Content note: murder, police brutality
With everything going on, I wanted to cover a murder-by-cop from 2015 that happened here in Madison. Tony Robinson was murdered by Madison PD Officer Matt Kenny - who murdered once before and is still on the force.
I lose my voice a little towards the end of this episode because it's a long one (that and I used my slightly-deeper-from-testosterone voice). Please listen with an open mind and without judgment going in.
There are resources below about racism, police brutality, and more. If you want to sign the petition to get Matt Kenny fired, you can do so here.
PS: right after I posted this, our mayor posted a thank you to police showing she lied through her teeth.
Required reading on anti-racism, white privilege, and being an ally:
On defunding and abolishing police - and their qualified immunity:
How to support black folx:
Rough transcript (will update when able):
Today's case is one of the most upsetting cases of cops murdering black men in recent Wisconsin history.
Williamson Street, on the east side of Madison, is affectionately known to its diverse residents as “Willy Street”. It is lined with an array of progressive shopfronts: vegan cafes, a co-operative grocery store and a social justice center. On March 6, 2015, 18-year-old Javier - one of Tony's two roommates - called the police. The other roommate was not home. Javier had just left home to go to a basketball game and Tony chased the car down the street. He was acting erratically and Javier made sure to tell them that he was unarmed and not violent, but did need assistance.
Earlier in the day Robinson had been out with a small group and had eaten magic mushrooms, according to a friend who was present at the time. The friend, who had known Robinson for five years, said Robinson was inexperienced with hallucinogens and had consumed a large quantity. “He had no clue what he was in for. Realistically, he needed someone to sit him down and tell him that everything was OK,” the friend said. Robinson returned to Willy Street at around 5 pm after playing on the ice at Governor’s Island.
Following Javier's departure, Tony allegedly went across the street and punched someone.
At around 6.30pm, Madison police officer Matt Kenny forced entry into the house - at 1125 Willy St - after apparently hearing a “disturbance” inside the apartment and forced entry. No one else was present in the apartment at that time, raising questions about the nature of the disturbance heard before entry was forced.
The Police said Robinson was acting violently, and had knocked Kenny to the ground. Kenny then shot Tony. Kenny is said to have suffered a concussion and a sprained knee from the assault. The dispatch audio indicates just 18 seconds elapsed in the time between his arrival and shots being heard. Police Chief Koval described the scuffle between the officer and the man as “mutual combat.”
Marshall Erb, a 27-year-old insurance worker who lives in the apartment next door, rushed to the window after he heard the shots. He told the Guardian that “gurgling and choking” noises could be heard, but he couldn’t see from where.
Olga Ennis, a 43-year-old neighbor from across the street, says she saw officer Kenny and another officer dragging the limp, bloody body of the biracial 19-year-old out on to the porch. "I watched them drag him out like a piece of garbage,” she said. Other said cops were standing around Tony, but not acting with any immediacy. Kenny claimed that he performed CPR on Robinson, and Robinson was taken to a hospital but later died. However, Ennis disputes that - “He was put on a gurney and he was lifeless,” she said. “He died at the house. He didn’t die at the hospital.”
“He was in a place in his head that no one else in the world, in the universe could have understood but him,” said the friend, who still seemed traumatised by the events. “You have one person [Robinson] who was so fucking gone, and another man [Kenny] who was trained and capable of reason. And they killed him... He needed help and they just took him.”
“Terrell grew up with no structure,” Turin Carter, his 24-year-old uncle, told the Guardian, explaining that little things such as regular meal times “help mold the child’s identity and help him know right from wrong”.
Tony lived in Stoughton from aged 5 to 9, a suburb to the south of Madison where racism is even more rampant than in Madison proper. In his early teens, Carter says, Robinson effectively became the man of the house. But the instability and the ordinary angst of adolescence were compounded by changing three different high schools before he graduated from Sun Prairie high school, in another largely white community outside of Madison.
Racism is so rampant in Madison that nearly half of Madison’s black students don't graduate on time. Robinson finished early.
After graduation, Tony ran into one legal issue after having participated in a nonviolent home invasion with four others. When he was murdered, he was on probation but also dedicated to turning things around. He had plans to attend a community college and, someday, move to New York.
“I could not imagine somebody’s death impacting my life more profoundly,” Carter said. “There is something so beautiful about a black kid, especially in America, trying to make it against all odds and fucking up so bad, but then actively trying to better his situation and become a better person. He was so close. He was so close.”
