Students from throughout Madison left school and took their rage, sorrow and demands to the city’s power centers on Monday, rocking the state Capitol rotunda with chants of “Justice for Tony” then demanding a meeting with Mayor Paul Soglin and Police Chief Mike Koval while massed outside the City-County Building.
In loud, well-choreographed voices, they vowed to press public officials and police for consequences in the death last Friday night of Tony Robinson, an unarmed 19-year-old shot by a police officer after an altercation on the Near East Side.
“We demand that the officer who shot our brother be arrested,” the group of 1,500 young people chanted in call-and-response outside the City-County Building. The group included students of all races, although most were black. They came from Sun Prairie High School — where Robinson graduated last spring — plus all four traditional Madison high schools, and they included middle school and college students.
On Monday evening, about 100 people from teens to the elderly crowded into a small room for a previously scheduled meeting of the city’s Police and Fire Commission to voice sadness, concern and outrage — as well as constructive suggestions on policing and support of the black community.
The roving protests — perhaps the largest in the Capitol rotunda since the Act 10 rallies of 2011 — highlighted the third full day of angry reactions after Robinson was shot by Madison veteran police officer Matt Kenny. Police say Robinson, of Madison, assaulted Kenny, 45, inside a second-floor apartment at 1125 Williamson St. before Kenny fatally shot Robinson. Kenny suffered minor injuries, police said.
Kenny had responded to a call about a man who had assaulted another person. The initial call involved someone “yelling and jumping in front of cars.”
Few other details have been released. The state Division of Criminal Investigation is leading the inquiry into the shooting as part of a state law requiring outside investigation of all officer-involved deaths.
Koval wasn’t in his office when the protesters came, but in a blog post he sought forgiveness from the Robinson family and asked for patience and calm as the investigations continue.
Soglin, who rose to prominence in the late 1960s as a Vietnam War protester, met with students and said at a press conference that he wanted to see Madison set a standard for how communities respond to controversial police shootings.
Friends in mourning
Just after Madison West High School basketball player Juwun Pettigrew walked through his front door after a Friday night loss to Madison East, his mother told him: Tony was dead.
Across town at about the same time, La Follette High School freshman Donta Latham learned the news on Facebook.
Both were friends of Robinson. By Monday they said they were ready to join hundreds of other students to protest.
“Tony was like a brother to me,” said Latham, 15.
For Pettigrew, 17, Robinson was a good friend he played alongside on the basketball court.
Latham and Pettigrew said Monday’s rally was about finding justice for their friend.
The student protesters started at points throughout the city, including Madison East and UW-Madison, before converging at the Capitol steps, marching into the building with chants of “What’s his name? Tony Robinson!” and “I believe that we will win.”
Pettigrew said Robinson’s death was shocking but not surprising – Pettigrew’s uncle was shot and killed by police in Milwaukee when he was 22. He said he has tried to stick with sports and to stay out of trouble to avoid finding himself in dangerous situations.
The message to youths like Pettigrew and Latham during Monday’s rally was to fight to change what demonstrators described as institutional racism that unfairly targets black males.
Support from schools
Madison School District officials embraced the students’ rally by asking community leaders to come to the Capitol to ensure the students remained safe. They also provided seven buses for transportation back to school after the rally.
Students were not disciplined for attending, and could be excused by their parents, said district spokeswoman Rachel Strauch-Nelson. Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham and other district officials were at the rally.
“In general, we thought it was important that if students chose to demonstrate, that we ensure they are safe and provide positive adult presence to support our students as they express their concerns, grief and questions,” said Strauch-Nelson.
The district also provided guidance on how to respond to student concerns and complex conversations around race and equity, and had additional staff at schools on Monday, she said.
Brandi Grayson of the Young Gifted and Black Coalition said the massive crowd assembled to demand that Kenny be arrested. Police will say Kenny was following protocol, she said, “but we are here to say that are sick of protocols.”
At Monday night’s meeting, Police and Fire Commission President Fabiola Hamdan said the panel was limited in its ability to discuss concerns because it must remain neutral for any case that may come before it involving an officer.
But for more than two hours in a packed, stuffy room, the commission heard sometimes emotional, personal stories of loss and interaction with police, concerns about slandering Robinson’s reputation, offers to help police better understand the black community, and chants of “What’s his name? Tony Robinson,” and “All power to the people.”
“I don’t want to be the next statistic. Something’s got to change,” Memorial student Ryaah Wyatt said. “My life doesn’t have to be over at 19.”