David Michael Miller
This weekend brought out incredibly emotional reactions, as it should have. I don't want to live in a world where people react to the death of a 19-year-old kid with detachment.
The quick reaction is to be angry at the police. The counterreaction is to rally around officers. Both are honest, emotional responses. The passion on all sides is a signal that the situation is dire.
Here's my take: Most cops are not racist. But they work in a fundamentally broken criminal justice system that promotes racist outcomes. There are some cops who abuse their power, but most work hard to do a good job. I've talked to some who even have explicit social justice goals in mind.
Those good intentions are not enough, though. The criminal justice system is set up to protect property and wealth above the safety of citizens, particularly black men.
Our school system is not so different. The vast majority of teachers are doing good work in a system that is overly hard on black students, leading to our district's abysmal graduation rates for black students. The neo-liberal obsession with testing and the voucher movement's naked attempts to make a quick buck off of fly-by-night schools are the wrong solutions, but that doesn't mean the problems they are trying to address aren't real. Much like policing, the positive efforts of individual actors are diluted by a system built first and foremost to suit the needs of middle-class white people.
Frankly, the biggest problem both police and schools face is poverty. The number of homeless youth in Madison is appalling. I used to work with kids who, at noon, had no idea where they'd be sleeping that night. How many more students would graduate, how much less gang activity would there be if people made a living wage? Raising the minimum wage would likely do more to fight disparities than any other school or police reform.
Still, addressing poverty alone doesn't address the racial problems in our criminal justice system.
As my friend Patrick Tomlinson pointed out in an excellent blog post, the Use of Force Model allows cops to return force one level higher than the force that they perceive is attacking them. Since this is based on the officer's perception, they can view a black male as more threatening, and they will still be following police procedure.
The officer who shot Tony Robinson had years of training that prepared him to pull out his gun in that scenario.
Other actors in the criminal justice system also play a part. Wisconsin has the highest incarceration disparities in the nation and police alone didn't create that. District attorneys across the nation are guilty of racial disparities in prosecution. Shootings of young black men are the most visible tragedy of our failed justice system, but they are far from the only tragedies.
I'm not sure if Madison's police force will listen to calls for reform. Madison Police Chief Mike Koval, while making genuine efforts at transparency, hasn't yet proposed any major reforms of the way policing is done in Madison. Police officers themselves are too defensive when faced with outside criticism -- see the disgraceful way officers turned their back on New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Still, the fight to change the system is an important one. These aren't isolated incidents -- this is a pattern, this is a system, this is a city, this is a state, this is a society set up to act this way. Everyone shares some guilt in the death of Tony Robinson. Everyone shares some responsibility to make things better.