Tony's mother, Andrea Irwin, said “My son has never been a violent person, and to die in such a violent, violent way, it baffles me. Whatever you believe about my son, he was a human being and he was my son and... he was a brother and a nephew and a grandson,"
Officer Kenny's history
This was not Officer Kenny's first murder. In 2007, Officer Matt Kenny had shot and killed Ronald Brandon, who was standing on the porch of his own home, holding what was later learned was a pellet gun. Kenny is still on the police force. Chief Koval described this murder as 'suicide by cop' as Ronald had called the police to report someone wielding a gun. He then was sat on his porch where he put his pellet gun up to his head, and then pointed it at police. That's when Kenny fired multiple shots and murdered Brandon. The Dane County district attorney ruled the shooting as justified, and the Madison Police Department awarded Officer Kenny its medal of valor.
The Black Lives Matter
movement has protested Robinson's death.
Some 1,500 protesters, mostly high school students who had staged a walk-out, filled the state capitol on March 9 to protest Robinson's death, yelling the "Hands up, don't shoot
" chant through the capital building. The Wisconsin Department of Justice
investigated the Robinson shooting, as required by Wisconsin law.
Robinson's uncle said that the family had faith that the Division of Criminal Investigation will "handle [the investigation] with integrity". On May 12, 2015, Dane County District Attorney, Ismael Ozanne, announced that Officer Matt Kenny would not face charges for the shooting of Tony Robinson. The shooting was labeled a "lawful use of deadly police force."
Chief Koval said it was “absolutely appropriate” for the protesters to express their feelings, but called for restraint. He consistently was antagonistic in press conferences, not really allowing for any concerns that the police locally had major issues with both racism and overuse of force. In fact, he seemed more worried about how this would reflect on officers at the time and on recruiting. Koval retired suddenly in October 2019, supposedly after pressure from Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway. Rhodes-Conway has been a staunch advocate for speaking out against police brutality in the past. Quite frankly, I think his words - often combative and dismissive - speak for themselves: “To the ‘haters,’ thanks to you as well — for through your unrelenting, unforgiving, desire to make the police the brunt of all of your scorn — I drew strength from your pervasive and persistent bullying,” Koval said.
The Robinson family attorneys insist that forensic and video evidence prove that Kenny lied about what happened the night Robinson was killed. In particular, they say that synchronized audio and video from the incident show that Kenny couldn’t have been at the top of the stairs when he began firing. “The audio and video show that Officer Kenny was at the base of the stairs — it doesn’t take a forensic scientist to see that. He couldn’t be at the top of the stairs for the first shot and then be coming out the [bottom] doorway by the second shot,” says Swaminathan. “That means that Officer Kenny’s story about being punched at the top of the stairs and responding with a shot is untrue.” He adds: “The location of the bullet casings are all at the base of the stairs and outside, indicating the shots were fired at the base of the stairs. There is no high-impact blood spatter anywhere above the halfway point of the stairs — that’s strong evidence that there were no shots fired at the top of the stairs.”
The family attorneys also fault the police department’s internal investigation, saying it was aimed to clear Kenny. Most specifically, Kenny was never questioned. “This is the main problem with the internal investigation: They asked zero questions. This isn’t a case where they asked some questions but didn’t ask other questions,” says Swaminathan. “They asked zero questions of an officer whose story at even first glance, was problematic. That’s a broken internal investigation process.”
In February, 2017, Robinson's family accepted a $3.35 million settlement from the city, to settle a civil rights lawsuit. Of course, the city would not admit guilt.
The family's legal team had placed evidence on a website, now defunct, to share with the public. Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association,says he wishes 1) that the family didn't do this and 2) that the case had gone to trial. “We find it difficult to reconcile the Robinson family’s efforts to try their case in the court of public opinion, after they chose to settle the case and stay out of a court of law,” he says. “If they felt as confident about their claims as they suggest, we would have preferred they hadn’t agreed to a settlement. Which was a choice that Matt Kenny did not have. Matt Kenny would have preferred a trial and the opportunity to clear his name again.”
In a later statement, Chief Koval said that he cannot respond to specific arguments raised by Robinson’s lawyers. “We cannot comment on a one-sided version of facts that will never be subjected to the cross-examination afforded by a trial,” Koval says. “To suggest that you have ‘new’ evidence supplied by experts paid by the plaintiffs should be considered in the context from which it is proffered.”
Kemble says she wants a new internal investigation so that Kenny will be “interviewed directly” and questioned “on the discrepancies between his story and the forensic and scientific evidence. Those are important questions that should be answered.”
