The posthumous character assassination of Tony Robinson

Officials continue to treat a police-shooting victim as a pawn in public discourse.

Officials continue to treat a police-shooting victim as a pawn in public discourse.


Illustration by Rachal Duggan.

Illustration by Rachal Duggan.

Almost two years to the day of Tony Robinson Jr. losing his life, the City of Madison’s insurance company announced a $3.35 million settlement last week with Robinson’s family. The city was dismissed as a defendant in a lawsuit before the settlement, which went against the wishes of Officer Matt Kenny, the Madison Police Department, and Madison’s police union. Though there’s no implication or admission of fault in the settlement, many law enforcement bodies are now claiming that Officer Kenny, who shot and killed the unarmed, 19-year-old Robinson in Robinson’s Willy Street apartment in March 2015, was robbed of his chance to prove his innocence in court.

Police and city officials’ comments about the settlement proved that even two years later, they’re not ready to own the basic humanity of a dead young man. Tony’s humanity is still playing the same role in public discourse that it has since his killing: defenseless, senseless, and confined to a headline. Such discarding of the full being he was—young, capable, fallible—continues to rear its ugly head in the fallout of this settlement by pundits and neighbors alike.

In the overt sense, law enforcement supporters attempt to reduce Tony’s life and death to the circumstances of his final episode, rendering him no more than a drug-fueled maniac with no respect for authority who merely met the punishment he deserved. The subtler, perhaps more sickening, version of the Tony Robinson narrative offers up his case and the upcoming anniversary as a chance to consider the scope of our institutional failings around drug use and community engagement with law enforcement, but remain oblivious to the multifaceted, intersectional gears of oppression that made it possible for Kenny to take a young man’s life without consequences.

Exhibit A: an excerpt from Madison Mayor Paul Soglin’s statement:

Unfortunately, the way the case was concluded leaves the public and all local governments still struggling to understand how police officers are to proceed in dangerous situations when confronted by individuals who are impaired by substance abuse or mental health issues. We know that more officer training will help. 

We know that the city of Madison, its police department, and its residents will continue to find solutions. Tragically, as long as mental illness goes untreated, as long as substance abuse is ignored, these tragedies will continue to confront us.

Soglin blames the settlement for causing confusion for police officers. Soglin ends his argument with a broad call for more officer training, but offers no context on how much more training is necessary or which areas need refinement and improvement. Then, in a rhetorical attempt to further widen the lens towards the systemic issues lingering behind the case, Mayor Soglin backhandedly diagnoses Tony Robinson as someone who suffered from mental wellness challenges and passively labels him as a substance abuser because of a bad high that cost him his life. Turn to any Madison-proximity social media on this settlement from this past week and you’ll find the extremities of this argument from your neighbors who’ve been long convinced that Tony Robinson deserved to die.

Exhibit B: an excerpt from the Kenny family’s statement:

As a community, we should examine this tragedy through a broader lens—one that considers the opportunities and services available to our youth, and which is more concerned with genuine accountability than blame. If there is one point of agreement in Madison today, it’s that people recognize that the death of Mr. Robinson was a dreadful outcome. This community also expects that the systems established for our mutual benefit will react to avoid such outcomes in the future. The best way to bring about such communitywide [sic] changes might be to first appreciate that our schools, social services, health care structures, and our police are all part of the same system.”

While this reads as more empathetic than Soglin’s statement, the Kenny family’s argument deflates itself in an excruciatingly tonedeaf manner by calling for us to “appreciate” the intersectionality of the very societal infrastructure that privileges some citizens via the calculated exclusion and oppression of others. Any public critique of said oppression, when rooted in a call for accountability and community control, is subject to disposal as another play in the blame game when such a critique comes from members of oppressed and underrepresented communities. It’s a matter of whose expectations are honored in the public square and the grander discourse informing our policy, and assuming that a system was establishment for our “mutual benefit” is a counterproductive foundation for any dialogue of this caliber.

Coming from the Kenny family, it’s rather easy to consider this an offensive gesture, considering Tony Robinson lived in the very Madison that graduates half its Black students from high school, the same Madison that’s (somewhat unwillingly) championed as a mecca reflective of Wisconsin’s reputation for drinking, and the same Madison flooded with college students who routinely get drunk and have bad trips without taking seven shots to the body. It’s a red herring insinuating that the world killed Tony Robinson long before Officer Kenny made the decision to; we continue to focus on the drugs as if they justified a funeral.

Exhibit C: an excerpt from a statement by the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, the union representing the state’s police officers:

Matt strongly believes that this lawsuit should have gone to trial, and he deeply regrets that he is being deprived of the opportunity to defend himself before a jury of his peers. While we continue to extend our sympathies to Mr. Robinson’s family, they have made some outrageous claims about Matt that will never be resolved. We would have preferred that they demand that the case go to trial, because rather than offer any amount of closure, this settlement only serves to further cast a pall over Matt’s devotion and service to the community, and that of the dedicated men and women of the Madison Police Department.

Whatever calculation of risk assessment brought this case to a close, everyone acknowledged that no dollar amount can bring peace to this wound. On the claims against Kenny’s character: in full transparency, I’ve participated in several actions around the Robinson case that called for Kenny’s indictment and vocalized a longstanding grievance on policing’s effect in targeting and silencing bodies from oppressed communities under unjustified circumstances. In these protest environments, I’ve also seen the Robinson family stride to deflate the narrative of every officer being bad, noting how many MPD officers have shown support to the family. It’s quite simple to confound institutional critiques with individual critiques, as Kenny’s been called a racist murderer at worst and a biased officer at least. Wherever one stands on Kenny’s character, it’s troubling that people constantly shift the focus to Kenny getting a day in court, emphasizing the supremacy of law and order over all the other concerns in this case.

We’ve seen too many cases where families of those lost to officer-involved violence get little or no justice. In these cases, local and national media emphasize the circumstances over the loss of human life. Lest we forget, this settlement comes to the Robinson family, who may never find closure amid all the noise and madness surrounding their son’s death. Regardless of the criticism, Officer Kenny remains alive and employed in a senior position; he’s continuing to train officers at MPD and he’s on horse patrol.

This is the imbalance we all must address. It doesn’t begin by blaming the boy for his bullet wounds.

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