Justice for Genele

On Tuesday, June 21st, Genele Laird was assaulted outside of East Towne Mall by two officers of the Madison Police Department. It’s clear from the video evidence that Genele was treated like a punching bag instead of a human being, an experience which was undoubtedly as emotionally traumatizing as it was physically violent. Regardless of the events that led up to this attack, this inhumane treatment is unacceptable and we demand that MPD take its HANDS OFF BLACK WOMEN.

In Friday’s press conference, DA Ozanne and Chief Koval claimed that the officers were the victims. After pressure from Freedom, Inc. and Young, Gifted and Black, all charges against Genele were dropped pending her agreement to participate in a restorative justice process with the officers who brutalized her. While this is a partial victory for Genele and the community, being forced to interact with her attackers in this forum will re-traumatize her.  In this process, the police won’t be expected to admit to the trauma they inflicted.

We need a transformative justice process that will remove these officers from the streets so they cannot continue to abuse their power and brutalize people, particularly Black women.  This dehumanization cannot be tolerated as MPD’s business-as-usual.  Andrew Muir, the officer who punched, kicked, kneed and tased Genele, should be fired and charged for his excessive use of force.  Let us be clear, Genele is the victim and survivor here.

As a collective of white people working for racial justice, we know that the officers’ violence was rooted in the racism that we see on an institutional and individual level in the MPD. We can’t ignore the disparities between Black and White Madison highlighted by the 11-to-1 arrest rates or in the disproportionate use of force against Black Madisonians.

It is difficult to imagine this happening if Genele was white. If Madison’s police officers can take an adult white male into arrest without injury after a 9 hour armed standoff, surely they don’t need to brutalize a black teenager because she is upset. After the gruesome attack, Genele was imprisoned with sustained physical and psychological injuries for two full days without a posted bail. Meanwhile, Koval protected the identities of the assailants, and later portrayed them as victims of the exchange.

We need to transform the system that allows for this type of violence to happen without perpetrators being held accountable.  Police violence is often excused as a means to “restore order.” We ask: for whom? This violence in the name of the status quo is a danger to Genele and our entire community.   We need a transformation of policies and practices to create an emergency response that actually works for people in crisis, that isn’t about restoring “order” at the expense of Black bodies.  We need to transform and shift the power to the community.  We need to transform and heal Genele’s trauma from this violent experience, and the secondary trauma that is evoked for other Black people seeing this type of overt violence occur yet again.

One solution to help us transform the abuse of power, violence, and injustice rampant in the Madison Police Department is community control over the police, as demanded by Freedom, Inc. and YGB.

As white people, we cannot sit idly by while this injustice continues to occur daily. Donate to support Genele’s legal needs. Support the demands of Freedom, Inc. and YGB and show up for actions. Connect with Groundwork and SURJ for information on how white people can fight racism.

Fighting for Justice,

emily blessing, Amy Hilgendorf, and Cassidy Kirkpatrick of Groundwork Collective


March 8, 2015

In the wake of Tony Robinson’s death, we have heard that it is too soon to reach conclusions because we “do not have all of the facts about the incident.” We have also heard that this is an isolated event, and that the Madison Police Department is otherwise diverse, well respected, and well trained. Some point to other recent volatile incidents that were diffused by Madison police without the use of deadly force. While there is indeed more to learn in the coming days and weeks, there are many things we already know.

We know this:

A life was lost. A Black life was lost. Tony Robinson was a member of our community who had dreams for his – and our – future. We live in a segregated community. For white residents, that segregation is enhanced by one-dimensional media and cultural stereotypes that often present our Black neighbors as impoverished consumers of public benefits or as lawbreakers. It requires effort for us to see beyond these stereotypes and embrace the rich and varied humanity of Black people in our community.

Tony Robinson was a human being, and a part of our community. His death causes us pain. Each of us has the choice to distance ourselves from this loss, or to grieve for Tony. Are we brave enough to face this pain? Are we willing to challenge the stereotypes in our minds, and embrace our humanity and Tony’s humanity?

Tony Robinson was a cherished member of a loving family. The pain and trauma of his death will be with them forever. Tony’s family’s greatest fear is that his image will be tarnished by the circumstances of his death. Rather than trolling for evidence of his shortcomings or focusing on what missteps he might have made in his last moments, can we find ways to embrace and mourn this promising young life that we have lost?  

Tony’s death is not an isolated incident. We love to think of Madison as an exceptional community, one of the uniquely best places to live in our country. But we know we are also unique in having some of the greatest racial disparities of any county in the United States. Tony’s death has been associated with those of Dontre Hamilton, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant and so many other unarmed young Black men who have been shot dead by police officers sworn to protect them. We can choose to try to minimize these associations, or we can face the similarities and what they tell us about our community.