Formerly a case manager for a transitional living service working with children, Ton'y mother says she lost her job due to the time she had to take off after her son was killed. She also was forced to move. A local TV station posted audio from a 911 call she made last January when she feared Tony was suicidal. The call included her address and phone number, which were broadcast.
“People would bang on my patio door at night and throw all kinds of stuff at my house,” she says. “I couldn’t sleep. I was scared I couldn’t get to my kids if something happened. So, we got out of there.”
Her second-oldest son now lives in Canada with Irwin’s brother. “I didn’t want him here. I’m very afraid for either of my boys to have an encounter with any police officer in the city because I don’t know what’s going to happen,” she says. “He can create his own friendships there and not have people know everything that’s going on in his life. He’s not gone for good, but he needed to go to grieve.”
In all, the $18,000 collected from the online campaign, “every ounce of it went to his funeral,” she says. “I had $10,000 in savings that’s all gone now. We haven’t even gotten him a headstone for his gravesite yet because we can’t afford it.” Irwin’s also leery of getting a headstone because the gravesite has been vandalized. “They keep stealing things from it, and someone drove over his grave,” she says. “We’ve tried to keep it secret where he was buried because there are so many people against us.”
Andrea recently got married and moved to California to escape the pain Madison caused and continues to cause her.
What has changed?
Despite Rhodes-Conway being against police brutality, she has lied to protesters in saying she can't affect change to measures like curfews that have been set recently.
Acting Police Chief Victor Wahl has released a statement in response to the #8CantWait campaign nationally:
Ban Chokeholds & Strangleholds – MPD does not, nor has it ever, trained officers in chokeholds, strangleholds or any other similar techniques. MPD policy specifically prohibits use of these techniques unless deadly force is justified.
Require De-Escalation – MPD has implemented a policy on de-escalation that requires the use of de-escalation techniques (such as time, distance, communication, etc.) when feasible. All officers were trained in de-escalation when the policy was implemented. New officers are trained in de-escalation and the principle is incorporated into many aspects of officer training (professional communication, tactical response, etc.).
Require Warning Before Shooting – MPD policy requires that "Before using deadly force, officers shall, if reasonably possible, identify themselves and order the subject to desist from unlawful activity." This requirement is reinforced in officer training.
Require Exhausting all Alternatives Before Shooting – MPD policy clearly states that deadly force is "a measure of last resort, only to be employed when an officer reasonably believes all other options have been exhausted or would be ineffective." This principle is emphasized in officer training.
Duty to Intervene – MPD policy and Code of Conduct states, "Any officer present and observing another officer using excessive force, or engaged in unlawful conduct, or in violation of the Madison Police Department's Code of Conduct has an affirmative obligation to intercede and report."
Ban Shooting at Moving Vehicles – MPD policy states that shooting at a moving vehicles is never authorized unless: a person in the vehicle is threatening the officer or another person with deadly force by means other than the vehicle; or the vehicle is being operated in a manner that reasonably appears deliberately intended to strike an officer or other person, and all other reasonable means of defense have been exhausted (or are not present or practical).
Require Comprehensive Reporting – MPD policy requires that any officer who uses physical force, weapons, items, or devices against a person shall complete an original or supplemental report on the incident. This includes pointing a firearm at an individual. Additionally, officers who use "recordable" force must contact a supervisor to review the use of force and enter information about the incident into an internal database. Each use of recordable force is reviewed by the MPD Use of Force Coordinator, and certain levels of force require an initial on-scene supervisory response/review.
Require Use of Force Continuum – The "8cantwait" initiative defines this as restricting "the most severe types of force to the most extreme situations" and "creating clear policy restrictions on the use of each police weapon and tactic." MPD policy and training are consistent with this. Deadly force is clearly restricted to extreme situations, and the use of specific tools/techniques is specifically restricted in policy. MPD officers are trained in a manner consistent with the State of Wisconsin's Defensive and Arrest Tactics (DAAT) curriculum (as required by the State). The DAAT system incorporates an intervention options matrix, with restrictions on specific techniques.
It's important to note that the 8 Can't Wait campaign is NOT endorsed by most black folx, especially black women who have been leading the BLM cause. The following is an update from black organizers:
"While communities across the country mourn the loss of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Jamel Floyd, and so many more Black victims of police murder, Campaign Zero released its 8 Can’t Wait campaign, offering a set of eight reforms they claim would reduce police killings by 72%. As police and prison abolitionists, we believe that this campaign is dangerous and irresponsible, offering a slate of reforms that have already been tried and failed, that mislead a public newly invigorated to the possibilities of police and prison abolition, and that do not reflect the needs of criminalized communities.
