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Tony Robinson's Casket and the Brown Child Martyr Syndrome

I've grown so used to shouting the names of martyrs I will never meet that when I finally stood before one, my character collapsed in a moment of surrealism. I said to myself, "This is the one they've been talking about."
March 17, 2015, 8:00pm

At his funeral, people talked about Tony Robinson's life, and one thing he once said kept coming up: "You ever have that feeling you're going to live forever? I'm going to change the world." On March 6, the 19-year-old biracial man got his wish in the worst possible way. Tony died on the porch of his house, bleeding from police-inflicted gunshot wounds to his torso, head, and arm after Officer Matt Kenny responded to a report of a light-skinned black man dodging cars in traffic and attacking people. His death, like the deaths of so many other unarmed black men, ignited protests, as they like to say in the media.


That night, a friend informed me of Tony's passing on Facebook as I caught up with a fellow musician in a bar in Wicker Park in Chicago. The Harold's Chicken turned in my stomach; I did nothing but swallow the numb feeling further down knowing I couldn't return to Madison, where I attend school, until Monday afternoon. I spent the rest of that weekend scanning my social media timeline for updates on my friends organizing and protesting and exchanging rides to the scene.

I wasn't there, but I didn't have to be to know for a fact that everyone I knew was tired of this shit.

On March 11, over a thousand protestors gathered at the Wisconsin Department of Corrections in the East Side Darbo neighborhood, marching several miles up East Washington Avenue before heading to the front lawn of Governor Scott Walker's mansion to express their heartache. This action was organized in part by the Young Gifted and Black Coalition—a Madison-based activist group focused on servicing communities of color and ending state violence—who planned this march prior to Tony Robinson's death in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement as well as fast food workers and their fight to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Pro-police protests. All photos by the author

Meanwhile on the Capitol Square, I observed a pro-police rally on the same day, finding a little over a hundred people—families of cops, police veterans, and locals—gathered in support of the Madison Police Department's efforts to protect and serve the city. One speaker emphasized this protest was not meant to disparage Tony Robinson's memory and led a moment of silence for his family as well as the families of all officers who had recently lost their lives in the line of duty. Protestors held aloft signs like "KEEP CALM, WE HAVE YOUR 6," ("we have your back" in police parlance) "BLUE LIVES MATTER TOO," and "WE SUPPORT YOU OFFICER KENNY" casually, as there was nothing distasteful or provocative about them, even as thousands mourned the black life "Officer Kenny" had so callously taken.

All this action happened on the heels of two UW-Madison campus protests in December: a silent protest on the Kohl Center lawn during the December 3 Duke-Wisconsin men's basketball game spurred by the non-indictment in the Eric Garner and Michael Brown cases, and a sprawling demonstration on December 14 ending in a die-in at Helen C. White Library with around 1,000 bodies present. These calls to action—organized respectively by students Eric Newble, Jr. and Deshawn McKinney—were minimally acknowledged by UW-Madison administration despite the university's long history of protesting for social change, and were meant not to be taken as responses to specific, isolated incidents. Rather, they were part of an ongoing movement to raise awareness and foster dialogue on how racial oppression continues to impact the students of color on campus as well as nationwide.


I participated in both actions in December and felt renewed in the sense that I was not breathing in these lecture halls alone. I've been more than accustomed to being and the brown face in the room, or the "black perspective" reminding the world (and my fellow classmates) why I deserve to breathe. Madison was the first place I was ever called a nigger to my face, where I saw a Venom doll hanging from a noose on an apartment building, where I was told affirmative action allowed me to cheat my way into school over some invisible more deserving white kid. As the child of a DC police sergeant who's been a cop just as long as I've been alive, I finally realized why police were worth any collective "fuck the" across our country's bloody history.

No chanting prepared me for the sorrow I learned to swallow a week after Tony died.

A silent sun broke the sky on a pre-spring Saturday afternoon on March 14. Over a thousand mourners gathered in the Milton McPike Field House at Madison East High School for the homegoing services. Upon entering the field house at 2 PM for visitation, I shuffled past the huddled masses and inhaled the tension. A slideshow played of Instagram selfies and Facebook pictures of Tony with his mom, teammates, and friends. (All of these pictures were skipped over in favor of his robbery mugshot in the news.)

Mourners arrived in all shapes, shades, sizes, and bus transfer point tickets. The family had reportedly asked attendees not to make overt political statements, but there was no doubt what brought most of us here. I saw as many "Sunday Best" suits as I did Jordans with dresses and dirty Vans with khakis. "R.I.P. Tony" was scribbled across a section of bucket hats. "JUSTICE 4 TONY ROBINSON" and "BLACK LIVES MATTER" T-shirts were found throughout the crowd. There was a mingling of church clothes and plain clothes and chains and biker vests and Timberlands and sagged jeans as everyone came to suffer and heal together.

Mere moments later, I stood alone by the open casket. I couldn't fixate on Tony's body for long. I never met the young man in my four-year college career, yet I found myself swarmed with a grief looking at a sight all too familiar. If we come across dead bodies on our screens, we can still turn them off and at least attempt to be oblivious to the times. I've grown so used to shouting the names of martyrs I will never meet that when I finally stood before one, my character collapsed in a moment of surrealism. I said to myself, "This is the one they've been talking about. I am not staring at a hashtag. I am not staring at myself."


My thoughts became as cyclical as the pain that made Tony another martyr, fueling the voyeurism of Lady Liberty's habit of killing brown kids. My thoughts swirled around Dane County, where according to Race to Equality Madison Public Schools only graduated half of their black students on time in 2011, where black kids made up only 9 percent of the youth population but 80 percent of the young people in correctional facilities in 2011, where almost three in every four black children live under the poverty line compared to one in every 20 white children, where black adults are arrested eight times more than white adults, and where sentences like this have to run-on in another fledgling scream for empathy from the privileged masses that still think Madison, with its unparalleled millennial charm, is the happiest, most progressive city in the world. My thoughts rang with the echo of the conversation with drunken classmates about how a Trayvon or a Mike Brown would never drop dead at the hands of the nice Madison police in these streets they keep so clean.

Madison is not Ferguson is not New York; Tony's body was not Michael Brown's was not Eric Garner's. It was a memorial for this specific black boy, his personal dreams, and it reeked of love. Race did not live in that room. Even with people in pieces and tears shaking the loudspeakers, nothing divided the brown from the white or the poor from the suburban. When "All Lives Matter" was said in this room, there were no second guesses. When Tony's grandmother played "In the Air Tonight" by Phil Collins and everyone raised their fists in solidarity across the whole thousand-seat field house, I couldn't even question the euphoria telling me that humanity is not as wretched as the rotten fruits of the labor that brought us all here.

There was no spectacle to be made. We just knew that a boy was gone too soon.

In these United States, we are gathering enough cases of cops shooting black and brown people to start our own Netflix-esque service to watch ourselves die on loop. We've heard the same story so many times we know how it ends: no indictment, not guilty, ruled justified. I still walk the street paranoid I can have my Twitter raided for pictures and "incriminating evidence" should I ever be shot and not live to tell the story. And I'm tired of having to be reminded that my life matters every week when the statement shouldn't sound so much like realistic fiction in the first place. The state of Wisconsin—in the midst of a $300 million university system cut and a newly minted "right to work" law—is drowning in an unfortunate sequence of watershed moments. But the only sliver of truth I can muster up from what we have is the following:

We are so tired of dying for you to understand why we cry.

Tony Robinson had no idea how he would change the world. He didn't have to die to do so.

Michael Penn II is a hip-hop artist, proud black person, and journalism student finishing his last semester at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Follow him on Twitter.