The tragic shooting of an unarmed 19-year old black male, by a police officer in Madison, Wisconsin Friday evening, set off protests in the city, with demonstrators holding “Black Lives Matter” signs. Around one hundred protesters gathered at the Madison City County building chanting slogans like, “Who can you trust? Not the police,” in front of a phalanx of officers.
The officer-involved shooting came just days after a Department of Justice Report highlighted police abuses in Ferguson, Missouri, where 18-year old Michael Brown was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson. Although Wilson was exonerated of wrongdoing, the Justice Department found the city of Ferguson exhibited a pattern of racist police practices.
On Friday morning, President Obama noted that the abuses in Ferguson, while not exactly typical, were not an “isolated incident”, either. The evening shooting of 19-year old Tony Robinson in Madison, perhaps emphasized Obama’s point.
The details in the Madison incident are still sketchy, but police officer Matt Kenny shot and killed Robinson after the young man allegedly assaulted him. Robinson was unarmed. In contrast to the seemingly unrepentant police chief in Ferguson, Madison Police Chief Mike Koval sounded a tone of remorse and concern, stating:
He was unarmed. That’s going to make this all the more complicated for the investigators, for the public to accept.
The Police Chief added, that for those who wanted to protest the killing, the Police Department would work to:
defend, facilitate, foster those First Amendment rights of assembly and freedom of speech.
The officer who shot Tony Robinson was also involved in a prior fatal police shooting. In 2007, Officer Matt Kenny and two other officers were present, when one of them killed 48-year-old Ronald Brandon on his front steps after Brandon apparently pointed a pellet gun at the officers. Multiple shots were fired, although it isn’t clear which officer shot Brandon. All three officers were cleared in that shooting incident. Brandon was white.
A community meeting in Madison, Saturday evening, drew about a hundred people. Whatever the facts of this specific incident turn out to be, Wisconsin has the highest incarceration rate in the nation, for African-American males. For that reason, it is easy to see how this latest incident could spark community uproar. To people of color and all people of conscience, each individual police killing of a young black male, speaks to a larger pattern of injustice. While it can be easy to quibble about the specifics of each case, there can be no argument that, as a system, American law enforcement is in need of drastic reform.