We honor the work of abolitionists who have come before us, and those who organize now. A better world is possible. We refuse to allow the blatant co-optation of decades of abolitionist organizing toward reformist ends that erases the work of Black feminist theorists. As the abolitionist organization Critical Resistance recently noted, 8 Can’t Wait will merely “improve policing’s war on us.” Additionally, many abolitionists have already debunked the 8 Can’t Wait campaign’s claims, assumptions, and faulty science.
Abolition can’t wait."
A protest organized by Freedom Inc, Urban Triage, and the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) started off the protests here in Madison. Sawyer Johnson with recently stated at the first protest that “We have a white queer mayor...as a fellow white queer person, I got to have a conversation with her. We refuse to denounce any black, youth leader that is continuing to lead the rebellion. Because that’s what it is. We care more about black lives than Urban Outfitters getting tagged. It is clear to us that Madison’s liberalism only masks the true white supremacy nature of capitalism. Not only does Matt Kenny still have his job, he’s training [police] on meditation.”
The founder of Urban Triage, Brandi Grayson, said earlier this week: “Some of us are upset at the looting. I get it. Some of us are upset about the property. I get it. But nobody is offering solutions or policy change...What was offered? Tear gas, More people showed up and donated to businesses, who have insurance, than donated to the cause. If you are really about black liberation, we need you to put your money where your mouth is.”
She also says several years of leading peaceful protests over the police shooting of 19-year-old Tony Robinson, along with efforts to stop the construction of a new Dane County jail and remove police from schools, have given black youth the tools to create something new. “[These protests] really were spontaneous and led by the youth. They have been paying attention to the organized protests that happened during the day [after Floyd’s death]. And you can see them using the same tools and strategies we use to direct the crowd and refocus the crowd. It’s powerful as hell,” says Grayson. “It’s like the youth is just waiting to be led. They just needed an example. They just needed a model and they are doing it.”
“This is the greatest revolution since MLK was assassinated,” declared a young man on the mic at one protest. “Think about that. This is in every state.... This is international.” They're right! All 50 states in addition to 18 countries have participated in BLM marches.
Aaliyah Grey, a 15-year-old Madison high school student, says she feels an obligation to her father.
“I'm scared that he’s gonna walk out the house, the police are gonna think he did something wrong, and he's gonna get shot,” says Grey, who marched in the rain June 2 at a protest that ended without any violence downtown. “That's why I'm out here. I'm out here for him. I’m out here so my little sister will not have to grow up without a father.”
Arrieonna Cargel, another black teenager from Madison, says it feels like “people don't understand our pain and the struggles.”
“I’m here to end police brutality,” says Cargel. “I’m willing to risk my life for people who have lost theirs.”
Tamaya Travis says the killing of Floyd is just the latest “horrific example” of injustice and indignities felt routinely by black youth in America.
“We shouldn't be scared to go out in public. We can't hang out in groups because they think we're a gang. We shouldn't be scared to get pulled over,” says Travis, a black high school student from Madison. “We shouldn't be scared to talk to the police when we need something. But we're terrified because every time we do, our lives might be in danger. Because even three simple words — ‘I can't breathe’ — is not respected.”
Jay, an 18-year-old graduate of Madison Memorial, says he’s come out to protest at night to “finally see something positive happen. Black people are the most hated people alive. We have been for hundreds of years. Wouldn’t you be mad if you were me?” asks Jay. “There's a reason why we feel like this. There's a reason why we're upset. Our entire lives we have grown up at a disadvantage. There's no such thing as a peaceful protest. You don't get nothing out of that. We've been doing that for 60 years or longer and barely anything has changed,” he adds. “Barely anybody is hearing our voice. Barely anybody is coming up and speaking out on the fuckery that's going on all the time.”
The youth organizers use call and response chants to stop fights, weed out troublemakers, and prevent crowd panic. “Don’t start no shit, won’t be no shit” and “stay together” are common refrains if there’s a whiff of trouble. The method has stopped violent behavior without a single cop in sight.
The protests also feature drills in case police try to break up the protest or bad actors try to infiltrate. One of these methods is asking white allies to form a human chain around protesters of color.
“We aren’t asking you to take a bullet for us,” said one of the black organizers over the sound system while directing white protesters. “We just know that the police won’t shoot you...we are all on the same side.”
