The tears were for Tony Robinson, a 19-year old unarmed African-American who was shot and killed by police officer Matt Kenny on Williamson Street in Madison, Wisconsin. The Willy Street neighborhood is like a second home to me as I have worked at Broom Street Theater a couple doors down from the shooting since 1983 and I’ve lived in the neighborhood in the past.
Last night there was a candlelight vigil in front of the house where Tony was shot five times by the police officer. The vigil made the horror of what happened so palpable and so real for me and others. To listen to one of his best friends try to speak through a profusion of his own tears to describe what a great friend Tony was and how much fear he now has for his own safety could not fail to touch even the most hardened of hearts. Several of Tony’s friends took the microphone and talked about how special he was–how he always made them smile, how he preached about the value of hard work, how he could bring someone who was down back up again–and it was clear from their trembling voices that it was not only Tony who was lost but that they all lost a part of themselves and their own innocence along with him.
We can talk about politics another time. There will be plenty of discussion about the racial implications of the killing and there had better be some really basic discussions about race, class, and other issues that face our community and our nation. Anyone who doesn’t think that there is racism in this country is either fooling themselves or simply unwilling to face reality. Racism didn’t end with the abolition of slavery. It didn’t end with the ending of Jim Crow laws or with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. It didn’t end when we elected our first African-American President. It has not ended yet and every day for black citizens of this country is a challenge to overcome it. We must talk about it, because it played a part in this shooting. It laid the groundwork for this to happen. We must engage in some basic work and some real conversations about it. We can’t let this moment pass into history without doing so.
But the vigil last night was not about politics. Last night was about the young man who died and the family and friends he left behind. The gut-level, most basic reality of what happened is that a young man’s life was lost before he had a chance to fully become whatever he may have been in this world and that many, many more lives were impacted deeply by it. The officer’s life and his family are likely to never be the same either.
So last night I cried in the street.
I cried because I bore witness to the pain of those left behind. I cried because I know that this happens every day in this country, and that my fellow citizens kill each other, too. The night that Tony Robinson died a young woman was killed at a party in Milwaukee. I cried last night because I was ashamed of what my white brethren have done to my black brethren. I cried because I never got a chance to know Tony and there was nothing anyone could have done to help him. I cried for my city and my country. And I cried when I heard other young men and women talk not of retribution but simply of their love for their friend. This is all that we need to live for in the time that we have–to love and be loved–and based on the testimony of his friends Tony Robinson clearly lived.