Racial Tension Draws Parallels, But Madison Is No Ferguson : Code Switch There are stark differences between what happened in Madison, Wis., and the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. But protesters say racism is still at the root of Tony Robinson's shooting death.
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Racial Tension Draws Parallels, But Madison Is No Ferguson

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Racial Tension Draws Parallels, But Madison Is No Ferguson

Racial Tension Draws Parallels, But Madison Is No Ferguson

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

To Madison, Wis., now where outcry continues over the shooting of Tony Robinson. The unarmed biracial man was killed by a white police officer last week, and protesters say that officer should be charged. Overall, public response to the shooting in Madison has been peaceful, a striking difference from what happened in Ferguson last summer. But there is this similarity - many in Madison say stark racial disparities played a role in Robinson's death. Gilman Halsted of Wisconsin Public Radio reports.

GILMAN HALSTED, BYLINE: Madison, Wis., is not Ferguson, Mo. African Americans make up only 8 percent of the 250,000 people who live in this Midwestern University town. Ferguson has only 20,000 residents. Blacks make up two thirds of that population. Reverend Alex Gee grew up in Madison, and his congregation is largely African American. He says this shooting is a realization of one of his worst fears.

ALEX GEE: It's crazy. It's like a hurricane coming to Madison, and that's not supposed to happen inland.

HALSTED: But that hurricane hasn't led to the violent street demonstrations or looting or the burning of cars and businesses that occurred in Ferguson after the shooting of Michael Brown. Police here have calmly stopped traffic and ushered protesters from one rally site to another. The very night that Robinson was killed, Police Chief Michael Koval met with his family and apologized. The next day, Koval identified Matt Kenny as the officer who shot Robinson. An independent state investigation of the shooting began within hours of Robinson's death, and unlike in Ferguson where police released a video of Michael Brown allegedly shoplifting, Chief Michael Koval says the fact that Robinson was on probation for armed robbery has no connection to this shooting. But Reverend Gee says that doesn't mean there aren't racial tensions here.

GEE: What it awakens for the community is an old tape that's been played over and over and over in my life, my father's life, my grandfather's life, my great-grandfather's life. And it's just hard to shake it.

HALSTED: Despite its reputation as a liberal city with good schools, the arrest rate for young black men in Madison is six times higher than it is for their white counterparts, and that's three times higher than the national average. Erika Nelson studied Madison's racial divide for the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families.

ERIKA NELSON: White well-being in terms of education and all these sort of indicators is better than the national average. And so the notion that a rising tide lifts all boats is not taking place here. And, in fact, it's - African Americans are doing worse.

HALSTED: Even before last week's shooting, these statistics have been a central theme in a series of protests over the past two months, calling for changes in the way police interact with Madison's black residents. David Harris teaches law at the University of Pittsburgh and studies racial profiling by police. He says Madison is already using a model aimed at promoting positive relationships between police and minority communities.

DAVID HARRIS: Many police departments who will talk about community policing - who will dedicate one officer or one small unit of officers to community policing, but Madison's approach has been more pervasive and for a longer period of time.

HALSTED: Last week's shooting raises questions about how effective those policies have been. Madison Police Chief Michael Koval is promising to step up efforts to reach out.

MICHAEL KOVAL: I've asked my officers to park the car, get out and walk, get out and be visible. Have those courageous conversations as people would allow. Play a game of horse on the basketball court. We need to show that we are members of the community as well.

HALSTED: And just how the community adjusts its self-image may in part hinge on the results of a state investigation into whether the shooting was a justified use of lethal force. For NPR News, I'm Gilman Halsted in Madison.

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