 demonstrators packed the Capitol on Monday, chanting a call and response of “What’s his name? Tony Robinson,” along with “All power to the people.” One hundred students walked out of Madison East high school and Sun Prairie high school, Robinson’s alma mater, to join in the call for Kenny’s firing. Some hung banners in the Capitol rotunda that read “Black Lives Matter,” connecting the demonstration to the ongoing movement that exploded after the non-indictments of police officers Darren Wilson and Danny Pantaleo in Ferguson and New York, respectively. Others held a “die-in” in the streets outside, a favorite tactic of the emergent movement.
Even the city’s chief of police, Mike Koval, acknowledged the similarity between the killings in Madison and Ferguson, as well as the disturbing pattern of officer-involved shootings of black men and women. “To the extent that you have, again, a person of color, unarmed, who subsequently loses his life at the hands of the police,” he told reporters on Saturday, “I can’t very well distance myself from that brutal reality.” Kenny — who broke into Robinson’s apartment after hearing a disturbance inside, while responding to a call — has been placed on administrative leave without pay.
Robinson’s family, along with Madison’s Young, Gifted and Black Coalition, have taken a leading role in the protests. Community meetings took place throughout the weekend among faith, activist and youth groups, including the Justified Anger Coalition, the Conversation Mixtape, the African American Council of Churches and the Nehemiah Council for Urban Leadership. The Capitol occupation was part of a planned walk-out across city schools.
“I’m a 13-year-old boy and in four or five more years, I’m 18, and I could be shot by police officers,” said protester Tavion Wells. “So it has to stop somewhere.”