Yesterday my daughter and hundreds of her classmates at Madison East High School walked out of school and marched nearly three miles to the Wisconsin State Capitol in honor of Tony Robinson, the nineteen-year old mixed race boy who was shot five times in the chest and killed by a police officer last Friday night.
Tony’s closest friends are seniors at East who came up with the idea to demonstrate their grief, anger and outrage by marching to the Capitol and then to the City County building to demand justice for their friend.
Many of these are the same kids who walked out of school four years ago to support their teachers when Governor Scott Walker announced his plans to effectively eliminate collective bargaining for public workers. That walk-out emboldened kids from other city high schools to do the same the following day, and together with students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, they kicked off the two-and-a-half-week occupation of the Capitol.
So it came naturally to this group of friends to respond to the tragic, violent death of Tony Robinson with direct action: rallies, vigils, and yesterday’s march.
About fifty students from Sun Prairie High School, from which Tony had recently graduated, walked out and joined the East High students in their march.
The students were supported by groups of parents, school administrators, and the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition, which has been demonstrating in the streets and lobbying local governmental bodies against building a new jail and for the release from prison of people who have been arrested for crimes of poverty.
But it was clearly the students who were leading the action.
Just before the march began, one East High administrator told the kids, “remember, stay on the sidewalk!” Seconds later they walked into traffic and took over all six lanes of East Washington Avenue, the main artery into the city from the northeast.
Adults from the community formed a line behind the marchers to provide a cushion of space between the students and the long line of vehicles piling up behind them, while school administrators, including the Madison Metropolitan School District Superintendent, followed the march from the sidewalk.
The Young Gifted and Black Coalition provided a Black Lives Matter banner and megaphones, and they led the group in chants and moments of silence at various points along the way.
About five blocks into the march, a crowd of excited middle school kids crested a hill and ran toward their high school friends. The high schoolers responded by running toward and embracing the younger kids in an highly-charged, emotional moment.
Now at least five hundred strong, the march detoured off E. Washington onto Williamson St. to the site of Tony’s killing. Jack Spaulding, one of Tony’s best friends, said the fact that Tony was killed in his neighborhood by the police, “that are supposed to protect me, scares the living shit out of me and I’m not gonna stand for this shit anymore. That’s why we’re out here today.” He told them, “I love each and every one of y’all for coming out here. Thank you!”
When they reached the Capitol, more than a thousand other kids from Madison’s four other high schools were already inside the rotunda. The East High contingent was greeted with cheers and the chant, “What’s his name? Tony Robinson!”
Traditional interscholastic rivalries were set aside as the kids of all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds joined together in their public expression of grief and outrage at the killing of an unarmed teenager in the community. Their focus and shared sense of purpose electrified the Capitol. Afterwards, I spoke with kids who said the protest gave them a sense of agency and empowerment.
Much of the group then marched over to the City County building to seek an audience with the Chief of Police and the Mayor. When Mayor Paul Soglin came out, and spoke to them briefly about the complexities of the issues surrounding “the death of Anthony Robinson,” the kids cried, “Murder!” They would not take “complexity” for an answer, and kept demanding, “What about Tony?”
Over the years I’ve noticed that my kids’ generation seems to value friendship, love, and loyalty much more than my cohort did growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. Yesterday I saw the fierceness of that love and loyalty embodied in the non-violent and highly disciplined expression of grief and outrage over the killing of one of their own.
Against the advice of many adults in the community, thousands of middle and high school students managed to pull off multiple acts of civil disobedience in honor of Tony Robinson, and all without incident. Their willingness to take a risk and fight for justice in this way challenges us adults not only to make better decisions, but to take action on our professed values and hold ourselves accountable for the outcomes.
On the night before the walk-out, Rev. Alex Gee, pastor at Fountain of Life Covenant Church, spoke at a vigil for Tony Robinson. “Some of us get old and tired and frustrated, but these young folks, multiethnic, multicultural, beautiful, are taking to the streets,” he said. “And I am so happy that I can believe our future can be different, not because of those who are in place, but because of those who are coming up behind us.”
Having witnessed the love, creativity, empathy and determined focus of Tony Robinson’s friends and supporters in action, I couldn’t agree more.