By Nathan Royko Maurer — Brandi Grayson is an outspoken, Black female leader in a growing, community-based social justice movement in our city, and it’s making the white guys in charge unhappy. Recent concentrated attention by the Madison Police Department on Brandi has resulted in what Chief Michael Koval [MKoval@cityofmadison.com] calls “pure coincidence” when explaining why it seems she can’t turn around without finding a squad car in her front yard or a new surprise citation she didn’t know she’d earned. But any clear-eyed person can see; this is just plain legalized harassment.
Why might they be doing this, you ask?
One event stands out as especially significant, both for how it demonstrates Brandi’s deeply felt commitment to the struggle for justice against the forces of state violence perpetrated on people of color, and for the courageous way in which she is willing to confront the MPD and city officials on their complicity. The unmistakable power differential puts the odds decidedly against her in this contest, however.
On Friday evening, March 6 of this year, my wife and I were leaving town, crossing the Isthmus from our apartment on Madison’s near east side. Reaching East Washington Avenue, a crescendo of sirens erupted around us. We saw squad cars streaming from the east and west, heading in the direction we had just come from. By now our instincts compel us to tune into to these situations, so we started listening, trying to decipher the facts from police radio chatter.
As the miles ticked by, we slowly pieced together that a Madison police officer had been involved in a shooting. We heard them radio for hospitals to get status on a victim, and to anticipate the arrival of family. We heard them searching for what would turn out to be some of the victim’s friends, the last ones who would have seen him alive.
It wasn’t until an hour later that we received a panicked phone call from a friend whose son had been out that night. All he knew was something terrible had happened over there on Williamson Street, in the house where his son’s friends all loved to hang out.
Then we received the news; a Madison police officer had killed Tony Robinson, a young, unarmed, biracial teen, during some kind of struggle. For us, this was a sickening instant of déjà vu. Our hearts were crushed at the cold finality of another family’s loss. It was made all the more terrible coming on the heels of almost eight months of work with the Young Gifted and Black Coalition to raise awareness and create action around the stark disparities Black people face in Dane County’s multiple criminal justice institutions. Our only choice at that moment was to inform our friends and allies in YGB and let them know what had happened.
My wife immediately called Brandi.
THAT NIGHT, THE MPD KNEW WHO WAS WATCHING
As she absorbed the dawning horror of the tragedy, she responded the same as if one of her own children had been stolen from her. Another unarmed Black life had been extinguished by the hands of the state. Her pain was desperate and raw, but immediately focused on mobilizing a presence at the scene of the shooting to make sure there were more than just the eyes of law enforcement and the media to record the story.
It was totally in character with the mission-driven selflessness she brings to the rest of her work exposing and dismantling systemic racial disparities, state violence against People of Color, and the institutional disregard for the pain and suffering these realities cause people in her community every day. That night, MPD knew who was watching.
Brandi is an irresistible force determined to find liberation from the banal attitudes in our community that hold the plight of the poor and systematically oppressed as uncomfortable, but easier to shove under the rug than to address. She is a threat to the status quo and, as has happened to so many Black leaders like her in the past, she has become a target of the established institutional powers. They would prefer she just go away. More than anything, she is a vibrant person working for this community trying to live, love, and make lasting change. We need people like her.
Thankfully, Brandi is not going away. She has the strength of her community behind her and that is stronger than the forces that want to break her down. If the MPD and city leadership had any insight into the problems of inequity they claim they want to address, they wouldn’t be so threatened by this power. Instead they would make themselves vulnerable to its truths, and stop insisting it conform to their white middle-class ideals of what’s “normal”, “respectable”, and “legitimate”.
Stand down, Chief Koval, and call off the troops. Stop the legalistic repression tactics and try humbling yourself just a little, and really listen to what these voices have to say.
The great thing about Brandi is that she gives a little bit of herself to each of us, which can mean only one thing.
We are her community, we are watching, and we are growing.