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Racial Tension Draws Parallels, But Madison Is No Ferguson

Madison Mayor Paul Soglin addresses a crowd of protesters on Martin Luther King Boulevard in Madison, Wis., during a protest of the shooting death of Tony Robinson.
Madison Mayor Paul Soglin addresses a crowd of protesters on Martin Luther King Boulevard in Madison, Wis., during a protest of the shooting death of Tony Robinson.

Five days after a white police officer shot and killed 19-year-old Tony Robinson, an unarmed black man, in Madison, Wis., protesters are staging large rallies to demand that charges be filed. Meanwhile, officers are rallying at the Wisconsin State Capitol on behalf of the city's police.

While the community response to the tragedy has been strikingly different from what happened in Ferguson, Mo., last summer, many in Madison say stark racial disparities still played a role in the shooting.

Unlike Wisconsin's largest city, Milwaukee, which has a large African-American population, blacks in Madison make up only eight percent of the 250,000 people who live in the college town. In contrast, Ferguson has only 20,000 residents, but blacks make up two-thirds of the population.

"Many police departments will talk about community policing or will dedicate one officer or one small unit of officers to community policing but Madison's approach has been more pervasive over a longer period of time."

The Rev. Alex Gee grew up in Madison and leads a congregation of mostly African-Americans at Fountain of Life Covenant Church. He says the shooting is a realization of one of his worst fears.

"It's crazy — it's like a hurricane coming to Madison that's not supposed to happen inland," he says.

That hurricane hasn't led to violent protests, looting or the burning of cars and businesses — as happened Ferguson after the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown last August.

Instead, Madison police calmly have stopped traffic and ushered protesters from one rally site to another. On the night Robinson was killed, Police Chief Michael Koval met with the man's family and apologized. The next day Koval immediately identified Matt Kenny as the officer who shot Robinson. An independent state investigation of the shooting began within hours of Robinson's death.

And unlike in Ferguson, where police released a video of Michael Brown allegedly shoplifting, Koval said the fact that Robinson was on probation for armed robbery had no connection to the shooting.

But Gee says better handling of the shooting doesn't mean there aren't racial tensions here in the city.

"What it awakens for the community is — is an old tape that's been played over and over and over in my life, my father's life, my grandfather's life, my great-grandfather's life," he says. "And it's just hard to shake it."

Despite its reputation as a liberal city with good schools, the arrest rate for young black men in Madison is six times higher than it is for their white counterparts. That's also three times higher than the national average.

Erika Nelson studied Madison's racial divide for the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families. She says quality of life for whites is better than the national average, especially when it comes to education. But the opposite is true for Madison's black residents.

"So the notion that a rising tide lifts all boats is not taking place here," she says. "And in fact [Madison's] African-Americans are doing worse."

Even before last week's shooting, the statistics have been a central theme in a series of protests in the past two months calling for changes in the way police interact with Madison's black residents. David Harris teaches law at the University of Pittsburgh and studies racial profiling and police. He says Madison already is using a model aimed at promoting positive relationships between police and minority communities.

"Many police departments will talk about community policing ... will dedicate one officer or one small unit of officers to community policing, but Madison's approach has been more pervasive, and for a longer period of time," he says.

Last week's shooting raises questions about how effective those policies have been. Madison police chief Mike Koval is promising to step up efforts to reach out.

"I've asked my officers to park the car, get out and walk, get out and be visible. Have those courageous conversations as people would allow. Play a game of horse on the basketball court," he says. "We need to show that we are members of the community as well."

And just how Madison's community adjusts its self image may, in part, hinge on the results of a state investigation into whether the shooting was a justified use of lethal force.

Copyright 2020 Wisconsin Public Radio. To see more, visit Wisconsin Public Radio.

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