By Ruth Conniff
On Monday, March 6, the day Scott Walker signed legislation making Wisconsin the nation’s twenty-fifth right-to-work state, a crowd of energized protesters marched on the Capitol building in Madison.
But these were not labor activists, and right to work was not their concern.
Instead, thousands of middle- and high-school students in Madison skipped class and came downtown to protest the shooting, over the weekend, of 19-year-old Tony Robinson by a police officer.
Because Tony Robinson’s death followed on the heels of similar killings around the country and the upheaval in Ferguson, the protests in Madison made the national news. CNN carried the press conference with Robinson’s family live.
The next day, an even larger group of protesters organized by the Young Gifted and Black coalition marched on the Department of Corrections to protest the school-to-prison pipeline, and rallied outside the governor’s mansion.
The disconnect between white progressives and black people in Madison could not have been more vividly on display.
Gone were the mostly white crowds of union members and supporters. There were some sizeable protests of right to work last week, as it worked its way through the state legislature. But by Monday, when the bill became law, there was no sign of the tens of thousands who descended on the Capitol during the Wisconsin Uprising of 2011, with protest placards warning of the destruction of the middle class.
Instead, a crowd of young students of color marched into the rotunda, and dominated the news with their protest of the shooting of one unarmed boy, and what it means about Madison's racial divide.
Tony Robinson died a few blocks from the Willy Street Co-op, a politically correct mainstay of the near east side, in the neighborhood where I grew up, with its distinctly Portlandia vibe.
When Mayor Paul Soglin—the former ant-Vietnam War protester turned mayor-for-life—came out of his office to speak to the Young Gifted and Black crowd through a bullhorn, he mentioned “complexity” and was roundly booed, as Rebecca Kemble reported. “What about Tony?” the crowd yelled.
One young man’s tragic death looms much larger than “complexity.”
For that matter, it loomed a lot larger, this week, than Scott Walker’s union-busting and the rightwing takeover of state politics.
The fact that two groups of people, one black and one white, held separate protests of the powers that be in our city on separate issues this week says a lot about how fragmented our city is.
It has taken white Madison way too long to understand the “justified anger” movement of black Madisonians who are fed up.
As Miles Brown wrote in The Progressive’s February issue, Madison, Wisconsin, is the very worst place in America to be a black child. By every measure—poverty, academic achievement, disproportionate minority confinement, and a culture that treats black children, automatically, as members of an underclass, this is a tough, tough place to be young and black, at the same time it consistently makes top-in-the-nation lists as a place for older white people to live.
As Tony Robinson’s brother put it the family’s press conference, Madison is a city that likes to think of itself as liberal, but has a serious problem with race.
A passing experience I had in my children’s school this week made me think about his point.
It was almost the end of the school day—the day after the #Justice4Tony march on the Department of Corrections, and the rally outside the governor’s mansion.
On this beautiful, warm spring afternoon a happy, multiracial gaggle of kids was high-fiving teachers and stopping for hugs as they got ready to go home.
But in the downstairs hallway, a little African-American boy was being hustled to the time-out room by two grim-faced staff.
As I approached, the little boy looked up pleadingly at one of the women who had him by the hand, marching him swiftly down the hall. He asked softly, “Can I get a drink of water after this?” She nodded curtly. Then he asked another question I could not hear. The answer was no. Whatever he was asking, the response made the little boy begin to cry, and he went limp and lay on the floor, his face twisted in an expression of grief. The staff hauled him to his feet and deposited him in the time-out room. And I continued down the hallway, with an overwhelmingly bad feeling in my gut.
“Mom, that happens all the time!” my daughter told me when I picked her up.
It’s true that she and her sisters have repeatedly complained about seeing kids dragged from class or carried roughly, kicking and screaming, down the hall.
“It happens so much you get used to it. And then you feel bad about getting used to it,” my daughter said.
To her, and to her sisters, the situation is plainly unjust. They target the same kids over and over, she says. If a “good” kid commits a similar offense—rolling her eyes, or talking in class—there is no consequence
I have no doubt my kids will never be taken to the “blue room”—the windowless, solitary cell where kids are temporarily confined when they misbehave. But it’s very existence gives them, and me, the creeps.
My kids’ opinion is that this form of punishment is meted out disproportionately to a certain group of students. And I can’t help but notice that a lot of those kids are black.
But my daughter’s theory is this: “If your older sibling was good, they think you are good, so you can get away with things. If your older sibling was bad, they think you are bad, and you get in trouble for everything. I think they are making those kids turn out bad.”
Obviously there is more to it than that.
There is unconscious bias. There are frayed nerves. There are difficult situations I don't know about.
Since I am telling this tale out of school, I hasten to add that I have seen wonderful teaching and mentoring at my kids’ school, and that it feels, overall, like a great community.
But I remained troubled by that quiet, anguished scene for a long time after I saw it.
And I think it has something to do with the outpouring over Tony Robinson’s death, and the alienation of a large number of young, black people from our white liberal town and the disconnect in our ideas of what constitutes progressive politics.
The last time a big, race-related controversy roiled Madison it was over a proposed charter school for African-American kids, which aimed to close the achievement gap by getting black teachers in front of black kids with a strict, uniforms-and-intensive-instruction approach. I remember watching a white progressive activist speak at the school board meeting where the school was voted down. As he spoke to a large groups of Urban League members wearing t-shirts supporting the school, he reeled off the names of rightwing foundations connected with the charter school’s founder. You could see the reaction of the crowd: So what?
If we are going to get our act together as a community to fight the forces that aim to do us in—injustice, union-busting, defunding our schools, closing off opportunities for ordinary people and making this a more and more unequal and unfair world—we have got to start breaking out of our separate bubbles and communicating.
It can be done.
Outside the governor’s mansion, #Justice4Tony protesters carried signs for the $15 minimum wage—a campaign led by African American workers in Milwaukee.
There was a lot of talk about education and staying in school—for the benefit of the busloads of students who came to the protest.
The crowd was young, black and brown, and passionately focused on the fate of one young man and others like him.
It was a different group from the mostly white crowds of teachers, snowplow drivers, firefighters, and trade unionists who protested Walker’s union-busting. But the signs were not so different.
There is no future for progressive politics without uniting these groups. Their basic desires are completely aligned: better wages, better schools, a shot at a better life for people who are not rich, equality, justice.
As grim as things look in Wisconsin right now, the focus and energy of the Young Gifted and Black coalition is uplifting. It gives you hope to be in a large group of people gathered together, who feel they’ve been pushed too far, and they’ve had enough.