UPDATED: Almost 2,000 university, high school and middle school students walked out of their classes on March 9 to join a demonstration against the fatal police shooting of unarmed biracial teen Tony Robinson in the state capital.
Students also amassed in the Capitol rotunda, waving signs and chanting, “Black lives matter,” which has become a standard slogan in dozens of protests around the country over the past several months — all of them organized to draw attention to a spate of police killings of unarmed black men, including Dontre Hamilton in Milwaukee.
Robinson, 19, was shot and killed by Madison police officer Matt Kenny. According to a police report, Kenny responded to a call at about 6:30 p.m. on March 6 complaining about a person “yelling and jumping in front of cars.” A second call to police said the man was “responsible for a battery,” Madison Police Chief Mike Koval said during a press conference on March 8.
The police report said Kenny, who is white, went to an apartment on Willy Street looking for the suspect and forced his way inside after overhearing a disturbance. There, he encountered Robinson, who struck Kenny in the head and knocked him to the ground before Kenny fired at him, according to the report.
Koval said police are investigating to determine how many shots were fired and to analyze the incident.
Robinson’s killing was the second incident in which Kenny used lethal force in his career. Eight years ago, he killed a white man who pointed a pellet gun at him. Kenny was exonerated of wrongdoing in that case and even awarded a commendation for it.
The March 6 incident was also Robinson’s second run-in with the law. At the time of his death, he was on probation for an armed break-in during 2014.
During a March 8 press conference, Koval acknowledged that the fact Robinson was unarmed was “going to make this (case) all the more complicated for the investigators, for the public to accept.”
His concern quickly proved to be true. Peaceful protests and rallies were ongoing in the days following the killing. The city of Madison’s website was shut down on the night of March 9 and its email systems were disrupted by what city officials said might have been a cyberattack related to Robinson’s killing. Officials said the attack is similar to those experienced by other cities after officer-involved shootings.
The cyberattack affected in-car laptops used by law enforcement across the county, in addition to Madison’s system.
Since his initial press conference, Koval has reaffirmed his pledge to uncover the details of the case. He’s apologized to Robinson’s family and prayed with Robinson’s grandmother.
Robinson’s uncle Turin Carter said his family wanted a thorough investigation, but added that family members do not endorse anti-police attitudes.
“We understand that law enforcement is necessary and mandatory and we need to change our mindset about the police,” Carter said in a news conference outside the house where Robinson was shot.
Robinson, a 2014 graduate of Sun Prairie High School, was well-liked, according to Olga Ennis, a neighbor and family friend. “He wouldn’t hurt a fly,” Ennis said.
She said many in the community don’t trust police officers. “We’re afraid of the cops,” she said. “Who do you call for help now?”
Mayor Paul Soglin called the shooting “a tragedy beyond description” in a statement. “I hope as the pain eases that something constructive will come of this,” he told the Wisconsin State Journal.
Robinson’s shooting came days after the U.S. Justice Department cleared Darren Wilson, the white former Ferguson, Missouri, officer who shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was black and unarmed, of federal civil rights charges. A second report found patterns of racial profiling, bigotry and profit-driven law enforcement and court practices in the St. Louis suburb.
There have been several high-profile deaths of black suspects killed by police officers in recent months. In New York City, Eric Garner died after officers put him in a chokehold and a video showed him repeatedly saying, “I can’t breathe.” A police officer in Cleveland fatally shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who had been pointing a pellet gun at a playground. And although Milwaukee police determined the officer who fatally shot Dontre Hamilton acted in self-defense, he was fired for ignoring department policy and treating Hamilton as a criminal by frisking him.
The Young, Gifted and Black Coalition, which has organized the protests in Madison, said “black people are eight times more likely to be arrested than white people” in Madison. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Politifact found the statement holds true for all of Dane County.
Koval has assured protesters that his department would defend their rights to gather, but he’s implored the community to exercise “responsibility and restraint.”
Koval said he understood the anger and distrust taking hold in the community. He said that “for those who do want to take to the street and protest,” his department would be there to “defend, facilitate, foster those First Amendment rights of assembly and freedom of speech.”
Koval also asked protesters to follow what he said was the lead of Robinson’s family in asking for “nondestructive” demonstrations. The Dane County NAACP issued a statement calling for “calm and vigilant monitoring of events as they unfold.”
Late on the afternoon following Robinson’s shooting, people filled the Fountain of Life Covenant Church for a community meeting. Family members took the stage and read a statement prepared by Robinson’s mother Andrea Irwin.
“I can’t even compute what has happened,” Irwin’s statement said. “I haven’t even had a chance to see his body.”
She was not present, and the statement said she was taking time to grieve with her children. Robinson’s grandmother, Sharon Irwin, was on the stage as the statement was read, but left immediately after.