Leaders answer with ideas and solutions for change

Three leaders try to answer the tough questions
Leaders answer with ideas and solutions for change

Noble Wray, former Madison police chief and former president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison

How do you think Madison has responded to Tony Robinson’s death?
I think the city as a whole has responded well. As someone who’s been involved with the Urban League, and also been to Ferguson, Staten Island, Seattle and Albuquerque, either during or in response to very critical incidents, I’ve seen this firsthand in other communities. To respond well requires civilian leadership, political leadership, transparent communication from police and a sense for managing protest effectively, which Madison has a long history of doing without infringing on First Amendment rights. Now Ferguson is a very low bar: That was a clear case of what not to do, from the mayor to the chief of police and civilians across the board. But I think the response in Madison has been very appropriate, with Tony Robinson’s family and the rest of the African American community, and faith community, recognizing the need to grieve, a real care for our city and a genuine desire to take the right steps moving forward.

On a personal level, what went through your mind when you heard the news of this incident?
A wide range of emotions, and I was actually on my way to Selma to participate in the ceremonial walk across the bridge, so you can imagine how much this added to that experience. With that in mind, one thing that was clear at Selma was a sense that this is not a celebration, but rather a recognition that a lot of work still needs to be done. For me, that translated back to Madison as my heart went out to the Robinson family, to officer Kenny and his family, and the community as a whole. With all of that, walking across the bridge in Selma was almost surreal.

Considering Madison’s history of progressivism, do you think ours is a community that has been too self-congratulatory on matters of racial equality, when the realities reveal a much different story?
There’s no doubt we’ve made progress locally and nationally–when you consider that I was chief of police in Madison, and we have a Black president, those aren’t insignificant signs of improvement. But the question is whether or not that progress is merely symbolic. Ultimately on the topic of race, there are two conversations taking place in our city, one in the white community and one in the Black community. On both sides people care, people want to make a difference and create positive change, but it’s often the case that they’re looking for the other side to do something different but they don’t say what. If it stays that way then we’re stuck, because in a healthy relationship you need to say what it is you need from the other. In a lot of ways, white people are afraid of being accused of racism, Black people are afraid of being placated, and we have to get past that. I think Madison has the political and communal capacity to lead by example on this issue, but people have to seek to understand before they seek to be understood.

How does that play out from your vantage point?
Well, I believe people want to hear authentic truth, which is the foundation for establishing legitimacy for all involved. For police, we have to acknowledge that we haven’t always done the best job handling the issue of race. For the community, we need to collectively acknowledge that everybody has to take responsibility for their actions.

What do you think about the caricatured positions that have gained so much attention after Robinson’s death–that this was either another case of African American male delinquency or a racist white police officer abusing power?
It’s important to remember that both of these things might be true, or both might not be true at all. Where we seem to get stuck is insisting that it has to be one narrative or the other. Again, if people want to be understood but they don’t want to understand, then they aren’t going to consider all the nuances that make up a case like this, and the bigger problems it’s brought to the surface.

Do you think that this event, regardless of what the investigation reveals, could be a catalyst for addressing the root causes of racial disparity in Madison, and what should be the first steps?
A first step is to seek to understand. We also have to get past the mentality that business as usual is a sufficient response … the idea that “we just have to get through this.” As a former chief I certainly understand that desire to resolve things swiftly and get back to normal. But that attitude won’t help us move forward. Nor will reliance on traditional channels of power. We need to see change take place at the grassroots level, in an organic way where citizens are empowered to actually change things. Then we need to have more candid dialogue about this topic. I know people may be tired of the word “dialogue,” but have we really gotten down to what matters, what hurts, where we disagree? We also need to recognize that response to an “incident” or “crisis” can be a powerful indicator of where we’re at, but real change takes place in the day to day when nobody’s looking.

Regardless of what the pending investigation reveals, what would be your definition of healing for the city of Madison?
Healing will be difficult because the gap between what police understand about situations like this and what the general public understands is very wide. There’s no doubt in this situation race has been front and center and it should remain front and center, but what we’re dealing with locally and nationally goes far beyond police training and minimizing unconscious bias. I think we have to come to a new understanding by asking ourselves, what is the race issue? Black people have legitimate things they want to say. White people have legitimate things they want to say. But we’re being too polite on the fault lines, and it’s time to be more frank and honest with each other and see where it goes.

– Robert L. Kehoe III

Mike Koval, City of Madison police chief

Since Tony Robinson’s death, you’ve voiced your admiration for his family. Can you share a little bit about what they’ve demonstrated in their response?
On the night that Tony was killed, within five or six hours, his mother and grandmother made themselves available on the periphery of the crime scene and they then set the tone. They allowed everyone to do an emotional inventory, while insisting that everyone exercise restraint. What these women modeled in their greatest moment of grief was tremendous–both poise and emotional capacity. In many ways, they’ve been consistent in helping create the right atmospheric conditions that go above and beyond anything that could be issued in a press release.

How has this incident impacted your police force?
Coincidentally, shortly after Tony’s death, the chief of police in Ferguson, Missouri, resigned, followed by the shooting of officers at a perimeter post of a protest. All of that has had an impact on the psyche of our officers, who have been threatened, sometimes veiled and sometimes very openly over social media. We’ve also had officers going into situations where they need to make an arrest in the presence of onlookers who have cajoled, threatened and intimidated in their own right. But it’s important for me to instill a sense of calm, and we all need to resist a bunker mentality where it’s us against the world, because it isn’t that way.