Law enforcement officers who use deadly force against unarmed civilians do not have to be outwardly racist or “rogue cops” to be influenced by implicit racial fear and bias. Research has shown us that unconscious racial bias affects us all, and that even well trained law enforcement personnel are not immune. Images of threatening Black males have persisted since slavery, and we have all been indoctrinated with the image of the Black super-predator. Studies have shown that “automatic implicit biases can cause officers to misinterpret Blacks’ behavior as suspicious or aggressive, even if the actions are neutral in nature.” Instead of searching for provocation by victims of police killings, we can ask how these myths support the defense of officers who shoot unarmed citizens.

Young Black males face an up to 21 times greater risk of being shot dead by police than their white counterparts. Many are quite young, and most are killed by white officers.

In Dane County, criminal justice disparities between blacks and whites are greater than those found elsewhere in the state or nation. The Race to Equity Report, a rich source of information about racial disparities in Dane County, reports that “In 2010, the county’s Black youth arrest rate was 469 per 1,000, compared to 77 per 1,000 for whites, yielding a disparity ratio of 6.1 to 1. To put this into context, Black teens in Dane County in 2010 were six times more likely to be arrested than whites living here, while Black youth in the rest of the state were just three times as likely to be arrested as whites, and nationally Black youths were only a little more than twice as likely to be arrested than their white peers. . . . In 2012, African American adults were arrested in Dane County at a rate more than eight times that of whites.” These disparities in arrest rates do not correspond to actual differences in criminal activity.

We can demand more. When police killings occur, we are often told that the officers involved had no alternative, and that we civilians do not understand law enforcement procedure or the risks that police officers face. If law enforcement officers in Dane County are as excellent as we are told, they could have been excellent for Tony Robinson. When one or more trained police officers, possessing a variety of nonlethal tools and skills, face a single unarmed civilian, the use of deadly force is never acceptable. While some in our community have been asking skeptical questions about Tony Robinson, many parents of Black children have been asking “What if that was my son?”

There are enough facts to show we need to change. We stand with Tony Robinson’s family and friends in their grief and their search for justice. We stand with the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition, Justified Anger and other community organizations who have made visible the inequity and institutionalized racism that exists in Dane County. We stand with them in their demand for real, structural change. We call on Chief Koval to hear the impacts that policing has had on the Black community and make the structural changes needed to assure us all that there will never again be another Tony Robinson.


White People Working for Racial Justice



January 19, 2015

The Open Letter penned by the Young Gifted and Black Coalition (YGB) and the response from Chief Koval have dynamically deepened the conversation relating to racial disparities in Madison.

As Dane County leads the nation in racial disparities, particularly in the criminal justice system, there is no doubt that the world we experience is drastically different based on our race. We are very grateful to YGB for pushing this conversation forward, speaking honestly about experiences with police and articulating a vision for alternatives. In reading Chief Koval’s response, we appreciate his honesty and good intentions to work for racial justice and many of the solutions he outlined in his statement for shifting institutional racism within the criminal justice system. At the same time, some of his response highlights the gap in understanding the impact police presence has in communities of color. Though there is a need for protection and accountability in our communities, there is also a lived reality in communities of color that policing acts as an ‘occupying force.’ This is what YGB is speaking to when they are asking for alternatives and more community control.

People of color often have contact with the police and have done nothing wrong. As white folks, we do not have similar experiences. From people in our lives who are Black, we have heard of the following experiences happening here in Madison:

  • A Black man is walking down the street on his way home. Suddenly several squad cars drive up and five cops run out of the car pointing their guns at him. The man quickly puts his hands over his head and pleads, “It’s not me!”. After holding him in handcuffs for several minutes, the police determine through radio conversation that they had the wrong person. A crowd has now gathered in the neighborhood. When the man loudly tells the crowd he has been racially profiled, the police tell him to shut up. When he refuses, he is arrested for disorderly conduct and taken to jail.

  • A Black woman is meeting up with a friend of hers, a Black man, to go for a run through a park one fall night after dusk. Despite the fact that she leaves her car with ankle weights and sweatpants on, two cop cars pull up and detain them both charging the woman is a prostitute.

  • A Black man tries to attend his son’s elementary school graduation. He is unaware that he needed a ticket to enter and, while trying to explain the situation to the police officer at the door, hears his son’s name called. He leans into the door to glimpse him walking across the stage when the officer physically pushes him out of the doorway and onto the ground, then proceeds to arrest him.

