EDITORIAL: We Fail By Our Inaction

March 15, 2015 by Brian Benford

In a week-long state of shock over the senseless death of a 19-year-old manI feel a profound sadness and a heaviness within my heart like never before. I write today to offer my humble reflections as a father of five beautiful bi/multiracial children (four are adults), as a person of color, and as a long-time family advocate.

Brian Benford, former Madison alder and father of five. Photo courtesy of UMOJA magazine.

Brian Benford, former Madison alder and father of five. Photo courtesy of UMOJA magazine.

I moved to Madison in 1979 as a wide-eyed, idealistic, counter-culture-embracing, mega-afro-wearing, bell-bottomed, patchouli-dipped 20-year-old. Growing up between the afrocentric inner city of Milwaukee during the height of the civil rights movement and the bucolic, all-white farm community of Fort Atkinson, I intentionally came to Madison because I thought it melded the best qualities of small-town living with the potential for diversity and meeting others from different backgrounds.

Mostly I came here because I thought I could escape the racism I experienced in Fort Atkinson, as I falsely believed that Madison was a bastion of progressive, liberal, free thinkers fresh from the aftermath of the Vietnam War actions. I was impressed by the young mayor at the time (anyone who went to Cuba to meet Castro was groovy in my estimation). I saw for the first time interracial couples and people from different backgrounds communing in friendship and acceptance. As I write this, I am cognizant that my recollections might be romanticized as the world view of a 20-year-old, but I must contend that Madison was a much more welcoming and embracing community.

Although I am multiracial, I did not feel the daily burden I carry today because of my race. I remember a time where I felt right at home—I was free to frequent black-owned clubs and restaurants like Pearlies Place and Mr. P’s. I sat feet away from BB King and other black national touring acts at the Church Key and other venues. I and thousands of others toked on bongs and listened to great music at the Memorial Union Terrace and never once did I feel as if my race could cause me harm.

Madison via my youthful lenses was the place—or least I thought—modeled on all we had hoped for, all that we had learned from the civil unrest of the 60s and 70s. Little did I know at the time, this would all change as the American Dream became a nightmare for low-income people of color living here: starting in the 1980s and festering until Tony’s death a week ago today.

#Justice4tony shuts down E. Washington Ave in Madison demanding change. Photo: Leslie Amsterdam

#Justice4tony shuts down E. Washington Ave in Madison demanding change. Photo: Leslie Amsterdam

Over the years, I’ve witnessed the insidious game of political red rover played out against the most marginalized in our communities, where the needs and voices of those not of privilege are steamrolled and broken by male, pale and stale politicians who cater to special interests (their own). At the federal level, President Reagan unleashed a new, unprecedented war on people of color under the guise of fighting drugs. At the state level, Governor Thompson, under the illusion of ending the “welfare state,” set W2 in motion to destroy thousands of families’ chances to reach their full potential and began the Wisconsin trend of persecuting the poor. Racial disparities in education and incarceration rates took seed during this time and now are in full bloom. To be fair, though, I can’t blame all social woes on white policy makers.

Within the black community there is the complex crisis of absent fathers. Tonight, as in the 1980s, the majority of black children will go to sleep without their biological father being present. I am not suggesting that single black mothers are anything short of amazing, and they have carried the yoke for thousands of years of oppression along with generations of our children. Along with the absence of fathers, our young children are saddled with living in a white-dominated culture that is often alien and unforgiving, akin to being in a foreign country with different languages, customs, norms and expectations. I’ve often said that if you take away the UW and state offices, Madison would be like any other rural community in Dane County. The holistic, sustainable support that children and families need is lost to an overburdened and uncaring social system and an unaware public.

Photo by Rebecca Kemble

Photo by Rebecca Kemble

I’ve spent close to thirty years working in community-based organizations seeing firsthand the challenges and suffering that so many low-income people of color endure on a daily basis. I have had the honor of working with some truly gifted, dedicated individuals who live for the service of others, including many Madison police officers. I am in no position to assign blame other than to myself and others who can do more to ensure that another child does not die, fail in school, fall victim to the prison industrial complex or become stymied in reaching their full potential because of their race or background.

