Aissa Olivarez first absorbed the Tony Robinson news after she had settled her baby girl back down after her regular 4 a.m. feeding. In the dim, morning hours of March 6, 2015, as she was scrolling tiredly through the predawn news, there it was: another unarmed, 19-year-old African- American man — somebody’s baby — shot by a police officer. Only this time it wasn’t in Ferguson, or Baltimore, or Los Angeles; it was right here in Madison, Wisconsin, where Texas-native Olivarez was a second-year law student.
“It hit me first as a human. It hit me as a mom. It hit me, then, as a law student,” says Olivarez, who was also vice president of community affairs for the Latino Law Students Association (LLSA) at the time. The questions started running through her mind: what does this mean for us? What does this mean for our community? “And what can I do now with the skills that I’ve gained in my first and second years of law school so that I can help attack this problem and begin to heal this community?”
All across Madison that night, and in the long weeks that followed, Olivarez’s fellow law students and community members grappled with similar questions. High school and college students led walk-outs; activists organized protests and vigils; and local clergy, law enforcement, media, civic, and business leaders held discussions and meetings. For UW Law School, which internally hosted discussion panels and listening sessions to provide emotional support for students and faculty and to explore its potential role in the larger community, the result was remarkably tangible: a 14-minute educational video called Understanding Police Use of Deadly Force.
Led by UW Law School’s Black Law Students Association (BLSA), LLSA, and adjunct professor Stan Davis, and produced in a public-service partnership with Wisconsin Public Television, the video was released to the public on May 11, 2015. The students created it quickly — during finals, no less — so as to be useful before Dane County district attorney Ishmael Ozanne’s highly anticipated decision whether to indict Madison Police Department’s Matt Kenny, a 12-year veteran of the force. On May 12, following a mandated independent investigation by Wisconsin’s Department of Justice, Ozanne announced that he would not indict Kenny.
“We really wanted people to understand, if the decision came out not to indict, how that decision was made, what are the criteria used, and why it happened that way,” says Davis, who facilitated community Q&A sessions in the shooting’s aftermath in addition to serving as student adviser for the video project. “So that people would say, ‘Okay, I don’t like this outcome, but I understand why it was reached.’”
The video was well received, picked up by area TV, radio, and print news outlets, and shared by the city of Madison, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the United Way of Dane County, and several area police departments.
Participating students — Olivarez, along with Lola Bovell, Keyon Brown, Qortney McLeod, Jared Prado, and Jasmine Trimble divided up the topics to research and present. They bounced ideas and questions off UW Law School faculty, including professors Ben Kempinen, Cecelia Klingele, Mary Prosser, Ion Meyn, and Stacy Taeuber. Davis and the students also presented their findings at the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County’s Youth Summit, speaking to area high school kids, many of whom knew Tony Robinson personally.
For Davis, while the shooting of Robinson was tragic, his experience with law students left him ultimately hopeful.
“Our profession is in good shape,” he says of his law students, “if these are the people who are coming into it, and this is how they already view their responsibility to the profession and to the public.”
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Jared Prado grew up on Madison’s east side, where he was known as that friend who kept his head, who was able to see all sides of any given situation. After graduating in 2009 from UW-Platteville a semester early with a double major in criminal justice and Spanish, Prado received news that he’d been hired as a Madison Police Department (MPD) recruit and accepted into UW Law School — so he opted for both. It worked for two and a half years, until the combination grew overwhelming, and he made the difficult decision to put his police career on hold until he could finish law school.
Right after Tony Robinson was killed, Prado spent his spring break in Texas, volunteering to assist women and children who were detained by the federal government and awaiting asylum decisions. He’d just begun to entertain the idea of doing immigration work full time in San Antonio when, on the long plane ride back to Madison, he read the MPD’s massive records release (hundreds of pages, including the incident report on Tony Robinson and Officer Kenny’s personnel file) cover to cover.
“That kind of got me more grounded, and I thought no, I need to come back to the MPD,” he says. “This is important work, and there’s a lot of change we need to effect in our community.”
Prado returned to the MPD in July 2015. The skills he honed in law school — communication, writing, legal thinking, critical thinking — prove invaluable on patrol, he says.
The experience of working on the video cemented for him the importance of not only the message, but also the messenger. For as much as he supports his MPD colleagues and understands the district attorney’s decision, he’s clear that systemic racism and inherent bias exist in America, that collective trust has been broken in his hometown, and that it’s critical that education and services are delivered by people who reflect the populations they’re serving.
