Since I’ve been in Madison, I’ve participated in lots of protests. I’ve also been an observer of many. Today’s was unique. I was at Grace this afternoon during the press conference when the DA announced he wouldn’t be pressing charges in the shooting death of Tony Robinson.
I had committed to opening Grace to make it available for people who wanted to pray, so it wasn’t until after the press conference was over, and others had come to be a presence at Grace that I made my way across the square over to the house where Tony was shot, to gather with other clergy and people to stand vigil before our announced march downtown to the Courthouse and to the Capitol.
As I walked across the square, it was eerily quiet. There was little vehicular traffic and almost no pedestrians. The TV satellite trucks were still parked near the City-County building but almost no one was around. It was more like a day in February than in May.
While walking, I thought about Tony’s death, the deep racial disparities in our community (about which I’ve written repeatedly), the militarization of the police. I also thought about all those others who have died over the past year: Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Natasha McKenna–those whose names we know, and all those who have died without their stories becoming national media sensations.
I was also aware of the fear in our community–fear of violence, riots, of what might happen. I knew there was a great deal of fear–fear that this protest or ones planned for tomorrow might become violent, fear of police response to a peaceful protest, fear that the injustice that has continued unabated and unaddressed in our society for so long will finally come to light and demand redress.
When I arrived at the meeting place, I saw lots of familiar faces of clergy I knew, many from protests in earlier years. But there were also many I didn’t know–most of the African-American clergy, for example. There were also lay people. As time went on and more people gathered, I saw more familiar faces, and met many unfamiliar ones.
Tony Robinson’s death has had a number of interesting results in our community. In addition to the pain and grief it unleashed, it laid bare for all to see, the racial injustice and disparities that lie at the heart of our city and county. It has put under intense scrutiny the progressive patina that generations of progressive Madisonians have burnished and revealed the rot that lies underneath it. It has showed us that we are not all that different from Ferguson, or Cleveland, or North Charleston, or Baltimore.
But it has had other, positive consequences. It has brought to public awareness and authority a group of eloquent and gifted African-American leadership–Michael Johnson, Everett Mitchell, Alex Gee, Jr., and the members of Young, Gifted and Black. It has given voice to an even younger generation of African-American leaders, many still in their teens, who are articulate, relentless in their pursuit of justice, and committed to non-violence.
And for the first time in decades, it has brought together clergy from across racial divides and denominational divides, clergy who are committed to work to remind our city and county of the moral obligation to end the racial disparities and oppression in our community, to demand accountability from our police forces and to demand justice.
I was honored to accompany David Couper on much of our walk today. Now an Episcopal priest, Couper was Madison’s Chief of Police for many years. While we were walking, he commented on police tactics. He also pointed out the place where an officer was shot while he was chief. He writes extensively on his blog Improving Police about how policing needs to change and can change. It was heart-breaking to listen to him talk about what is going wrong in Madison right now.
But there are some things going right. We have a unique opportunity, in the midst of this tragedy and injustice, to work for a better, a new community. We can only do it if we break down the fear that divides us–racially, politically, religiously, the fear between police and civilians, too. We can also do it only if we come together, committed to work for a bette, more just, new community where racial disparities and inequities are overcome.
There is a great deal to do; a great deal that stands in our way. In spite of the fear, sadness, grief, and anger today, there is hope. There are also signs of new community.
The clergy who came together for today’s vigil and rally issued a letter expressing our hopes for justice and our commitment to work for equity and a less-militarized police force. We have committed to work together and to bring our communities of faith together and to continue to voice our demand for moral change in our community. Let us pray that from the death of Tony Robinson, new life, new hope, justice will grow forth.
Only then can we rest. Only then can our marches end. For until justice comes forth, the blood on the pavement of Willy Street will continue to cry out.