I have had so many conflicting thoughts since I heard that Tony Robinson was shot and killed by a Madison Police Officer. My first thought was, “no, not again. Please not in our city.” My second thought was a much more depressing one. It was resignation. Attendance at Madison's first "Writers for Justice" event last Saturday, March 28th, finally gave me space to write about it.
When I first ran for alder, in 2007, creating awareness about “two Madison’s” and finding solutions to help us converge upon a path toward a more just and unified city was my motivation for running. “Two Madison’s” has now become the rallying cry of many elected representatives. Watching and listening as Madison public officials finally talk about equal opportunity, race issues, incarceration rates, homelessness, living wages, and justice as real issues that exist in our community has given me a sense of hope.
But then I think back to late night council debates where we declared war on homeless people instead of homelessness, where we closed entertainment venues that were frequented by people of color, where we increased bus fares, failed to raise the minimum wage or pass paid sick leave, and, finally, where we added 30 police officers in an emotional, politically expedient but not well thought out response to one neighborhood locked in fear of an “emerging, Chicago-based criminal element.” So despite our improving rhetoric, there remains a canyon between what we say and what we do.
My thoughts draw back to a wider angle as I seek to view the events nationally or even globally. And when I do that, I remember this is how it has always been. From serfs to slavery to Jim Crow, the poor, the marginalized, and people of color have been systematically mistreated, lynched, burned, dehumanized, and left to whither on the vine with relatively little in the way of guilt, shame, or a cultural rebuke by the privileged who have always and continue to benefit from systems of oppression.
My next thought was to look at more recent history. Real change grew from the seeds of the civil rights movement a half century ago, but it should not be a surprise that these issues still haunt us (sadly, in both memory and reality) as they are rooted in the consciousness of a nation still a mere instant removed from slavery or societally sanctioned race based discrimination. And so, as I look back from a historical perspective, I find myself unsurprised.
October 14th, 1982 was a watershed moment: the day that Ronald Reagan called drugs a threat to national security and declared war upon them. That one day, arguably more than any other in the constantly evolving history of our nation, profoundly changed everything that has happened since. If we consider the ripple effects of that day along with our societal unwillingness to address the root causes of racism, crime, and intergenerational poverty, combined with our increasing fascination with violence and guns and the militarization of our police forces, Tony Robinson’s death shouldn’t surprise us. Nor should the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Ezell Ford, or the countless others that don’t get national media attention or often do not even get reported.
When we string racism, poverty, drug wars, media coverage, the prevalence of guns, three strikes legislation, a corrections system that prioritizes everything but, and militarized police forces together, it seems predictable that shootings like these are so common.
I am not sure our species has ever known true justice, so defining it is a certainly a challenge. One way to approach a definition is to look at another word with which we have more familiarity: injustice. A single mom working three jobs at minimum wage and not having money to house or feed her children; the countless number of homeless people who apply for job after job and cannot find work; an ex-offender who has served his time and cannot even get a job interview or find an apartment; the redlining policies of the last generation that robbed African Americans of a fair chance at economic equality; or a black man getting discriminated against, profiled, or shot and killed because of the color of his skin – all are situations that most can agree feel at some level like an absence of justice.
But this story is not about injustice in all its manifestations. This story is about police killing unarmed black men. In particular, this is my attempt to make sense of the death of a 19-year old boy on Williamson Street in Madison, Wisconsin. I remember my two hour conversation with Madison Police Chief Noble Wray, during a council budget debate, over whether it made sense to add 30 new police rather than investing those dollars in measures that could attack the root causes of crime. I remember the numerous interactions I had with him and his officers during my six years in office. I always came away with the same conclusion: the Madison Police Department was, in all likelihood, about as good as it gets when it comes to policing in the 21st century United States.
They believe in community policing and neighborhood officers and most of the concepts necessary to build trust in challenged areas. Despite that, a common reaction of struggling, mostly minority neighborhoods in Madison following the Tony Robinson shooting? That they would be better off without police. We have not even approached the starting gate if the people most likely to encounter police, and those most likely to need their assistance, have that belief.
Police Officers have incredibly difficult jobs in a frightening society filled with guns and people with the capacity for violent behavior. And that is why this issue will never be resolved if it is somehow over-simplified into merely white against black, police against general public, or armed against unarmed.
In order to make real progress, we must deal with the root causes of everything behind these realities: from media coverage to race relations to the drug war to gun control to incarceration techniques. But if we want to table all those massive changes for a moment, and zoom into ground zero on the police issue itself, then there is really little choice in what we need to do: demilitarize our police forces, transform police officers into members of the community, prioritize relationships and trust building with the people they represent, and make sure police departments know their primary purpose is to value and honor and dignify every human with whom they have contact.
Officers should be hired, trained, promoted, and rewarded to that end. As challenging as their jobs are, we simply must have police that honor all the people for whom they work. If there is a shooting, it should always be due to a circumstance that left the officer no other choice. None. If there is a killing, it must be because deadly force was the only option. And both the justification and circumstances behind all shootings must be run through the transparent filter of sunlight for the entire community to see. Because not only should police shootings of unarmed citizens be so rare as to be almost unheard of, but in the rare instance where they do occur, there should be one and only one priority: ensuring that the community does not lose faith and trust in its police. We need to expand beyond community policing and neighborhood officers: we need to evolve to a place where the term police officer is synonymous with peace officer.
Imagine a Madison where everyone in our City sees MPD as an active and engaged part of the solution. While the march toward actual justice will sadly require a matrix of complicated choreography, eliminating police killings of unarmed black men would represent a pretty profound first step.