Stacii and a few friends, who have attended several of the late-night protests, show up with tennis rackets to “swat tear gas canisters” if needed.
“As a white ally, I am there to listen but to be ready to put my body between the police and people of color who are peacefully protesting,” Stacii tells Isthmus. “Having protective gear is vital just in case.”
A white man, who looks about 20 years older than most of the people in the crowd, walks around with a cart full of snacks.
“There are supply houses across the isthmus. There’s a group, about 100 of us, who communicate covertly to make sure the youth have everything they need. We have a whole medic team, too,” says the man. “Our job is support, stay out of the way.”
After a number of days and night launching tear gas - which, btw, violates the Geneva Convention - in addition to flash grenades and projectiles at protesters, things have quieted down.
Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, too, has attempted to distinguish the masses of peaceful protesters from small groups that police witnessed June 1 making molotov cocktails, wielding baseball bats, and setting off fireworks near the crowd. She has repeatedly praised several daytime demonstrations organized by Freedom Inc., Urban Triage and the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) following the death of Floyd.
But Sawyer Johnson, a member of PSL, rejected the mayor’s support at a June 1 daytime rally,
saying the groups side unequivocally with black youth — some of whom may have looted — and consider the criminal activity part of an effort “to lead the rebellion.”
Rhodes-Conway still pleaded in a June 2 statement for the nighttime demonstrations to end.
“Please stay home tonight. I welcome protests — particularly in the daytime — but I do not want legitimate protests to continue to provide cover for this violent, unacceptable behavior,” said the mayor. “I understand anger, but there is no excuse for putting lives in danger, and that is what is happening. Again — please stay home tonight, and tomorrow night.”
Thankfully, starting June 3, police were invisible downtown — keeping watch of the protest from surveillance cameras and through dark windows in buildings overlooking the demonstrations. Police strike teams continue to stand ready in tactical gear inside the City County Building and at the Capitol but have not been deployed recently.
Ciara says organizers “haven’t put an end date on justice” and the demonstrations will continue until their demands are met. “We demand that Matt Kenny be fired and that the community has control over the police. The community should be in charge of investigating police violence — not other cops. We have no plans on stopping until then.”
I'm here to tell you an uncomfortable truth: all white people are racist. Hear me out - I'm white. I hate knowing that I'm involved in racism. The reality is, though, that I benefit greatly from my porcelain skin in a way that folx who are BIPOC - black and brown and indigenous and people of color - will never experience. Systems are not built to oppress me on the basis of my race. That doesn't mean my life isn't hard - all it means is my skin color isn't part of that difficulty.
Those of us who are white must see that recognizing white privilege doesn't mean we're awful people. As James Baldwin, a noted black queer author, once said, " Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.." We cannot change the oppressive systems that exist until we see them for what they are. Right now, that means listening to black folx specifically and following their lead. It means that, if we can, we should be out there protecting black folx with our white privilege, lifting up their voices, and supporting them however we can. It also means not tone policing or automatically deciding that rioting isn't from BLM as a movement. The notion of agitators from the outside coming into cities has been used for eons to explain away the momentum that civil rights work has picked up, and we do folx a disservice by believing that lie.
Instead, we must recognize that property isn't worth anywhere near as much as human life.
When I call you in or out, either on this pod or in other ways we interact, I do it because I care about you. I'm not alone in this. Those who point out issues? We do it because we want to help you grow and improve. We want you to rise up to where we all should be right now, to be on the right side of humanity and history - and we know you can be. This is especially true when fellow white folx call you out on racism-related issues. We know that you can find your way to anti-racist work. We believe in you because, frankly, we wouldn't be your friends if we didn't.
That emotional investment? That's love. If people didn't care, they'd probably just unfriend or block you and move on.
When you're called in or out? Please don't offer false platitudes like thanking folx without following up with action. Be transparent and share the work you're doing to learn and listen so that there is accountability. We all have to do better, and part of that involves holding each other to that. Growth isn't comfortable. It pushes our limits, reminds us we're human, and points out our flaws. It reminds us that we have work to do, and that we actively need to follow through with that work. We can't grow in comfort, though - just like, say, napping for a weekend doesn't produce any change in the world. We still have to meet it, sit with it, and process how to move forward.
In addition to sources for the information in this article, I'm putting in a list of anti-racism resources. Let's work on learning and doing better. If you want to be a part of a group where we can work on that, there's a FB group for this podcast. Come join it and let's work on being anti-racist together.