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Failing to center

A time of badly mangled messages in Madison.

Photo: Graffiti on the side of the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum downtown. Photo by Steven Spoerl.


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Who gets to take up space? With what messages? For what audience?

These questions run through every aspect of Madison’s response to police brutality and ongoing protests, and have become especially important over the past week. To start with, someone could almost write an entire book picking apart the array of artwork that has descended upon State Street’s boarded-up storefronts. At the request of the city, local businesses, and sometimes no one at all, the murals downtown at times center the voices and concerns of Black people, and at times utterly insult those voices with messages of splashy, bland positivity. There’s some incredible work up there, but also a lot that vividly demonstrates how white Madisonians gloss over the above questions.

I’m not even ready to pull coherent thoughts together about the bazillion small fires breaking out on the social media accounts of local businesses, artists, and grifty “influencers” (these three categories are not mutually exclusive) who’ve bungled their attempts to speak to this hideous, hopeful, potentially transformative moment. Silence is indeed violence, but so is not knowing when to hold back, listen, and let others lead. Who was asking for this? Seen any good local food Instagrams lately?

Questions of audience—who is this for? Why do they care?—are also at the heart of the scandal Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway has created. In a video message initially intended just for Madison police, Rhodes-Conway seems to forget about the public entirely, instead deciding that her audience is comprised largely of riot cops who needed some sympathy after a weekend of menacing and tear-gassing protestors. Inevitably, the video got out, and its audience became the full spectrum of people engaged in the debate over policing—many furious about Satya’s failure to check the worst impulses of MPD, and plenty others somehow convinced that she wasn’t doing enough to grovel before the altar of law enforcement. 

Rhodes-Conway apologized for the video on Wednesday, saying that she “failed to center” the message of the Black Lives Matter movement. The problem with this apology is that Rhodes-Conway is perfectly capable of centering that message in her public statements. She was centering it for a broader audience, or at least well enough to satisfy other white liberals, both before and after she made this video for police. She chose not to center it in this instance, instead choosing to target a narrowly defined audience to a gruesome extreme. In so doing she largely erased community concerns, and especially erased the Black Madisonians whose rage and pain she professes to understand.

The press also plays a crucial role in this historic moment, and many journalists locally and around the country are doing us proud, risking their safety to bring us crucial reporting about the movement and the violent police response to it. But media outlets have also fumbled profound questions about the audience and who gets to speak, for whom. The outrage over Phil Hands’ cartoons and a recent Daniel Bice column comes down to many outlets’ tendency to express a white, change-averse viewpoint they’ve mistakenly deemed “neutral” or “objective.” Plenty of smaller outlets, Tone Madison included, also have work to do on centering marginalized voices and need to come to grips with their failures on that front. This space, too, is due for radical reexamination.

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