“There’s a vein of public service that runs through this law school,” says Prado. “But we need more diversity in the Law School, and we need more diversity in our police rank and file, even though we do well. And I want to see more Madison-grown kids in both. I think locally, our kids of color are floundering.”
Indeed, the 2013 Race to Equity Report, a comprehensive survey conducted by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, showed alarming disparities for people of color in Madison. While Dane County has long been rated one of the best places in the country for white children to grow up, the project revealed that it’s one of the worst in the nation for black kids.
A staggering three-quarters of black children live below the poverty line; they’re fifteen times likelier to be suspended; and nearly half won’t graduate from high school on time. The findings left a lot of people wondering what they could and should do to be part of the solution, and UW Law School, with its diverse student base and world-class faculty, is no exception.
“We have a lot of resources — and I’m not talking about financial; I’m talking about brain power, access to information, connections — that I think the Madison community could greatly benefit from,” says video participant and Alabama native Jasmine Trimble, who serves as co-president of BLSA. “But I’m not 100 percent sure we as a school have done the best job we can do in making sure that people who really need those resources are getting them. We do have a robust clinic program that does a lot of great work, but beyond that I don’t know if we’re really entrenched like we could be. And I say that because you still continue to see these grave disparities, which I really don’t believe should exist if you have an amazing law school like the University of Wisconsin in the community.”
As a woman of color, Trimble’s initial reaction to the Tony Robinson news wasn’t sadness or even anger. It was exhaustion. But as a law student, “I wanted to reserve my judgment for the entire case and more information because, even though I am a woman of color, I do recognize that not all instances are instances of police misconduct,” she says. “In law school, you’re taught that the moment you make an assumption is the moment you essentially lose the case.”
Trimble also volunteered to participate in the community Q&As with Davis.
“I think the teachable moment for me is that the work is not yet done. I have a reason to be exhausted, and that’s okay, but the work is not yet done, and that in and of itself should motivate me to continue striving for excellence in law school and continue doing the work within the community that I am doing, and would like to do after graduation,” says Trimble. “To not fall back into that kind of selfish ‘Well, I’ll just do what I need to do for me and my family as opposed to me and my community,‘ which isn’t just the African-American community, or women, but my country. We really are all in this together. Even though it doesn’t seem like it at times, we are.”
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Ultimately, that’s the teachable moment for Davis, too. Standing there in front of those grieving community members during the Q&As, it hit him how valuable, how weighted, his role is as a professor, as an attorney, as an African- American man, in Madison, Wisconsin. And what a very big deal it is for those high school students to not only empower themselves with a clear understanding of the law, but to see themselves in professors, in attorneys, in law students: to know what’s possible.
“When I talk to students of color, even at the undergrad level, I usually say to them, ‘You know, there are so many people, historically and even now, who would love to have had the spot that you have. And when you get a degree that comes from that and you’re out in the community, you’ve got more of an obligation than somebody else does,’” says Davis, adding that his students got an unexpected lesson of their own. In the audience that Sunday afternoon at the youth summit was distinguished UW Law School alumnus Henry Sanders Sr., one of the first African-American attorneys in state government. He talked to them afterward about the importance of what they were doing and shared with them chilling stories of what it was like for him just a couple of generations prior.
“If this was the 1950s, and we were making a video like this, our lives might have been in danger,” says Davis. “Our lives weren’t in danger; they were celebrated. We’re able to do it in safety because other people took that risk before. It’s an important message for us as lawyers of color to understand that we have an obligation.”
That doesn’t mean the work is over — just the opposite, in fact.
“It taught me that these kids need more guidance from minorities like us, groups like us, in the legal process,” says Olivarez. “We weren’t trying to prevent people from being vocal about being upset that’s fine. And I think that’s important. But we wanted to provide another outlet and say, ‘This is what’s happening, and this is what it looks like.’”
And that wide, painful gap — between how a situation feels and what its facts are, the truth the information holds — is the one Olivarez and her colleagues wanted to fill. They still want to, regardless of their widely varying backgrounds and the different paths they’ll walk in their professional futures.
“We all came to law school for different reasons,” says Olivarez, “but one common desire we shared was to do more and to give back to our respective communities. As minorities, we were really cued in to the injustice and to what this event meant, and I think we really came together to try to make a difference.”
And they are. ◆