“Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.” — Albert Einstein
It only seems appropriate that on this day, Pi Day, March 14, 2015, I begin this post with a quote from Albert Einstein. Today is also his birthday, and this year there is a special significance. Pi (π) is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. This year, today’s date is the first five digits of π, 3-14-15.
Here in Madison, Wisconsin there is a more important significance to this day. It is the memorial service for a 19-year-old young man, Tony Robinson, who was fatally shot by a Madison police officer following his alleged erratic and abusive behavior which prompted his concerned friends and neighbors to call 911 for help.
Tony was biracial, the police officer, white. Immediately following the police call and shooting, concerned citizens, neighbors, Tony’s friends, fellow students and family, members of the Young, Gifted, and Black (YGB) youth group, and clergy filled the street and a week of protests, investigation, and dialogues between family, the police, youth mentors, the mayor, and the clergy began in private, at the State Capitol, the City-County Building, in churches, the streets and during public press conferences.
Black Lives Matter. The banner was carried by YGB and their coalition of supporters throughout the week, in the east side neighborhood where Tony lived and was shot and killed; down East Washington Avenue to the Capitol, to the steps and inside the rotunda of the State Capitol. Students from the area high schools left classrooms to protest the loss of another young life. Black churches held services and ministers comforted the family and grieving community, while rallying for change.
Michael Johnson, a youth mentor and CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County, became an early spokesperson for community concerns, an advocate for change in how the police interact and intervene with minority communities and a bridge-builder between protesters, the Robinson family and the police department.
Mike Koval, City of Madison Police Chief, immediately met with and apologized to the family after Michael Johnson reached out to him early in the morning following Robinson’s death. Koval chose to not further victimize Robinson by addressing questions about Tony’s arrest record. The police call and the shooting that followed are being investigated by an independent body, the Department of Justice and the State Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI).
Later in the past week, there was a separate rally in support of Madison’s police department and Matt Kenny, the officer who fatally shot Robinson. Kenny is currently on administrative leave during the investigation. Kenny is a well-respected, 12-year veteran of the force. What began the week as #fergusontoMadison, linking the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri to Madison’s shooting has evolved into bridge-building, dialogues, and commitment to change. The weeks of violent protests and looting in Ferguson that followed the shooting and finally the outcome of the investigation clearing the officer are in sharp contrast to the peaceful protests here.
Members of Robinson’s family began publicly speaking to the community, including Tony’s mother and father, aunts, cousins and uncle, Turin Carter, “We trust them (the Madison police and DCI) to handle this with integrity,” told a group of reporters standing outside the home where Robinson was killed, with relatives, including the teen’s mother, Andrea Irwin, and father Tony Robinson Sr., standing behind him. The family encourages people to attend the memorial service today. “Honestly, the more people that come to show respect, the better we feel as a result,” said Carter.
The service for Tony Robinson is Saturday, March 14th, at Madison East High School with the visitation from 2 – 3:30 p.m., followed by the funeral at 4 p.m.
On a personal note, it has also been a week where I’ve had to take inventory of and face my own biases. I remember back in 1968 when I attended my first college class, a large lecture, Intro to Sociology 101, the instructor’s first question was, “ Who here is free of prejudice?” Mostly everyone (mostly white) raised their hands. These many years later I don’t remember the instructor’s name, but I do remember what she said next, “If someone says they are free of bias, I would advise you to quickly run in the other direction.” Her point was simple: We all have prejudices and we need to face and understand them before change can occur, first in our individual thinking and behavior, and then as a community.
This week I’ve had to pause before I’ve made comments on social media or with friends and colleagues. Emotions run high during tragedies like Tony Robinson’s death and the subsequent responsibility we all share as a community. It’s sometimes easy to place blame on others, or to take sides, to make someone the villain and someone the victim.
It’s tempting to look at things in black and white (and people too), as good or evil. What I’ve been reminded of this week is it’s not so simple. It requires conversations and connections, understanding and bridge-building, shared responsibility for the causes and the solutions, and lastly though I live in a progressive, liberal community in Madison, Wisconsin, there continue to be inequities between races, socio-economic groups, between men and women, youth and adults, and lawbreakers and peacekeepers.
Like the youth that filled the streets this week in peaceful protest in Madison, to the grieving Robinson family and Tony’s friends and fellow students, the Madison Police department led by Mike Koval, to the youth mentors, including the eloquent Michael Johnson and members of clergy and their churches, and the Mayor of Madison, Paul Soglin, let’s stand together and create change. Yes, Black Lives Matter, let’s remove the differences in treatment and inequities that remain between black and white, young and old, women and men, and the 1% and the 99%. Let’s extend equal protections under the law and civil rights to all people.
Rest in peace, Tony Robinson. Your life mattered. You will not be forgotten.