The drums began beating on Friday, March 6, shortly after 6:30 p.m. when Tony Robinson was shot dead in an apartment on Willy Street in Madison. The drums went straight into the ears of those who wanted to hear. African drums are how ancient Africans communicated messages across long distances. When captured Africans were chained and forced into slavery in America, they carved the drums again to sound the truth across plantations, tell what was really happening. Drums were outlawed and the hands of the drummers were cut off so that they could never communicate again. The modern drums are telephones and social media, which alerted some immediately Friday night and they gathered, with signs in hands, to protest the death of another young man at the hands of police.
The first I heard of the death of 19-year-old Tony Robinson was an early Saturday morning telephone call from a black man, who asked me, “Have you heard the news?” Then came a later conversation with a black woman, who questioned, “Why would anyone be shot several times when police have stun guns?” Another call came in from a black mother who has a black son on the Madison police force. She shared that she knew Friday night because her off-duty son was with her when he was telephoned by a police officer and told about the death. I asked her, “Why did they call him when he was off duty?” She replied, “They were spreading the word.” In everyone’s conversation were bits and pieces of information, such as he was shot five times, he was shot in the chest, he was young, and he didn’t have a gun or a weapon. All these pieces have sharp, jagged edges that cut into our minds the thought that what happened in Ferguson has now happened in Madison.
After Michael Brown was shot to death in Ferguson, Mo., and he and others were unjustly killed in my understanding of justice and police procedure, I heard the drums sounding across south Madison as people discussed, “Why don’t we work now to make sure that this doesn’t happen in our community, and what can we do in partnership with Madison police so that everyone lives?” The officer-involved deaths of Brown, Eric Garner in New York City and Dontre Hamilton in Milwaukee have now come to Madison in an officer-involved death of a young, nonwhite man. I don’t have the details, or know what is true or not, and the majority of people in Madison don’t have precise information either. We know one undeniable fact from the drums beating in Madison: A young man is dead.
Most will pause in their judgments, for a little while, to watch carefully to see how Police Chief Mike Koval handles this tragedy. It is always a tragedy when a young person dies. The city of Madison knows that it is an integral part of Chief Koval’s job to defend police officers and police procedures. Now we will all witness together whether he will be fair and also serve the African-American community with integrity and justice. It will be difficult for him to balance between the police union, which seems never to admit that officers do wrong, and between those who think that officers only do wrong. Neither is true or accurate.
As this case unfolds, let our city offer more programs and jobs for teenagers, especially to replace the summer University of Wisconsin-Madison programs for middle and high school students that were all cut, with the exception of College for Kids. I long for a South Madison Arts Center to engage our youth and hone their talent for a better future. Let the mayoral candidates offer real solutions to racial and economic disparities that will impact today and not years in the future. Most of all, let us send condolences to the family of Tony Robinson, because he was more than a name to them — he was loved.