As a former alder, I know that gangs, crime and ensuring everyone’s safety cannot be solved by adding or changing policing strategies. Poverty, institutional racism, woefully uninformed and apathetic policy makers, and the lack of jobs, quality housing and education have poisoned Madison and many who have sought to make this home. I have little faith in local politicians and even less faith in the majority of those who represent us at the state and federal level. To solve these issues, we as a community, regardless of race or backgrounds must act now. I have the unique honor of working with youth and families who are often marginalized. While it isn’t much, I get paid to serve others while working within community-based organizations.

I cannot begin to thank the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition enough for their inspirational dedication to social justice and equality. I feel like shit that there is not a Middle-aged, Gifted and Multiracial Coalition that was willing to take leadership years ago as many in our midst began their suffering. I am ashamed of myself and my generation for failing our children and those younger than us. All that we—I—people my age or older (55) had hoped for, all that we had learned from the civil unrest of the 60s and 70s, from the mistakes of our fathers and their fathers, has led to us fail future generations by our inaction. I will recommit myself to eliminating the chance that another young person’s potential life could be cut short—whether by bullet or racism in this city I once loved.

#BlackLivesMatter banner created by children to honor slain teen Tony Robinson who was killed by a Madison police officer March 6, 2015. Photo: Leslie Amsterdam

#BlackLivesMatter banner created by children to honor slain teen Tony Robinson who was killed by a Madison police officer March 6, 2015. Photo: Leslie Amsterdam

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4 Comments on “EDITORIAL: We Fail By Our Inaction”

  1. Concerned March 15, 2015 at 9:05 pm #

    I appriciate this article and I know it is true . But I ask, What action (can, could, should) a white middle class mother and father of two girls take? What matters? What will help? We want to help, but we don’t know how. We are just trying to do good and fulfill hopes and dreams for our own kids. We try to educate our kids, and raise them to think of and help others, but what action should we take? We live on the east side, blocks from the Paul Heenan and Tony Robinson’s killings.
    And, I’m being honest here…. what do I do when my kid shares their experience at school and says “that most of the black kids are mean.” They have not been taught this, it is their experience. And sadly, when I’m observing the classroom or hallways, this is predominately true. I wish it was not. It was not what I hoped would happen for them. I wanted them to grow up knowing and friending and relating to all people. Not creating judgement based on behavior and then color.
    Now they are also, skeptical of police, despite what we tell them. What they know is in the last two years, two unarmed men were killed by police just blocks from our home. It’s scary to them. How do we talk to them about these things and what action can we take?

    • brianlavendel March 16, 2015 at 9:20 am #

      Hi Concerned,
      Thank you for making these comments.
      Here’s what I think, as a white male trying to grapple with similar issues. The first thing we can do is CARE, and it is clear from your comment that you already do that. That is huge.
      The next thing we can do is educate ourselves and our family about how racism affects white people and people of color. We can build relationships with other white families working to end racism, and with people of color so we know more about their lives. You might want to check out a group that grew out of the Groundwork anti-racism collective called “Families for Justice” https://www.facebook.com/pages/Families-for-Justice-Dane-Co/657487037681287
      Can you and your spouse get to know those “mean” black kids? Do you know their names? What their favorite subject is? Where they live? And with whom? Maybe that’s a place to start.
      And keep talking with your girls–they need to have the conversations with you. Because we know they are learning about race and racism outside of the home, so it’s all the more important that they get to talk with you about these issues.
      I am sure others have ideas to share as well.
      Hope to see you soon!
      –Brian Lavendel, parent of O’Keeffe student

  2. gordrann March 17, 2015 at 3:45 am #

    Perhaps a scholarship to MATC, in Tony’s name, to help kids who would otherwise fall through the cracks? Affordable, and would honor the fact that he was on his way there before he was so tragically cut down.

  3. nonquixote March 18, 2015 at 5:08 pm #

    Social Justice movement against police brutality in Albuquerque. Anyone in WI not following the years long process there really should take notice.


    Moving testimony, a couple hours of video and transcriptions available. These folks have taken actions from overwhelming presence at municipal meetings to mayoral office sit-ins to these citizen forums.

    Moving and heart wrenching testimony from victims who survived and still fear for retaliation.

    Thanks for your kind attention.

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