How has it impacted you personally?
Well, this is a very human matter of the heart, where a young man’s life was lost under tragic circumstances with the Madison police on the call–it happened on our watch. So I wanted to connect with the family personally, recognizing we all need to grieve together, and cops have to be willing to say we’re sorry–whether we’re ultimately at fault or not–for the loss of life in a case like this. It’s also been important that I don’t go into hiding, because we need to be proactive addressing these issues, one hour and one day at a time.

Do you think Madisonians have been fair in their response to this incident, or has there been too much scapegoating with respect to your department or officer Kenny in particular?
Well, first and foremost, we’re coping with the loss of a young man’s life, and that in and of itself is a huge issue for our community. But some have taken this incident to be the seminal example of problems plaguing our community, and especially in the African American community. I think that’s where I have a concern, because all the problems I can list–jobs, housing, education, et cetera–certainly exist, but there are many people who have already come to the conclusion of our officer’s culpability based on those issues. I can understand gravitating to a narrative that would say police are responsible for the wealth of problems confronting our city, but it’s important to suspend judgment until all the facts are known.

With citizens facing difficult questions about a situation like this, how do we create a better understanding?
We have to have more constant dialogue between different races and social demographics. Right now there’s a reticence to recognize we’re all in this together, that we’re all in some way complicit when these sorts of things take place. I also don’t think our schools are preparing kids for the kind of thinking and communicating necessary to handle these challenges, when the curriculum at high schools and middle schools is so driven by the mandate to raise test scores–a mandate, by the way, that has done more harm to minorities and people of color who drop out at more precipitous rates than any other group.

How should we move forward, with respect to both this incident and the broader implications you listed?
For me, the first place to start is going to the leaders of underrepresented groups who can help us evaluate what it is we’re doing well and where we need to improve. So when I meet with Dr. Floyd Rose, who’s the current president of 100 Black Men, and I ask how we can start to eliminate racial disparities, Floyd’s going to say, “Literacy, literacy and literacy.” That is, if we can get all our kids to read at grade level we will have infinitely empowered their opportunities. Now from the cops’ side of thing, I’d like to see kids empowered with literacy of constitutional limitations–this is what cops can do, this is what they can’t do–so they aren’t afraid of encounters with our officers. I would really like to get our officers involved in life skills classes at schools. We used to at least have a formal opportunity to talk to kids because of driver’s safety, but now that that’s farmed out to contractors–and by virtue of expense a source of racial and economic disparity–we don’t even get the chance to meet them in that setting. Somehow we need to create and own these sorts of honest and transparent conversations so we have a better chance of establishing real legitimacy.

How do you envision the healing process in the present and near future?
First of all, we have to put distance from whatever comes from this case and the broader implications it relates to if we’re going to build the dialogue around the city that will rebuild trust. Months ago, Pastor Alex Gee came up with the idea of doing a charity that could help build these kinds of conversations. We then worked together to plan and coordinate the Cops vs. Kids basketball fundraiser, and support campus visits for students interested in attending historically black colleges. Those are the types of things we need, because the more contact we have in less-traditional settings, the more we can cultivate the capacity for dialogue, empowerment and transformation.

– Robert L. Kehoe III

Rachel Krinsky, CEO, YWCA Madison

How is Madison different from other cities in addressing issues of race and equity?
I think Madison has a harder time than some other places focusing on constructive solutions for three reasons that all boil down to: “But I am not a racist!”
Political correctness: We are afraid to talk about race because someone’s feelings might get hurt, we might say the wrong thing and offend someone, or someone might think–or even say–that we are racist. We really like to be polite, and get along, and feel like everything is peaceful so we avoid these potential conflicts.
The blame game: We (white people) have held such a superior view of our community that it is difficult to accept that we have flaws and problems. We also can’t seem to separate identifying problems from deciding whose fault they are. Since they can’t be our fault, because that might mean we are racists, we want to deflect–to say that the problems came from somewhere else or are not really about race, to explain things away.

Denying racial bias: Since we don’t want to be racists, nobody in Madison wants to admit that we hold any racial biases. So we have a hard time understanding that everyone has biases. And we are so busy denying individual racism that we also miss the point that disparities are fully ingrained in systems and structures. This means they can and will continue to exist even if nobody is individually, overtly racist.

How do we get youth involved and how important is that?
One of the most hopeful signs to me is that the youth are involved, and are taking leadership. It’s critical for the adults in the community to support that energy and to provide space, safety and respect for young people as they struggle and protest. We need to listen to them and learn from them as well as offer our guidance and experience.

How will we know when progress has been made? What will that look and feel like?
The conversations we are having about race must lead to strategic, solution-focused action. Strategic means new, intentional and targeted–not a listing of what we are already doing “right.” It also means knowing what we are trying to change and having some reason to believe that the plans will make the desired change. We will know real progress is being made when the disparities start to shrink; when the number of kids of color graduating from high school increases; when businesses have more diverse employees at all levels; when poverty and unemployment rates are less disparate by race; when black teens are not disproportionally suspended, expelled or entering the juvenile justice system.

What’s something everyone can–and should–do to help?
Each one of us can take an inventory of our own piece of the puzzle: How do I benefit from and/or contribute to racial inequity? Where might I have power or influence to increase opportunity or inclusion? How can I contribute to constructive dialogue or solution building? What do I have to offer, if I step outside of my comfort zone and risk making a mistake? How will I take responsibility for my own beliefs, actions, errors and learning as a part of this community?

– Brennan Nardi

Click here for all stories that appeared in the May 2015 cover story covering the days after the Tony Robinson shooting.