  • A black person pulls onto a main road on their drive to work. Several times a week, they find a cop car trailing them and running their license plates, trying to find some reason to pull them over.

  • An unemployed Black man runs to the grocery store late one night to buy diapers for his baby. On his way out of the store, a cop recognizes him, runs his name through his computer, and then proceeds to arrest him on a warrant for failure to pay child support.

  • A homeless Black person is on the lake fishing early one morning with all his possessions on him, including a sleeping bag. A cop makes an accusation that he must have slept in the park overnight, which is illegal, and arrests him.

All of these experiences are incredibly traumatizing and we can completely understand how they can lead to a desire to have no contact with the police. Seemingly “neutral” police activities such as patrolling through the neighborhood, playing with kids in a park, and chit-chatting in the neighborhood are always overshadowed by the fact that the police have both the role and the power to drastically change the course a person of color’s life in a moment.

For Chief Koval to call into question the desires of the YGB and then state he will actually increase police presence in neighborhoods can feel like a targeted threat, even when it is with the good intention of building relationships. It is understandable that the Chief perceives police as the ‘guardians of the community.’ However, we cannot erase the lived experiences we wrote about above, or the long history of distrust between communities of color and the police. It will take a long future of strengthening relationships for that to change. We encourage conversation and joint problem solving to make our community more safe. The lived experiences we highlight above certainly demonstrate that the very definition of safety differs largely based on our lived experiences, which are influenced by our race and the power we hold.

We strongly support the YGB and their desires to have more ownership and decision-making power about what occurs in their communities. We strongly encourage public entities, especially our local government and law enforcement agencies to remain open to feedback and communication, even when it is difficult to hear, or if it feels like an attack. The neighborhoods of color subjected to higher rates of policing certainly feel as though they are under attack. We believe we can all work through these challenges and come to a conclusion that works for everyone.

At the YWCA Racial Justice Summit in 2013, Dr. Eddie Moore, Jr. asked how Dane County could both lead the nation in racial disparities and be filled with such nice, liberal white people at the same time. Nice white liberalism may be exactly the force that allows those of us who are white to call out racial disparities while refusing to think critically about changing the institutions, systems, and structures that produce such results. As the YGB demonstrates, institutions, systems, and structures involved in producing these results involve the Madison Police Department and other local law enforcement agencies, although law enforcement is certainly not the only source of these disparities.

That being said, it is undeniable that the MPD and other local law enforcement agencies are the institutions responsible for arresting people: the entry point into the criminal justice system. If there were no arrests, entry into the criminal justice system would not happen. What would it look like to analyze the policies and practices in place that are disproportionately impacting communities of color, and make change? Perhaps simply ceasing to arrest people for offenses that do not actually cause harm to other people or impact public safety, such as sleeping in a park or unpaid fines? And instead expand on our restorative and community-based approaches that are working, to resolve problems in a deeper way?

Just as we are pointing the finger at the police department, we believe it is important to point the finger at ourselves. Because of white privilege, those of us who are white usually experience the police to be benevolent and helpful. We are conditioned to call on them for assistance whenever we have a problem, even for problems that could be better solved through direct communication between individuals, like calling the police on a neighbor’s barking dog, or for moments when we confuse discomfort with being unsafe, like calling the police to report people yelling at each other on the street. Neighborhood associations in Madison can also play into this when encountering challenges by calling for an increased police presence or successfully advocating for an increase in funding to the police department. Such a response comes both from a conditioned lack of creativity and absence of community-building to address issues in ways that get at the root cause as well as an entire worldview shaped by the experiences of white privilege.

We need to transform the systems that lead to extremely high arrest and incarceration rates of African Americans in Dane County or we will continue to get the same results. Those of us who are white especially need to reflect deeply on the ways we have come to value and trust the police, just as it requires the police to honestly acknowledge the ways they are complicit in a system that at the very least makes people of color feel unsafe, and at the very most upholds racism. It should of course be emphasized that it is not law enforcement’s actions alone that uphold racism, but all types of institutions and cultural forces working together. Since this is the case, all of us need to engage in efforts to build alternative models for conflict resolution and accountability in our communities that are rooted in trusting relationships and effective solutions.

We thank YGB for speaking truth publicly about their experiences and desires about policing in our community. We thank Chief Koval for his open and honest response. Such deep, direct engagement is the only way we can continue to work hard towards building a world rooted in racial justice. Thank you YGB for helping to pull those of us who are white outside of our worlds of comfort and “niceness” and asking us to critically reflect on the ways we are all complicit in a system that demonstrates Black lives don’t matter. #blacklivesmatter

White People Working for Racial Justice



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