A Funeral In Wisconsin

I wrote here about the sad case of Tony Robinson, who, apparently on drugs or otherwise impaired, jumped in front of cars on the street outside his apartment, attacked two people inside the building, and, when a police officer responded to calls for help, assaulted the officer, who shot him. Robinson’s funeral was today. The Associated Press reports:

Friends and family remembered a 19-year-old biracial Wisconsin man fatally shot by police as a friendly, funny person who liked to play basketball, and said on Saturday they hoped his death would bring change that might prevent other young men of color from suffering the same fate.

Other young men, of color or not, can escape the same fate by not attacking police officers. I am not sure that was the message that was transmitted today.

Tony Robinson, also known as Terrell, died March 6 after what Madison police said was a confrontation in which he assaulted the officer.

To my knowledge, there is no evidence to the contrary, and no doubt that this is what happened.

Robinson’s death was the latest in a string of shootings by police nationwide that heightened racial tensions. Protests in Ferguson, Missouri, turned violent after an unarmed black man was fatally shot there last August.

There is, of course, a common denominator. Michael Brown, like Tony Robinson, assaulted a police officer. Is someone telling young men that this is a good idea? That it is likely to end well?

At least 1,000 people packed a Wisconsin high school field house and spilled into a secondary gym on Saturday for Robinson’s funeral, where family requested no outward signs of protest. A few mourners wore t-shirts saying “Black Lives Matter,” the motto of a protest movement which grew after the Ferguson killing. People who brought signs to the funeral were politely told to put them away.

To their credit, Robinson’s family has opposed politicizing his death.

Johanna Valdez, who attended the funeral, said she used to play one-on-one basketball with Robinson after school and remembered him as goofy and fun.

“He was always listening if you needed someone to talk to,” said Valdez, who went to Sun Prairie High School where Robinson graduated.

I understand that there is no reason to speak ill of the dead, especially at a funeral. It is not surprising that no one at the funeral mentioned that Robinson pled guilty to armed robbery just three months ago. Still, it is a fact of which the AP might have taken notice.

While protests since the shooting in Madison have been peaceful, they have highlighted local concerns. Only about 7 percent of the 240,000 population are black and demonstrators have complained about unequal policing of poor, black neighborhoods.

In Ferguson, the complaint was that most residents are black, but they do not fully control city government. Here, the complaint is that hardly any residents are black, so they don’t get enough attention from the police. Or they get too much attention? I am not sure what the complaint is, but in this case, the officer was responding to calls for help arising out of multiple assaults committed by Robinson. Is someone saying that those calls should have been ignored?

Police said they responded to a call last Friday night that Robinson was running in traffic on the street and had assaulted someone. According to police, Kenny heard a disturbance inside an apartment and pushed open the door, where he encountered the unarmed Robinson.

The word “unarmed” has a talismanic significance in these news reports, but in practice, it has little significance. Reporters and community activists seem to think that when a police officer is attacked, the officer is obliged to determine in a split second whether the assailant is armed, and if not, engage him in fisticuffs. I am sorry, but this is not how it works.

The magical status of being “unarmed” is determined only after the fact. In the moment in which a police officer is being attacked, whether it is by the 6′ 4″, 290 pound Michael Brown or the admitted armed robber Tony Robinson, he has no idea whether the attacker has a weapon or not. The officer is not obliged to propose a boxing match under sporting rules. He is entitled to defend himself, just as you or I would be under similar circumstances. The mystery here is not that armed police officers defend themselves, but rather that some people apparently are surprised when they do.


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