A lot has happened in Madison since my last column in January of 2015. The question is, has anything changed? I’d like to think that the answer to that is “yes,” the killing of Tony Robinson has changed us, but I’m not convinced. Not convinced that in a community where there is an 11:1 arrest ratio for my Black brothers and sisters, and an even higher rate for Black youth, that the past six months have significantly changed predominantly white Madison. Not convinced that—in a community that has significant racial disparities in unemployment, poverty and homelessness, a community where the City-County Liaison Committee on August 31 voted to begin handing out $429 trespassing tickets to homeless men, women and youth sleeping at the City County Building, a disproportionate number of whom are Black—I am not convinced that things have changed.
It sounds pretty pessimistic and it would be if it weren’t for the organizations in our community who are working with our youth, youth of color, LGBT youth of color, working to empower them, to strengthen their leadership skills. That’s where my hope lies.
Much has been written about the Madison Police Department’s response to the protests that erupted after Tony was killed, self-congratulatory articles and blogs praising the police for behaving differently than Ferguson Police. The protestors, too, responded differently, but not much praise was directed toward them. Instead the focus was on their expressions of anger and rage, signaling white Madison’s underlying fear that the protesters would become violent. On the night of March 6, in the heat of anguish and rage, standing on Willy Street where Tony Robinson was killed, the protests were not violent. In fact, that night I witnessed leaders of the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition keep the crowd peaceful even as they gave voice to the rage. I believe that it was the members of the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition and Robinson’s family that maintained the peace in the aftermath of Tony Robinson’s killing, not the established power structure. YGB leaders are people of color, straight and LGBT, and is building a movement that connects the dots related to oppression and equity.
On May 12, when the District Attorney issued his opinion that the officer that killed Tony Robinson exerted a lawful use of force, I was in front of the apartment where Tony was killed, along with dozens of other area clergy. We organized to be a witness for justice, a witness to the despair, anguish and rage that came with the killing of another unarmed youth of color. As the afternoon wore on, friends of Tony’s found their way to the demonstration. Individuals from other organizations found their there. The youth, grief stricken, demonstrated their leadership by peacefully taking over the street. They then led the procession of clergy and others down Williamson Street to the Courthouse, around the square and finally to the steps of Grace Episcopal Church.
Studs Terkel wrote, “Hope has never trickled down. It has always sprung up.” And that’s where I see hope today: not trickling down from the established power structures but rather springing up from small, local, grassroots organizations that are working with our LGBT youth and youth of color, helping them see and embrace the power of their voice, learning the skills they need to lift their voice and demand change. Organizations like Freedom Inc., which hopes to offer a Queer Youth Freedom School, a 12-week program for Hmong and Black queer youth aged 18–25, many who are homeless, living in poverty, survivors of abuse, formerly incarcerated. These youth are socially isolated, and the Freedom School will build community leaders and the capacity of queer youth of color to become advocates for themselves and their communities.
If we want Madison to become the community we like to think it is, please support some of the perhaps not-so-mainstream grassroots organizations that have sprung up and are challenging white privilege and racism, that are working with our youth, listening to their voices, teaching them the skills to engage and lead, showing us what it means to work collaboratively in a movement for justice and equity. Check out some of these organizations, they are all on Facebook (and I know most of you reading this are, too, so no excuses):
• Freedom Inc.
Please consider a donation to these groups; they are doing hard, challenging, grassroots organizing with few resources.
Finally, in a city where local media is dominated by white reporters, opinion writers, etc., check out news sources that include the voices of men, women and youth of color:
Linda Ketchum is the Executive Director of Madison-Area Urban Ministry, an interfaith social justice organization that has spurred social change in and around Dane County.